JENNY R. SUSSER, PH.D.

POWER & PERFORMANCE SPORT PSYCHOLOGY SERVICES

Hiding failure

Posted by on Jun 22, 2019

12 – 15 minute read…but worth it.

I have been failing…and hiding it. There, I said it. When I thought about writing this, I was going to call it “Embracing Failure,” because I just couldn’t bring myself to admit I was not only failing but hiding it. The wiggling my mind engaged in was incredible to watch. Every time I thought about writing this article, I would call it embracing instead of hiding, trying to pretend that title would be more profound or some crap like that. But the truth is I have been failing and honestly, the more I talk and share about it, the freer I become. It’s like a coming out, again, and it is getting more and more brilliant as I go, just like before. The power of honesty with the self is immeasurable.

I became a psychologist to be a sport psychologist, period. Watching Dr. William Parham work with the swim team in my third and unhappiest year as an assistant coach, I was inspired for the first time outside of competitive sport. “Get a Ph.D. in clinical psychology,” he told me, “it will be more powerful and more versatile.” And so, I did. It was longer and more difficult, but I was young so off I went. Graduate school was an incredible time for me. Discovering my intellectual side was a revelation, especially for someone who identified completely with “dumb jock” for most of my life. I fell in love with learning for the first time and discovered an ability to think and figure, and the world seemed to open up. One thing I never expected to fall in love with was psychology and the clinical process. The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn. The more I helped, the more I wanted to help. It was enlightening and exciting. For the first time in my life, my focus became about others and it was amazing and quite honestly, a great relief.

Through a few degrees of separation, I landed a post-doc at an organizational consulting firm that also happened to work with the NY Giants. The founder, my boss, was this wonderful, funny, clever, and generous man who built his business the way they did in the old days, through relationship. With a handful of client’s he had served for decades, his company was him, not his product, not his services, not his staff, but him. He was the handshake guy and to him, your word and your handshake were where it was at. I loved him but not really the work. I got to do therapy with athletes and non-athletes so was able to get all my hours for licensure, but the organizational psychology part didn’t make me tick. He loved it and maybe didn’t understand why I didn’t or why I left right after my post-doc ended. Not having much to stand on as I ventured out alone, I hung a shingle, so to speak, and started doing therapy as I worked to build my sport psychology business. I saw mostly adults with regular issues, at least issues that seemed regular twenty years ago. This was before social media so stress was different then, not so imposing, it seemed. There was depression and anxiety, but they were not so visible, acceptable, or overwhelming. People suffered, for sure, but it had a different flavor to it then. I was able to help and felt good about it.

Through a few more degrees of separation, I joined the Women’s Sports Medicine Center at Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan. My dissertation research had been on athletic injury recovery, so I was a super fit for the WSMC. I loved it there and the all-women staff of incredible doctors was a miracle to work with. The work was great, challenging, and so fulfilling, and again, my brain was expanding and loving it. Life was good as I spent a few days on Long Island in private practice and two days in the city doing sport and clinical psychology. And then I met Jim. Dr. Jim Loehr is a sport psychologist who turned sport psychology into performance psychology and started a movement in corporate consulting as he infiltrated the corporate training world with performance enhancing technology. In 2011, he was the keynote speaker at the annual sport psychology conference, and I was blown away by him, his message, and his presence. Long story shortened, I went to work for him and thus began my unexpected journey in the world of corporate consulting. I spent seven years under the tutelage of Jim and grew so much and so quickly, had I been a toddler, it would have hurt. It was an amazing time for me and with the success I was experiencing in the corporate world, little by little, I let my clinical practice go and then even most of my sport practice. This would be the part in the movie where you cringe, knowing the crash is coming.

Working for Jim was not the real world of corporate consulting. For years, not having any reference point, I did not know this and was lulled into a fantasy world. With Jim, all I did was show up and deliver. I didn’t have to peddle my services, negotiate contracts, kiss a series of asses, and restrict what I could provide so as not to upset any part of the apple cart that might not want to be upset. The content he wrote was incredible and allowed people to choose how deeply they would dive into their worlds, which allowed me to do my thing and help. The people I worked with were awesome and special, and driven by purpose, the foundation of Jim’s material. It was like a dream, until it wasn’t. As Jim was preparing to retire, new management arrived, and the fit slowly changed until it didn’t fit at all anymore. It took me a year to feel the full effect of the changes, I guess that is part of the power of denial. When I found myself dreading going to work for months on end, it occurred to me it was time to leave. The problem was, I had put all of my eggs in this now unstable and unlikable basket. Making more money than I ever expected to as a sport psychologist made it even more difficult to leave. But I had to go and so off I went to hang a new shingle and start again.

Magical thinking is a blessing and a curse. It also happens to run very deep in my DNA as it was a major part of my mom’s personality. While it has served me well in the past, it was perhaps too magical and not enough thinking as I headed out on my own. It is good to dream big but only with an adequate dose of reality. But there were other factors pressing down on me. One was an inability to let go of the loss of my work with Jim. It felt unfair, and even though it looked that way to most others, it did me no good to gather the support of the unfairness while trying to create anew. Not really knowing what to do, I was a bit frozen. I had a few irons in the fire so I stoked those first. But generating something new seemed like a foreign language, especially in the corporate consulting world. My problem was the ad-sell-negotiate part of the business. Get me in front of a room or an individual and I can make magic happen. The problem was getting to the room because I sucked at all the stuff that got me there.

Sales are not my thing. I don’t think I could even sell a free heater to an Eskimo and I absolutely hate having an agenda in a conversation. And that was what seeped into every conversation I seemed to have, an agenda. “How can I monetize this conversation?” became the backdrop of everything. Ugh, I get nauseated just writing this. It became so pervasive, I started to avoid conversations. Feeling desperate is the worst place to be in when having any kind of conversation but tack that onto an agenda and I would rather chew ground glass. Luckily, I had a few people that knew me and knew my work and so I had some things to do here and there to keep me going. But it was not enough, and not enough in the real, gotta pay bills kind of enough, not the fulfilling kind of enough. That was long gone, so it seemed, but I hadn’t noticed that yet.

I am a hard worker and always have been. Swimming was some of the hardest work ever and I loved the thirty hours each week of double and triple workouts daily. Graduate school was full of work too, as I went to school full time and did 12 – 15 hours of massage weekly so as to only have to borrow money for tuition. And then there is having a barn. Anyone in the horse world knows the hours and toil it takes to not only have horses but to have a working barn with dozens of horses, staff, equipment, and anything else that possibly could break (and did). But for some reason, I felt allergic to working hard to build my corporate business. Anything I could do to avoid it, I did. Even though this was pointed out to me repeatedly by my patient and adoring wife, I still succeeded at avoiding it, setting up more and more failure. It became my pattern and patterns can be tough. The more I failed, the worse I felt, the harder it was to try so the more I avoided, the harder I became on myself, the less energy I had, the less I liked my life, the more stressed I became, the more we fought, the less quality I could produce, the more agenda I had, and at some point, I just wanted to cry all the time. This went on for over a year, actually, two years since I’m being honest. And this is so hard to admit, I feel like stopping, taking it all back, and staying in hiding.

As is unfortunately necessary, I had to breakdown to breakthrough. To explain all the elements that led to the dénouement of all of the work, suffering, and striving to “get there” would include the countless, long coaching calls with the people that love and support me (Mette, Julie, Justine, Cheryl, and Doreen), the body and soul sisters that help me tend to the physical and elemental (Key, Susan, and Valerie), the professional tribe that I lean on (Lauren, Jen, Kathleen, Catherine, Linda, and of course, Jim), meditation, writing, running, and especially my horses who literally hold me up and renew my spirit and energy on demand. It was a stupid fight I picked that night, but it was sourced by the deep pain I was hiding, not the silly problem that was not really a problem. I just couldn’t contain it any longer and so I exploded. It felt like a safety valve giving way on a water heater spewing boiling water and steam in all directions, scalding anyone within reach. The physical experience was unusual, it felt like I needed to escape, that I had to get away from the intense discomfort, you know, run. I knew this was emotionally driven but it didn’t lessen the irritation. I went outside in the dark and lay down on a lounge chair next to the pool. The night sky was littered with stars and the colored flashing lights of an airplane on the way to somewhere I wasn’t. I sobbed and felt sorry for myself. I turned Mette and her support away. It got as dark as it ever had in my suffering mind and that finally made me see that I needed to do something different. This pattern had become like a pot of slowly boiling water, disguising my daily terrible affirmations of failure from awareness.

I kept asking myself, “What can I do? I need to do something different, what can I do?” Over and over for probably an hour, I just kept repeating this plea to my subconscious. Then, all of sudden, as if clouds started to part, I started to hear the things I had been saying to myself. I knew that I said in secret that I hated my life, but I had actually said it out loud a few times recently. It makes NO sense given what my life looks like, but that was my experience. What I hated was how I felt in my life right then, not really my life, but I hadn’t seen the difference yet. And then, I heard myself as if it were someone else talking, saying that once my corporate business made enough money, then I could do the work that I really want to do. Bam, my body shook awake. If I had a client say that to me, I would smack them upside the head (figuratively of course) and tell them to get busy on just that. So, what is that, I asked myself. Therapy, I want to be a clinical psychologist again. I miss that process, that connection, that ability to help on that deep level. Teach, I want to teach. For a year during grad school, I taught psychology at a local acupuncture college and loved it. Sport, always sport. I love working with athletes of all levels because it is my language, my love, and my passion. And then there was the thing that I was most afraid of admitting. Workshops, small, intimate, powerful workshops to create the opportunity and space for people to connect to themselves, connect to others, and own transformation such as to never want to lose that feeling again. I could breathe again.

Sleep was restful and restoring that night and I woke up feeling different. So as not to lose it, I knew I had to share it. The more I authentically shared my story, the less scary it was to tell. The first were awful but after a few times, saying I was failing didn’t even cause a blip for me. However, it was different for the people I was sharing it with because we have such a cultural avoidance of the word “failure,” a few people had a hard time with it. Jim was funny in that he just couldn’t line up with that I was failing. “I’m not A failure, Jim,” I said, “I have been failing.” But he couldn’t see it that way. The reasons were that he loved me so much, he just couldn’t be with his mentee not being a total success, and the other thing was that I had been lying about how things had been going so as not to worry him. I had been fibbing to everyone, making the little events I was able to land seem massive. It was awful and nauseating and I hated that part of me that felt like I needed to lie like that. So, I stopped talking to people so much. All those people I would have regular conversations with I just simply avoided. Some of you reading this are having a light bulb moment and thinking, “Oh, that’s why she stopped talking to me.” Truly, it wasn’t you, it was me.

It is funny to me to be going through this since I am the one usually guiding others. The more distance I get from it, the more I see. I can now see how stuck and resistant I was. And right, I was so convinced I was right, there was no other possibility, period. When possibility disappears, tragedy is tough to avoid. I kept trying to fit everything that was happening into my template, not having the ability or perhaps the ego strength to see otherwise. Another funny thing is the whole relationship to failure part. I can’t tell you how many times I have coached people on the need to fail, the need to change our relationship to the word because it is a cultural discomfort that creates the fear, and how failure is so good for us. Being on the back end, yes, it has been incredibly powerful for me, and now I have a deep connection to how terrified I was to admit failing. I have failed at many things before but this one got me on a different level than before. Failing in sport is okay, expected, part of the deal. Even though it sucks, only two people make the Olympic team in any event so not such a blow to the psyche. But this was different. As I reflect and learn from this, my relationship to my corporate trainer identity that was the iron fist here. Not only had I put all of my work eggs in one basket, I had done this with my identity, too. The money, the prestige, the ego, the “ooo’s” and “ahhh’s” from adoring fans were intoxicating. Losing that was pure terror. So, admitting failure didn’t occur like admitting I was failing, it felt like admitting I was A failure. Very different. Prying those apart was not only the toughest part to get some perspective on but also what felt impossible to do. I had to find the identity that lived in other parts of me, the less glamourous but more authentic part of me that is my true soul purpose—and that is what happened that night by the pool.

This journey we call being alive is a tough one. I wish it wasn’t so, but this is where we are right now, struggling more than not struggling. Everyone I see and talk to has some major fight they are in the middle of. The reasons for this are mysterious and another part of the fight, a part that bears no fruit. With progress comes complications and perhaps we have failed to prepare for the complications adequately. So, catching up should become the game we play, and it is the one I am now playing. I share this with you because, well, mostly because I didn’t want to! I still want to look awesome and important to you, but I also know that is the old identity talking, not the part of me that longs to connect and contribute and grow together. This has taken me longer to write than expected and now I don’t know how to end. Perhaps that is because this is more of a beginning for me and hopefully for you, too. I wish you the struggle because it is the only access to the growth, dammit, but we both know the other side is worth getting to. The power of honesty with the self may just be the toughest and best lesson to learn…so, off we go to learn and grow and love because that is what it is all about anyway, isn’t it?