What does it mean if I (32F) keep failing things?
March 25, 2021 9:17 AM   Subscribe

It feels like there is something deep inside me which wants me to fail and I don't understand what is happening to me. Equally I feel a burning jealousy at those who have succeeded academically as I know I was once capable of the same thing.

During high school, I was high achieving - got really high grades without trying. I thought I was a smart girl who was destined for bright things. I got a lot of confidence from being one of the cleverest in my class. I was extremely shy and socially anxious though due to quite a repressive upbringing.

At 17, things went downhill. I started getting very depressed and anxious and didn't make any effort. I couldn't see a future for myself because I was too shy and felt damaged from an abusive background. All the girls around me got jobs, boyfriends and were learning to drive. I felt terrible. I started thinking it was all pointless. I applied to do Accounting (which I hated the idea of) because I thought it would be the only job I might be able to do as a socially anxious person.

Since then, I've just been totally mediocre. I changed universities twice, made no friends and did extremely poorly. I'm doing accounting exams now, which I hate and keep failing repeatedly. I work in a crappy entry level job. I look back now and can see the choice to study Accounting at University was terrible for me and it's led me down an unhappy path.

My heart aches, I feel grief for my lost potential and bone crushing regret. I don't know what is happening to me. A part of me knows I am capable and another is determined for me to fail. I literally do not know what to do with myself and the pain sometimes feels unbearable. Any thoughts or advice would really help - thank you.
posted by Sunflower88 to Human Relations (26 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I know I will not be the only one to say 'therapy' but I also want to tell you it's ok, you are not a failure, you are doing the best you can at this point in time, but you CAN do better, and things CAN improve! You can find something that makes you happy, and you can succeed, and I believe in you!
posted by The otter lady at 9:26 AM on March 25 [9 favorites]

I can relate to everything you said until you got to Accounting (I considered it but was talked out of it. Twice.) For me, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy -- I would not be successful because I was so afraid of not being successful that I didn't try hard enough to be successful.

Because you said that you feel that choosing to major in and work in Accounting has lead you down this path, I want to suggest focusing on whether you can pivot away from this type of work? There are other roles , even in financial services, that could utilize your background that are not accounting.

I was around your age when I got the first job that put me on a career path that I (mostly) enjoy and have experienced growth in, and that has also helped me develop personal relationships. It's not a magic bullet, but it might help. 32 is not too late to start a new path.
posted by sm1tten at 9:38 AM on March 25 [13 favorites]

Yikes. I wish you the best. Telling people to do what they love is easy but misses the fact that people also need to do things in order to eat. But, spending your free time on something you love isn't a bad idea. Working a shit job and spending your evenings making art / reading anthropology literature / learning to play the french horn / attending protests is better than most of us wind up doing. What job would you have chosen when you were 10? There's no reason you can't do that.
posted by eotvos at 9:51 AM on March 25 [3 favorites]

I'm sorry that you're suffering so much. The distance between our potential and our actual can be painful to see and experience if you can't accept it.

I noticed that your question from last year had a lot of the same themes. Was there anything in the responses that you felt was helpful? A lot of people recommended therapy, and I'll do the same, but I recognize that therapy isn't possible or practical for everyone.

I've been going to DBT therapy, and have found it really helpful for practicing self-compassion and radical acceptance. Here is a link to a bunch of the worksheets my therapist has given me. I was very resistant to all the concepts presented at first, but the more I looked into it, the more I found that it could give me a way to understand where I am and where I can go - it's given me some space to stop cudgeling myself with the past and, instead, concentrate on the here and now. I can't do anything about what's happened to me, or what I've done, but I don't need to let that dictate my reactions or my future.

I hope this helps you some. Feel free to message me if you'd like to talk more about those worksheets.
posted by punchtothehead at 9:55 AM on March 25 [11 favorites]

I have not struggled as much as you, so maybe this isn't relevant, but when I have struggled in my life, it was often because of that early success -- the easy grades in high school meant I never really learned well how to buckle down and actually work hard and study smart. I still don't really have great study skills and my procrastination levels are off the damn charts. I'm still smart and fast, so I get by alright, but it is limiting and I'm not able to achieve those lofty heights of high school because everything past high school is harder and I can't just wing it and still come out on top. Thank christ the bar exam in my jurisdiction was an open book complete joke, because I was not adequately prepared.

I do my best when I try to counteract my slacker habits with systems -- bullet journaling, pomodoro technique, GTD, etc. that counteract my inclination to slack. I'm still not great at maintaining these long term, but in the short term, they can really help keep me on task. Are there specific tools or systems you could use to get you over the hurdle of the accounting exams? (Assuming you actually want to pass the accounting exams and wouldn't rather do something else with your life.)
posted by jacquilynne at 10:01 AM on March 25 [12 favorites]

This is very common, may very well be related to your former identity as a "smart kid," and somewhat fixable (but who you are is okay!) And it is really painful!

I recommend delving into a couple of areas just to get a feel for things that might be impacting on you.

One is the idea of a fixed mindset vs. a growth mindset. As a smart kid, you were probably praised a lot for "getting things" miraculously, i.e. without experiencing mistakes/failure first or having to ask a lot of questions or do a lot of grunt work. So you may have absorbed some ideas that aren't standing by you well now about the value and meaning of struggling with things, or getting help, or developing techniques. The idea of "being" mediocre is pretty suspect. You picked a thing that wasn't right for you and it was hard to be motivated! That's okay!

Another is I recommend Pushkin's Happiness Lab (I think, it might be project) podcast, she looks at a lot of ways to chase happiness. It might not seem directly related to what you're struggling with but I think it may help with that part of you that wants you to 'fail.'

Finally search for "former gifted child" and see what resonates.

After all that, it's time to analyse where you get stuck. For me, I get stuck - A LOT - in two places. One is when anything slips at all, like I tend (left to my own devices) to answer people right away, or never, because once I'm "behind" I don't reach out. They don't care, they just want an answer. But I get stuck there. So now I professionally (still working on this personally) set aside 15 minutes a week to answer everyone I haven't answered even if it's something like "I'm still working on this, sorry."

Another example for me is that often whatever the BEST project/task I have, like the one I think I will do the best, is the one I fail at - because I'm trying to create an ideal time to do it ideally, which never arrives. I address this by trying to break things down - but I'm still working on it.

Hope there's something in there that helps. I think the main thing is - be kind to yourself, look around for some help, and also start trying to figure out what is blocking you.
posted by warriorqueen at 10:11 AM on March 25 [21 favorites]

My takeaway is that I understand you regret selecting accounting, but at least you chose a field that is potentially lucrative and has job openings. I think that was really sensible of you, and I admire it! Give yourself some credit for that. Accounting exams are notoriously difficult and especially for someone who doesn’t want to be an accountant! Do you want to keep taking them? If not, perhaps you could use the background you have to get a bookkeeping or finance position in a company or industry you’re interested in, and use that as a springboard to explore other career paths you may be more interested in. A therapist or professional coach could help with that transition. 32 is tough! Out of your twenties and feeling you should be together, but it turns out turning 30 doesn’t magically make work or decisions easier. I’ve found at that age I didn’t necessarily notice turning 30 as a large switch, but when I turned 31,32,33, that’s when I mentally realized “oh I’m in my thirties!” And then I started to feel more stress about aging. Now I’m well past that age and realizing it happens in my forties and fifties too. Taking those exams and failing sounds really hard, changing career plans is hard, comparing ourselves to friends is hard. These are hard transitions you’re making. For me, acknowledging something is difficult is the first step in dealing with it.
posted by areaperson at 10:14 AM on March 25 [4 favorites]

It's important, and a good sign, that you're asking "what does it mean," because a part of you knows that it does mean something. What it means exactly, and how that will change the course of your life, is not something that we on the internet can really say. And I hear the confusion in you about what it means, which can only add to the pain on top of the grief over what could have been.

I think it is worth exploring what it all means, particularly because of how you conveyed it in your question: the sense of an alien you that IS part of you, yet hostile and malicious to you and demanding you to fail. A person like this out in the world around us, we would understandably want to stay far away from. That position, however, cannot work when that person is us, and the one whose gaze on ourselves is ultimately inescapable. The option left to anyone in that position is to change something about our relation to that hostile and malicious self-aspect. That first of all will require getting a handle on what it exactly that part is up to. Or as you say, what it means.

All of this is a lead-in to, yes, therapy as the recommendation. But I will be a bit more specific and recommend you against the more popular CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) approaches. This is because most CBT treatments tend to take the position of reducing or eliminating symptoms, which while useful in the short term, does not last over the long term when not accompanied by underlying psychological change. Given how long you've struggled with this, it may be worthwhile to take a different stance toward your symptoms, as a form of communication that could be listened to and heard, rather than as (only) nuisances to be rid of. There are a number of approaches that take this different position, and they may be worth looking into. Finding a therapist is too often a daunting task, so I'm happy to help out via PM if any of this answer resonates.

It's a very hard and painful way to go through life, and I wish you the best, whichever way you decide to go.
posted by obliterati at 10:22 AM on March 25 [2 favorites]

From your examples, it really only sounds like you're failing one thing, which is accounting. That's understandable; I had a former employer who wanted me to learn bookkeeping, and I wasn't able to. Everyone has different interests and aptitudes, and accounting wasn't mine (or yours, it would seem). Allow me to suggest that doing something else, something you, you know, enjoy might have a different result. Also allow me to suggest that if the thing you try doesn't give you the result you're seeking, don't wait a decade and a half to try something else.

I didn't get my first "real" job until I was 32, and I didn't think of it as a real job at that point. It was just the latest in a string of entry-level jobs I took because I was ready for whatever reason to move on from the previous job I had. But it turned out I was kind of good at it, and after four years there, I got another, better paying job with more responsibility in the same industry, and then after three years there, another even better paying job with even more responsibility in the same industry. It's a subject I could've studied in college, and kind of did, informally. But there was a certain type of person who majored in it, and I wasn't that kind of person. I'm still not, but it turns out I'm good at it anyway. And I don't want to say some BS about how I learned from everything else I did before then, because I didn't always, and even when I did, a lot of those lessons are silly trivia rather than important things that help me going forward. But I do have some interesting knowledge and some fun(?) stories. There have been several questions here on Ask that I've answered with industry knowledge from previous stupid entry-level jobs, which... isn't nothing.

One thing I like to keep in mind when thinking about my early career is Tom Hanks, who's generally regarded as the greatest actor of his generation and one of the better film actors ever. When he was 32, his career consisted of a handful of mostly forgettable movies and a sitcom about cross-dressing. Even by the time he was 36, his career was just "Big" and a handful of other forgettable movies. Then, in quick succession, he did "A League of Their Own", "Philadelphia", "Forrest Gump", "Apollo 13", "Toy Story", "That Thing You Do" (which he also wrote and directed), "Saving Private Ryan", and "Cast Away", in the process winning two Oscars, three Golden Globes, and innumerable other awards. Sometimes the time just isn't right, until it is. But part of the time being right is that Tom Hanks wasn't just settling for "Joe Versus the Volcano 2", you know? Like, "Joe Versus the Volcano" was an OK movie, people watched it, and he could've probably had a career being in movies like that. Instead, he did "Philadelphia", and people realized he was a lot more. Presumably he, like you, realized that he had been capable of a "Philadelphia" performance all along; he was just being offered "Joe Versus the Volcano" roles until then. Does this make sense?
posted by kevinbelt at 10:24 AM on March 25 [6 favorites]

You said you felt "destined for bright things" - and clearly accounting is not what you want to be doing. This period of re-evaluating where you are is a great opportunity to really think about what a "bright thing" could be for you now. What would you really love to do? What would feel like a meaningful achievement?

If you don't have an answer to this, explore several different paths that intrigue you and see if anything clicks into place. Sometimes you have to try something for a bit before you can know if its for you.

You feel mediocre, but this is only in a field that you hate and you're forcing yourself to do. If you found something to work on that you're interested in, or a goal you cared about, you'd have far more intrinsic motivation and satisfaction.
posted by Spacelegoman at 10:32 AM on March 25 [3 favorites]

I had a similar trajectory: shy but successful at school, but I understand in hindsight that I started suffering from low-level depression in college, and I floundered in my 20s. I pursued a career track that I now see as completely mismatched with my strengths and interests (teaching English as a second language). I could have written the paragraph about your grief and regret, too.

I started doing CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) exercises in my mid-30s when I realized that what I’d been telling myself was probably mild anxiety was full-blown depression. I had a shock when I read Feeling Good, and read the section about procrastination and feeling paralyzed. It stated that fear of success is often MORE debilitating than a fear of failure. According to the book, it originates in a lack of confidence which makes people fear their inevitable failure. They also feel that success would lead to more demands on them that they both must meet, and can’t meet. Seen in this way, not pursuing success is a way of safeguarding your self-image and control over your life. I can’t guarantee everyone with a fear of success sees it the same way, but I know that when I read about it, I felt personally called out.

CBT doesn’t resonate with everyone, and it takes daily, uncomfortable work on your part. But the four years in which I’ve been doing it have been the best four years of my life. If you’re interested in it, I’d suggest you start with the newer introductory book, Feeling Great. I love the older book Feeling Good and got so much out of it, but it is old enough that some parts feel distractingly dated. Feeling Great starts with the position that your anxieties and negative feelings are actually expressions of the best parts of yourself. The goal isn’t to get rid of them, which would be like trashing your values and life experiences, but rather to dial down their intensity so you can start doing the harder work of making changes in your life and examining what influences your thoughts and behavior.

Anyone interested in CBT is free to send me a message, I can talk about it basically indefinitely!
posted by shirobara at 10:46 AM on March 25 [6 favorites]

I'm not going to diagnose anyone sight unseen, but I've noticed that Neurodivergent Twitter is full of "former gifted child" tweets by folks who have either/both autism or ADHD and are struggling with work or school. In addition to therapy, you might consider investigating to see if you could be diagnosed with either of these conditions or some other learning disability, which could enable you to get support to help you figure out the right path for you and how to help your career fit your brain's needs. With the caveat that sometimes it's difficult to get a diagnosis if you're not a gender-normative cis white male, because the diagnostic criteria are based on research about white boy children and is highly gendered.
posted by matildaben at 12:03 PM on March 25 [10 favorites]

A thing I realized in my early thirties was that if we consume any media, we see a TON of 17-25-year-old young women presented as "normal" and a much smaller number of "exceptional" women who get to be in the public eye longer because they're particularly charismatic, beautiful, or successful in some way. So, if you're 32 and feeling like you're mediocre at your job, a little aimless in general, etc., you may be feeling like you've squandered your youth because we're inundated with this idea that by age 27 you're basically supposed to have your life figured out. There are certainly things that get harder in your late 20s and up, such as drinking without getting hungover or operating on little sleep, but in terms of major life path stuff? Unless you want to be an Olympic gymnast, you've got plenty of time to experiment and figure things out.

So, I support others' suggestion of therapy--this is distressing, and you're feeling stuck, which are excellent reasons to seek therapy. I also suggest giving yourself permission to consider other careers. You have your undergrad degree, right? You're not doing well at these accounting exams, but could your degree open up some employment opportunities regardless? Many jobs just want you to have a degree and don't particularly care what it's in (ask me about my art history degree). "I decided accounting wasn't for me," is a perfectly valid statement if people ask why you're not an accountant. Are there things you daydream about doing when you're not beating yourself up for doing poorly on an accounting exam? Or fields you're curious about, that you could explore? Do you know anyone who has a career you admire (and/or envy), and could you ask them about what they did to get there?
posted by theotherdurassister at 1:24 PM on March 25 [5 favorites]

In my case, it was definitely unrecognized gender dysphoria. Subtle and crippling and all pervasive.

I got divorced around 32, and have spent the last eight years rebuilding my life into something adequate, something not just full of failure and depression. So I guess just a +1 for therapy and it can definitely be rebuilt... Pursuing happiness is hard, especially if you have always been told that you don't deserve success pr joy. But it's worth the fight and struggle.
posted by Jacen at 2:44 PM on March 25 [2 favorites]

Seconding matildaben. It is worth doing some reading on these conditions as they can be hard to spot even after living with them for so long. Women are also particularly adept at masking. The gifted child who is initially an effortless achiever, but who goes on to struggle in higher education/life in general for reasons that are hard to fathom is a classic Autistic/ADHD experience. Wishing you all the best.
posted by mani at 3:16 PM on March 25 [7 favorites]

I'll tell you what doesn't help: dwelling on it. I'm not saying it's an easy thing to feel, because it's not, but getting mired in envy and sadness over it just cuts into the time you do have to make a change: the time ahead of you.

Success is something our culture defines in a narrow and extremely materialistic way. What matters is that can take care of yourself and that you develop the ability to be content in your own skin. It is enormously freeing to shed the idea of "I'm a failure because everyone else says so."
posted by Armed Only With Hubris at 3:51 PM on March 25 [1 favorite]

One thing I would (try to!) do is think about redefining your recent accomplishments as success rather than some kind of failure.

Based on your comments above:
  • You have graduated with an accounting degree (or are very close to it) despite weathering considerable difficulties along the way, changing colleges, discovering the field was not 100% suited to you, etc. Nevertheless, you persevered and completed (or are very near completion) of the program. That is a HUGE success!
  • You are at the point of taking your accounting exams. A point that many people never even reach. These are exams that many, many, many people--even very, very smart people--struggle with, and have to re-take repeatedly before passing. The people who ever get to the point of even attempting these exams are in the top 0.1% of the population as far as accounting knowledge and skills. Even if you never do pass the exam, you are still in that top 0.1%. (FWIW my SO graduated in accounting and never even attempted the exams. SO has had a completely successful career and life despite that "failure". Which actually wasn't a "failure" at all but just a perfect normal and mature decision to take her life and career in a different direction.)
  • You HAVE an entry level job--presumably in something related to your field. This is a place that many, many, many, MANY people fresh out of college never, ever reach. ESPECIALLY at this particular time in history.
35 years ago, fresh-out-of-college-Flug might have been in the same place you are right now--failing to graduate with a 3.85 GPA or above, being the valedictorian of my college, being admitted to the best graduate program or getting a job with the most competitive firms might indeed have been classified in my own mind as some kind of failure.

But with 35 years of perspective, I can tell you: No, absolute not. This is NOT failure. Successfully completing your degree, successfully attempting your professional exams (whether or not you ever succeed), and successfully landing ANY degree-related post-degree job is huge, huge, HUGE success and you should consider it that way.

It's the old saw: "What do they call the person who graduates medical school with the lowest GPA? Doctor." Yes, "Doctor," same as all the rest.

The accountant who graduates with a C- average literally has the same degree as the one who graduates with the A+ average.

Now maybe you are not going to continue straight down the most stereotypical accounting-degree career path. Maybe one of the things you have learned through this experience is this isn't your most favorite field.

My SO worked in straight-up accounting maybe 4 years, then in a slightly adjacent field for another couple of years, which led to an almost completely unrelated field for about 20 years. SO then burnt out of that field and is now returning to something accounting-adjacent that she enjoys a lot more. Back in the day she was going to sit for the CPA exams but it was too much work (and not really in sync with her career objectives at that point) so she never did. So what . . .

Point is, most career trajectories nowadays look something like that--the only thing different about SO's is that she stayed far closer to her original college degree than many do.

Just because you completed a degree in a certain field does NOT mean that you are trapped there forever. It is rather the opposite--just about any college degree, particularly in a really nice practical field like accounting--opens up all sorts of career paths, most of which involved accounting only a little or not at all.

TL;DR: I know it doesn't feel like it right now, but in the grand scheme of things you are doing as well as you need to. You have done that despite serious headwinds and obstacles. You are learning important things, like what career areas you like and don't like. In the long run, the things you have learned and are learning now--about life--are w-a-y more important than whether you got an A or B or a C or a D in some class, and whether you passed the accounting tests on the first try or the fifth try or the tenth try or never.

Good luck!
posted by flug at 4:54 PM on March 25 [3 favorites]

Your post gave me chills because it feels like a 32 yr old version of me has written it. I have been there, OP. I'm going to write a long comment here telling you about myself rather than focus on you, because I think you *will* recognize yourself in parts of my story, and when you do, I hope you also seriously reckon with the fact that things could turn around for you the way they did for me. There is a way out. I've walked on the exact stretch of road you are right now.

At 16, I was the top-ranked student in not just *my* high school but in my entire country. Literally. I was a straight-A student. But at 18, I graduated 12th grade with straight Cs. I flunked allllllll the way through four years of college. Cut to age 32: I was a stay-at-home mom in an abusive marriage and almost nonexistent work history. I had been fired from half the jobs I had tried to hold and laid off from the remaining ones because I was the most expendable employee wherever I was. I could not keep my home clean or my paperwork or clothes organized. My finances were in total disarray. I felt like a failure every minute of every day. My issues were a result of several separate yet interrelated problems, which I list here starting with most complex/deep-rooted/difficult to fix to least:

1. Low self esteem - I was unable to recognize my accomplishments as anything worth giving myself credit for. Like many abused children I internalized the idea that I was inadequate, a disappointment, "bad", etc. Like many people in abusive relationships I thought my relationship unhappiness was my fault.

2. Setting myself up for failure - I was unable to recognize my strengths as valuable. Instead I focused on my failures and tried to fix my weaknesses. For example, I have always been great at writing and terrible at programming. I thought I had to "overcome my weaknesses" so I studied computer science in college and tried to hack it as a programmer for several years. I failed over and over and over and over again. Focusing on fixing weakness just gave me more ammunition to consider myself a failure. It made self-esteem even harder.

3. Unresolved trauma - many of my life's problems and "failures" stemmed directly from not feeling safe in my own body, not feeling safe in relationships, not feeling safe asking for help, etc. as the result of childhood trauma as well as relationship trauma. In this state of psychological, emotional, and relational isolation, I lacked the support and guidance and sense of safety necessary for taking the risk of trying different ways of being & thinking.

4. Undiagnosed ADHD - not only did undiagnosed ADHD keep me from starting & finishing tasks and manage my time and persist with long-term projects, etc., but the ADHD also kept me from organizing my thoughts about what was going wrong with my life and why I was unhappy. Following a train of thought, returning to the same thought over the course of a few days or weeks or months, and allowing the trains of thoughts to develop connections... that was impossible for me because I just lacked the focus/memory/executive function to stick with trains of thought over a long period. I was perfectly capable of hyperfocus for the duration of one afternoon, helping myself come to all sorts of realizations and insights. It would feel momentous. But the next day? I had completely forgotten about it and gotten into thinking about something else. As a result, my ADHD kept me stuck in dysfunctional patterns of thought and behavior. ADHD kept me from recognizing my issues and take action to fix my life.

My route to turning things around began with getting diagnosed and medicated for ADHD when I was 33. It was incredible how much that little pill of Ritalin did for me. I was suddenly completing my tasks, getting my home organized, finding and keeping a good job. That string of wins after relentless failure for the past two decades ... you probably can't imagine it, can't believe it might be really possible for you. But I think you can understand my feeling like I had suddenly developed superpowers.

That feeling led me to take the enormous risk of finding a therapist. And that... THAT... has saved my life. Therapy has allowed me to address every issue I laid out above. I'm now 39 years old. I'm divorced from an abusive spouse, and made coparenting work successfully despite everything. I bought my own house and have kept it in good repair, even well organized! I've held a well-paying full-time job which leans heavily on my strengths for the last 6 years without once getting fired. I've dealt squarely with my childhood abuse & relationship abuse history - and turned it into creativity, writing, art, and a zeal for volunteer work. I've made peace with my parents. It's 100% due to therapy. The support, guidance, mentorship, and safety that therapy provided to me was life-saving.

It can happen for you. I know it's not as easy as "just find a therapist" - there is luck involved in finding a good therapist and in being able to afford good therapy. But I think it will make a difference to you even to just know that this doesn't have to be your life. There is a way out. One day when the stars align and you are able to access the help you need and deserve, you will claw yourself out of this hole. There is nothing wrong with you. THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU. You are already whole, and one day, you will help yourself to feel the truth of what you already are.
posted by MiraK at 5:21 PM on March 25 [15 favorites]

32 is beautifully young. You're only two years older than I was when I got into the masters program, and your state of mind matches mine then exactly, having worked abusive jobs for years on end. And I was around the mean age for the people in my year, I might add. Masters' programs are havens of age diversity where Over Traditional Age students truly shine.

Your situation is just exactly what masters degree programs are for. I don't know what it is that you actually liked doing before you forced yourself into accounting, but you can probably find a fine art or a science that whatever it is falls under, with maybe some tweaking. Then you can find the masters programs for that discipline and start doing all the stuff you need to do to get into one. Definitely therapy, as everyone has been saying, and finding out what derailed you at 17--ADHD? Depression? Both? Something else? Finishing up the bachelor's if you still need to do that, studying for and taking the GRE, researching master's programs, applying. The escape process can keep you happily occupied for years, during which time the accounting work keeping you alive should feel less onerous because it is something you are working to escape. Be picky: you can afford to wait for the right program. Keep applying 'til you get one with a decent reputation and, very important, one that'll pay your way.

These programs are good for two reasons. 1. Whatever your actual discipline is, learning more about it is better than abusive job X. 2. They will make you teach to earn your graduate student money, and teaching is better than abusive job X. Teaching is very very hard at first, and scary, but they make you do it, and soon you learn, and then you have learned to do a very hard scary thing. The confidence boost from this is something you can live off for probably the rest of your life.

You'll have two glorious years to work diligently on your art or work lackadaisically on your art and mostly sleep (I mostly slept) and when you get out, you'll have a master's and can teach and do jobs that are directly or tangentially related to whatever your focus was. Or maybe you'll not have slept and will have made a true go of whatever it was and you'll rocket to success and stardom. It doesn't actually matter; all that matters is you need a break. You deserve this because you have been in accounting hell for all those years. Now you can have a lovely lovely break for at least two years and maybe three or four. You can work at work you actually like.

You're always going to be told you're doing things late, BTW. I graduated late, went back late, bought my house way way way late, waited too late to have children, blah blah endless blah. Supposedly I was late and wrong and bad and a tragic failure this whole time, but nevertheless 21 years after I was where you are now, I am now here working a job I love in a house I love living with a person I love and planting fruit trees in the back yard.
posted by Don Pepino at 5:27 PM on March 25 [4 favorites]

Times change, people change, and you changed.

When we were children, we were practically carefree. We don't worry about adulting... making a living and all that. If you are a disciplined family you have to change your own sheets and you don't ever worry bout organizing your own time... it's all taken cared of for you... go to school, go with friends, come home, have dinner, watch TV, homework, bed. Repeat. So we can dedicate our brain to schoolwork, as it's one thing we know the adults would reward us for.

That started to change in high school and college. What we used to do well is not enough. We learned to adult, and some people are better at it than others. It's just the way we are. We made decisions with what we know AT THAT TIME. Some of it turned out alright, some did not.

The important thing is TO LEARN FROM EVERY EXPRIENCE.

If you hate accounting, move away from it! FIND something you are interested in. If you continue to do something you hate, just because you had done well in it before, it's called "sunk cost fallacy". While it is important to have "grit" (perseverence) it is also important to recognize when to pivot, and reinvent oneself.

And from what you've stated, you already hate accounting, and you clearly haven't changed your mind.
posted by kschang at 5:30 PM on March 25

Everyone’s been great here and my only addition is 32 is so, so young. Just trust me on that. Your face is young, your body is young, your mind is able to grow and do new things, you’re still maturing emotionally. 32 is young! 32 is no different than 29 and 20s is basically childhood. Especially in our culture. Maybe 50 years ago, 32 was established adult woman age, but it’s not anymore (thank god.)

I didn’t feel like an adult until my late 30s. My wants, needs, talents, shortcomings, etc. were quite a mystery to me at 32. I don’t think that’s too strange. I was just trying to survive. So now it’s occurring to you you want to do more than survive—how lucky you are, to be so young and to discover this!
posted by kapers at 5:42 PM on March 25 [6 favorites]

Like several people above, I was also nearly 30 when I realized what I wanted to do with my life. Definitely was also a smart kid in school who did great on tests, but skipped class regularly and barely did homework. I got great grades and never actually learned to put in work. I had numerous stupid jobs starting in high school that just got stupider until after many years I answered an ad for a job at a nursery. With no plant experience they took me on, and I've pretty much been a plant person since. Though my first instance going to college right out of high school was a bust, I eventually got my undergrad degree in landscape architecture. I had to really apply myself in university but the second time around I was motivated because I had finally figured out that horticulture was my thing.

Just a long way of saying it's totally possible to take a different path right now, even if you don't exactly know what that path might be or where it might lead. I know it's super tough- I have depression and am quite skilled at self-sabotage- so I still struggle with self doubt and feeling like I've missed opportunities. But it's not impossible for you to move on from here and create more of the life you want to live for yourself at 32. That's pretty much when I finally started getting my life together.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:53 PM on March 25 [4 favorites]

Hi, just another voice here to tell you that 32 is not too late. Careers are long—my dad didn’t retire until he was 74—and you have decades ahead of you to do what you want with your career.

I don’t know how much my own story will help, but I’ll tell it to you in case some part of it resonates with you. In my high school/college years, I dug myself into a hole so deep that I thought I would never come out. Despite being a gifted kid and being placed into academically advanced programs, I started derailing and getting terrible grades around tenth grade. My family went through a horrible event when I was in sixth grade (involving abuse and police), and I hadn’t told anyone about it and my family never talked about it. I was depressed, didn’t know how to tell anyone, and by tenth grade I could barely wake up in the morning so was always late for school.

School seemed like an endless game of hoop-jumping for grades I didn’t care about and that didn’t capture how smart I was. After being late for school basically every day, I became embarrassed about showing up late and just cut classes altogether, going to parks to read books instead. I failed so many classes that I started having to go to summer school every year starting in tenth grade, and in twelfth grade, I wasn’t allowed to walk at graduation because I’d failed too many classes to fit the summer school schedule. I only graduated because one of my failed classes was swimming, and I begged them to let me take a Red Cross swim class instead and the school agreed.

Like you, I switched colleges twice, and I didn’t exactly turn a new leaf. I needed to develop my navigating-schools-and-institutions skills: showing up, doing the assignments even if I thought they were unnecessary, and generally checking all the checkboxes a professor cares about when they tally grades. I failed a class at my second college and remember feeling so crushed. Just... hopeless. I’d let all my demons get the best of me, and I’d come to loathe this person who didn’t have the discipline to just show up to the damn class. Before, I’d figured I was too smart to be at the college where I was. I mean, I was gifted! But with an F on my report card from that college, no one would think I was particularly smart, capable, or promising.

Luckily, that was the kick in the butt I needed to turn things around. I became obsessed with getting good grades. I needed to prove to everyone, especially to myself, that I could get As. So I did. The next semester, I was hyper-motivated. I showed up, I participated, I turned in all the assignments, and I got straight As. Being a good student was, I learned, like training your body: show up consistently and be present in mind and body, be honest with yourself about where you are and work diligently, daily, at getting a bit better every day. (It helped that I started a serious yoga practice at this time.) Soon I transferred schools (for the last time!) and continued doing well.

Eventually, I went to law school. I unfortunately had a chip on my shoulder about not having gone to the best institutions for undergrad, and I thought I had something to prove. I didn’t actually want to be a lawyer; I was interested in social justice and, while in college, got into a program that helps students get into top law schools. So I studied my tail off for the LSAT and got into some very good schools. I then paid nearly $200k to get my JD from one of these schools because I thought I needed a fancy degree to show the world I was smart. It’s a financial hole I’m still digging myself out of today.

Anyway, another failure: I hated law school (except that I met my husband there, because grad school is a great place to meet people) and had bad grades. Because of the school’s name brand, I was able to get a high-paying job out of law school anyway, but then... oh man. I failed the bar exam. I was the only person out of my entire starting class at my fancy law firm to fail the exam. It was a huge gut-punch, but also not a surprise: I could barely make myself study because I found the material so boring and didn’t want to be a lawyer. Sound familiar?

So I took the damn test again, barely passed, became a lawyer, and quit my job soon after. Now I have my own (non-legal) business, am figuring out motherhood, am actually happy, and am excitedly/nervously planning the next stage of my career.

I hope this shows that you can fail a thousand times in mortifying ways and still survive to tell the tale. Some commenters above have recommended grad school, and I agree—it’s a great reset button IF you go in with the right mindset (mostly: build relationships that you can keep cultivating after you graduate, take advantage of the career reset opportunity and research the hell out of post-grad career opportunities specific to your school). I would also highly recommend not going to debt for it because, though we are managing, our educational debt hangs over us in every one of our major life decisions now (like, you know, whether we can afford childcare). And again, careers are long, and you can turn things around faster than you think even if it’s difficult and messy and painful at first. Also, you don’t need grad school—or any school—to prove that you’re smart. Certain schools and grades make it easier to get your foot in the door at places you may have thought weren’t available to you before, but they're not needed. Plenty of successful people don’t have fancy degrees or good grades.

What does it mean if a 32yo female keeps failing? It means she’s human, she hasn’t found her groove yet, and she needs to keep trying.
posted by saltypup at 10:48 PM on March 25 [5 favorites]

What it means is you shouldn't do accounting. What did you want to do when you were a clever girl? Go back and pursue that. If there's too much depression and anxiety, see a therapist specifically to help you over that obstacle. Sometimes it takes until your thirties to develop the maturity and skills to pursue what you want, but your compass from childhood isn't and wasn't wrong.
posted by shadygrove at 8:04 AM on March 26

So, I've hesitated to post this but with all the positive stories, maybe one that's a bit less rosy will help form a whole picture. Of course, my story is just one story. You ARE so young, you DO have plenty of time, if you are able to take advantage of it. Believe me, I know that's the hardest part for some of us.

I am 52, and my story could be yours thirty years later. I did not course-correct, or not very well. I always thought eventually I would figure it out, or someone would help me, or the right job would appear, or I don't know! I did go to graduate school and got an entirely useless master's degree in creative writing - a delay tactic with no plan behind it. I didn't want to be a teacher or even a writer, really - maybe a children's book writer and artist, but that is a difficult and independent career path and my self-doubt continually crushed any hope of my attempting to do anything about it.

I paid for my master's degree by taking out a lot of student loans - I do not recommend it unless you choose a major you love and which has a high potential for high-paying work. This was followed by about 15 years of mostly bad, low-paying, temp jobs while the student loan totals grew bigger. I did not look for and utilize resources that might have helped me. I did not think I was worthwhile. And my various attempts at therapy just did not help. Don't give up on therapy like I did - I believe now I just didn't find the right therapist.

I'm doing a bit better these days. I got a decent office manager job at 41 and now having been here 11+ years in a company that's grown, I make a pretty good wage and more recently am working a lot more on my art. The job has a lot of toxic qualities but fortunately a lot of perks to balance some of that out. I can now imagine paying off my debt before it starts coming out of my social security checks. I know I am very lucky in many ways compared to so many people, but I have a lot of regrets. So many.

Do find yourself the right therapist. I believe all these folks in this thread and others, who say therapy has helped them. I have been thinking about trying to find a therapist myself. Because really, it's not even too late for me. You DO have so much time to turn your life around, but you're the only one who can do it, and I hope the success stories in this thread can help guide your way. You are worthwhile. And if you have to pay someone for a while to help you see it, it will be money well spent.
posted by Glinn at 8:18 AM on March 26 [3 favorites]

Btw—lest you see my story above as a “success story,” I’m still figuring things out and don’t know what I want to do with my career. For example, I’m studying for the GRE now (even though I have a JD) so I have the option to go back to grad school (likely a terrible idea given my debt situation) and to sharpen my math skills if I want to go into consulting. I’m happy now not because I’ve figured out what I want to do with my career but because my identity is no longer tied up in my job or my school or proving to anyone that I’m smart. I’m also confident now that I’ll be able to make money if I need it and that my family will love me regardless of my profession.

I don’t know enough about you to give more specific advice, but I hope you find people who will enthusiastically support you no matter what your profession, and I hope you come to peace with having taken a circuitous path.
posted by saltypup at 10:22 AM on March 26 [2 favorites]

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