December 21, 2021

4 Powerful Things I Learned from Failing my Master’s Thesis.


View this post on Instagram

I don’t know how it is in other countries, but in Germany, it is possible to get a grade that is better than 100 percent: 15 points.

If “1” is the best result, this other grade is “0.75.”

That’s the grade I’ve got for my thesis, which boosted up the total result of my master’s degree to 100 percent as well.

I could leave it like that: take the congrats and feed my ego by waving my certificate.

But this wouldn’t be the entire truth—because this thesis hasn’t been my first master thesis.

I failed my first one.

Not from my perspective, though (I’m still loving this creation), but for those who make the decisions on which my graduation depends. Those in power.

Why am I writing about that? This academic failure triggered me profoundly and offered me an opportunity to ask questions that really matter to my choices of how to maneuver in this world.

And I don’t want to pretend it didn’t happen.

It was the first time ever I failed or came even close to failure in my academic career, or let’s say, even my entire school career. I was that good that I studied my bachelor and master’s degree with scholarships.

Let’s be a little more truthful.

Succeeding in school hasn’t been hard for me because I’m quite good in reading expectations and intelligent enough to remember information fast. My brain was even close to a photographic memory when I was a schoolkid. Nobody noticed that.

These combined abilities make it easy for me to get excellent results and hence lots of compliments for my intelligence and achievements—because this seems to be tremendously important. And if you ask me, I feel that reading people/teachers is a game changer.

Did those achievements matter much to me? Honestly, not really.

Of course, I’m grateful that I could study that much and was able to learn that easily. But more than that, I felt a huge relief that, due to my scholarship, I was not dependent on any financial support. And this was what I worked for (a little dramatic, maybe).

But being a teenager, this was the way out I saw and pursued. To be even more honest, being good in school was my way of getting them all to not mind my business. And it worked so smoothly. It seems like success in school/career makes people believe we’ve got everything under control. What a world! I was lost but admired.

In university, where I enrolled after another scholarship in Nepal, I got more rebellious because my wild heart didn’t ever shut up after I once let it out. But since I was also intelligent and performed according to the set standards, I was kind of liked. Most people found some sympathy for the woman who was a bit different.

The price I paid for mastering the fulfillment of expectations was that I was academically only maneuvering within the frame of felt and set standards. Don’t get me wrong; my papers and exams were all a bit different and out of the box. But they were still within the realm of how far one is allowed to step out of them.

I could clearly feel where these limits of being different were. Can you?

I like to study complex theories about simple phenomena and be a part of this community process of research, even if that means speaking a language that only few can understand. There’s nothing wrong about the academic bubbles we’ve created and admired. But even though they’re valid and useful, somehow, I feel how limiting it can be to follow the rules. And the bubbles are highly exclusive.

With the kind lecturers I met during my master’s degree, I felt seen. Studying and experiencing body psychotherapy, I felt I was learning almost the same as in yogic philosophy, Daoism, and Buddhism, which I was into before (and still am)—just other words engulfing the same.

I somehow felt liberated from the chains of science and thought I was invited to write about what was deeply dwelling in my heart. (But I never was or will be in university. I was naïve and got the backlash.)

Hence, when I chose the topic (radical interconnectedness—in German: radikal verbunden) for my thesis, I wanted to weave all that I’ve learned together. My body as the home of the subconscious, inherently connected to all the memories it has ever made, intertwined with a collective consciousness (you can already sense I ran riot).

I tried to show radical interconnectedness by dissecting our societies and bodies as traumatized, comparing the suppression of the feminine in patriarchy with the dance of the opposites, yin and yang, in Daoism.

And behind all those smart words and the myriad of theories I created my mosaic with, I listened to my body’s resonance in the undercurrent, trying to use its intelligence to understand deeper, and getting an insight from its wisdom about how we coexist as inevitably connected, limited, and embodied creatures that, healing within, will influence the outer world—that what is outside is inside anyway. I integrated the spiritual activism of Gloria Anzaldúa and poetic feminism of Bell Hooks.

I even dared to invite the academic readers to not just understand mentally, but feel and resonate, and I challenged them to not react to their own defensive mechanisms when the scaffolds of their belief systems are questioned.

The last straw, I guess, was concluding that therapy that works in a frame of separation will simply recreate social and also karmic (yes, I dropped that as well) patterns, and if we don’t question the whole paradigm and take a quantum leap into an understanding of interconnectedness, we’ll continue to destroy ourselves and the planet.

So basically, if we continue to treat the symptoms and don’t dare to face the individual but also collective core wounds, we’ll fail. That was a short summary of my enthusiastic attempt to make a change.

I had a hard disc with more than 800 eBooks and articles and spent hundreds of hours for this theoretical research and the autoethnographic observations of my body’s memories.

I wanted to transform what I felt profoundly in the marrow of my bones into an academic paper.

I dared to put what can’t be described into words. I wanted to believe that people need to, and are open to, hear what I had to say.

After almost eight months, I was done; my eight proofreaders that all had an academic background loved and complimented my project, and I felt unbelievably proud when I submitted my thesis. I wrote around 50 pages more than allowed but thought this wouldn’t matter regarding the topic I had chosen (maybe arrogant retrospectively).

After four months without any reaction of the lecturers, I got the message via email: I failed—the first time ever—in the most important assignment.

Shock. Confusion.

I couldn’t believe it; my proofreaders felt confused. It was not scientific enough, and it was way too long. I didn’t just step out of the box, I took a leap out of the entire paradigm.

Maybe, I wanted too much. Maybe, I jumped further for all those times I chose to stay in that safe box of reading people and fulfilling their expectations.

An inner part of me might have even wanted to make the world better with that paper. And maybe, I subconsciously chose exactly those people as proofreaders who had the same longings as I had and agreed with what I was bringing together.

I lost it for a brief moment because it was a few days after one of many lockdowns in India, and because one day before, a lover I felt very close to left the country. School was the one thing in my life that has never failed—where success had always been there, even when all the other pillars of my life were miserable. This identity of mine, claiming that I was someone who would always be excellent in school, broke.

And I needed this.

In that moment, I realized by then that school hadn’t been the only pillar in my life anymore. I teared it down. But I was held—by myself, by my close friends, by my own trust in the wisdom of the universe, by all the strategies I’d practiced.

And it was beautiful to feel that.

So I took some deep breaths, shook the tension out of my limbs, and arrived with my awareness back in the moment.

Two hours later, after a long walk in the mountains of the Himalayas, I knew what I needed to do.

I wouldn’t let this academic devaluation change anything about my feelings regarding my heart project, and I wouldn’t let this breakdown/breakthrough sabotage this last step toward achieving my master’s graduation.

I would do what I had done all the time, but with awareness—fulfilling expectations efficiently and finding other spaces to let my heart speak and move. I wasn’t going against resistance anymore. And it felt like I had foreseen all this in my thesis. It made me even smile about this absurdity I was in.

Another two hours later I had an idea for my new thesis; two weeks later it was officially registered. Less than two months later I was done.

And then I got my grade: 15 points, the best possible. I enjoyed writing this second thesis as well. I value my time too much to waste it writing some random sh*t. I believe it’s an important topic and a paper that is now published as a book, which can be useful for many (the topic is bulimia as a disorder of distorted relationships—embodied sociality and feminist resistance as an inspiration for body psychotherapy).

But my heart stays out of academia for now.

What did I learn by failing?

1. I needed this painful moment and shock of devaluation to see with clarity that I was living up to expectations automatically, but I can also use this ability to efficiently perform. I felt that with putting my heart in there, I opened myself vulnerably in a sphere that is kind of violent—and I do this a lot. My mind and intellect work well there; my heart doesn’t.

2. I could have known it before, but I had the habit to fight battles that were lost all along. I recreated and recreated frustration. I’m done with it.

3. Most of the school system is a box, and we are conditioned into it. Our questions are often silenced. Many people don’t have a choice if they need/want those certificates. But functioning in that box doesn’t mean to not have a life and space for creation outside of it while slowly transforming it.

4. And if I consciously fit in, I don’t need to waste energy in order to fight against rigid systems, and I don’t need to stir up the defense mechanism by speaking against a commonly accepted paradigm. But with becoming invisible through functioning, a space opens for a hidden rebellion.

And this is where I go.


Read 2 Comments and Reply

Read 2 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Sarina Pfeiler  |  Contribution: 10,775

author: Sarina Pfeiler

Image: sorrylines.art/Instagram

Editor: Elyane Youssef