I was a freshman in college when my favorite English professor sat me down during office hours and told me I needed to learn to see my own potential. It’s a memory I’ve carried close to my heart for years as one of the last moments someone looked at a young version of me and thought of me as special.
Being told I was special, that I had potential, that I held promise, is something I was used to growing up. I was precocious and good at school, and I won over most adults I met. They came to me to spill their heartbreaks and when they were done they told me I would go far.
I held onto those promises with everything I had. For a long time, they encouraged me to keep going. Eventually, they settled onto my shoulders with a heavy weight. Now I look back at those encouragements and feel nothing but guilt over my missed potential.
After a year in New York City, I dropped out of my prestigious graduate journalism program due to poor mental health (I’ve been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and probably also bipolar II). Then I stopped pursuing journalism at all.
I left multiple jobs where I was otherwise flourishing and on a path to success because my mental illness had me in shambles. Books that I began writing with excitement and passion languished for years in half-finished documents on my computer.
Two years ago, I even had to leave a fellowship at The Tempest because a combination of a grueling work schedule and my mental health meant I was doing poorly.
I’m 28 now, and I look back with fondness tinged with bitterness at the memory of 18-year-old Karis being told she had potential. Because what’s the point of potential if you never meet it? What’s the point of being poised for success if you never take off and reach it?
Most days, I dwell on this. I look at the past and think about what I would have been able to achieve had I not had to spend so much time and energy simply surviving my mental illness, and I’m filled with fury. I have nowhere else to direct it, so I point it at myself instead. And I let self-hatred fill me until I’m unable to work on any new projects, so caught up in disgust at myself that I can’t think straight.
The only way to survive this is to counter the bitterness with radical grace.
That’s my twist on a CBT concept called “radical acceptance,” wherein you simply choose to accept the things that occur and recognize that you can’t change the past. You can be sad but you have to ultimately recognize that the past has happened, the future is in the dark, and all you can control is the present moment and your reaction to your circumstances.
CBT is short for “cognitive behavioral therapy” and it’s a type of therapy created specifically for people with borderline personality disorder — which I may or may not have, no one’s really sure.
In my take on radical acceptance, I’m trying to practice radical grace. This is where I look my past up and down, take in all the mistakes and the struggles, the failures and mild successes, and I forgive myself for not measuring up to the impossible vision I had of myself.
For example: in mid-September, I came up with a new idea for a novel. I determined I would write it during the month of October and finish it by Halloween. As I’m writing this article, there’s about a week left in October and I’m laughably far from finishing this novel in a week. I would have to write something like 6,000 words every day to make it work and that simply is not going to happen.
Instead of being furious with myself for this “failure,” I’m offering myself grace and extending that deadline another month. I’m taking stock of my situation, recognizing that I’ve been too depressed to function for quite a while now, and allowing myself to take my time writing.
It’s not the end of my world if I don’t get the book finished in October, though it’d be nice and would speed up my timeline. But timelines are arbitrary (time is fake, pass it on) and forgiveness is more important than busting my ass and ruining my mental health over a deadline that ultimately doesn’t matter.
This is radical grace.
This is how I forgive myself for failing to meet my potential.
This is how I keep moving forward.
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