This morning perfectionism came up. I was listening to Brené Brown‘s audiobook Daring Greatly. I’ve listen to a bunch of her stuff and I like how she conveys difficult the issues of shame, vulnerability and managing relationship. I spend a few minutes each week listening to one chapter. I’ve read the book before. I have a number of her audiobooks and I’ve watched her Ted Talks and the new Netflix special. Yeah, I’m a Brené Brown junkie. She makes a statement toward the end of chapter two triggered some thoughts. Here’s the quote:
“…my greatest personal and professional transformations happened when I started asking hard questions about how my fear of being vulnerable was holding me back and when I found the courage to share my struggles and ask for help. After running from vulnerability, I found that learning how to lean into the discomfort of uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure was a painful process. I did believe that I could opt out of feeling vulnerable, so when it happened—when the phone rang with unimaginable newsier when I was scared; or when I loved so fiercely that rather than feeling gratitude and joy I could only prepare for loss—I controlled things. I managed situations and micromanaged the people around me. I performed until there was no energy left to feel. I made what was uncertain certain, no matter what the cost. I stayed so busy that the truth of my hurting and my fear could never catch up. I looked brave on the outside and felt scared on the inside. Slowly I learned that this shield was too heavy to lug around, and that the only thing it really did was keep me from knowing myself and letting myself be known.”
When I think about my former self this quote describes me to a tee. I can laugh about it now but it wasn’t so funny at the time. I was stuck in the trap of perfectionism. Becoming a perfectionist isn’t a conscious choice, but coming out of it is. You really don’t stop and think, “Gee, I’m really scarred of what might happen, or how this might turn out, I think I’ll make everyone around me jump through hoops to make me feel good.” I shielded myself from feeling pain because life was so awfully painful. I lived with a number of alcoholics in my life.
How it began for me
My parents were both alcoholics only I didn’t know that as I was growing up. I didn’t actually see my parents drunk. I only saw the aftermath. There weren’t liquor bottles sitting out. I never saw them take a drink until I was in my teens. They hid the drinking. They hid it so much that I didn’t know my father was an alcoholic until I was in my fifties. My mother came to the Lord in the 1970’s. And when she received salvation her old life faded away. Drinking was one of the things that was associated with her old life. She was now what those in recovery might call a dry drunk. She was abstinent from alcohol but never addressed the symptoms and behavior behind it. I am not sharing this to expose my parents or to say that they were bad people. It just happened to be the environment in which I grew up. Living with people in active addiction can make you feel like you are the crazy one. There was no pleasing them. They both demanded perfection. The only problem was that they never communicated what that looked like. We were just supposed to instinctively know. We didn’t. And because we didn’t there was a lot of focus on behavior and performance, or rather the lack of perfection. We were not really applauded for our accomplishments. My parents didn’t really do affirmation. “It might go to your head.” When I became an adult I responded to situations according to what I learned growing up, that is until that didn’t work out so great and I had to try something else. I grew up feeling like I was never enough, never good enough, never think enough, never smart enough, never creative enough, never strong enough. I did however feel that I was flawed, defective and destined to be unloved. I had to earn my parents approval. Gaining their approval, however, meant that I had to betray myself. I had to become someone I wasn’t so that they would accept who I was. Yeah, that didn’t work.
Frankly, my life sucked. It sucked a lot. It was painful and overwhelming. I held my shit together as long as I could. And then one day, it all hit the fan. And I was covered with my own shit. I needed a shower and a change of clothes. I knew I needed to make changes but more than outward changes I needed something to change on the inside. I got into therapy, took parenting classes and read every book I could find on dysfunction, alcoholic family dynamics and codependency.
The great unraveling
But before I reached this place of resolution and self awareness, I got my sense of well being from my performance. Actually it wasn’t from my performance as much as it was the acknowledgement of others about my performance. I needed the applause of others. I needed other people to tell me I was good. No, I needed other people to tell me I was the best. I had to be the best mom, the best friend, the best worker, the best anything. I wouldn’t have admitted that I was so needed but I was. If you didn’t rave about how much you liked the dinner I cooked I felt as if I failed. It couldn’t just be passable. It had to be outstanding. It had to be praiseworthy. If I didn’t get the blue ribbon I failed. And no matter how much reassurance others tried to give me I was already a failure in my own mind. Keeping up the façade was exhausting.
I could juggle raising my family, taking care of my nieces and nephew, attend every church service, help in the church kitchen, and a multitude of other activities all at once. And if you believe that I’ve got some swamp land to sell you. I though I could juggle it all. Not being a machine I couldn’t. But I sure made it appear that way on the surface. I got my self esteem from what other people thought of me. My self worth was enmeshed in the opinion of others. Since I couldn’t internalize any more rejection or neglect I became what everyone around me needed me to be, or rather what I perceived they needed me to be. I liked being needed. We tend to settle for being needed when we don’t think we are worthy of being loved.
My life imploded. It all caved in on me and I knew if I was going to live through this I was going to have to make some changes. I was angry, bitter and blamed everyone around me for how I felt. I got dog piled by the shit in my life. I was determined to get rid of the shit. Unfortunately everywhere I turned I was faced with the dilemma of asking for help. Strong, self reliant people don’t do asking for help. I needed help. But I couldn’t ask for help. If I did ask for help I certainly wasn’t going to tell anyone that I had asked for help. If you ask for help you aren’t perfect. And I needed to be perfect, without flaw. Asking for help was one thing, but admitting that I was flawed was more than I could bear.
I didn’t realize until I asked for help, that asking for help took more courage than trying to do this on my own. I had to be vulnerable. I had to admit that I was human, and human beings weren’t created to live alone. (Genesis 2:18) I didn’t want to need people. People had always disappointed me, betrayed me or abandoned me. I couldn’t count on anyone to be there for me because that wasn’t my experience. I was the one who was there for everyone else. But when I cried I cried alone. When I really needed help the people I was there fore weren’t necessarily there for me, not the way I needed them to be. What I didn’t realize was that I had to find new people. And my therapist was one of those new people.
Taking the risk to share my thoughts and feelings was scary. I nearly had a panic attack every time I drove to the therapists office. I rehearsed what I would say and what I wouldn’t say. Until I got to her office and I was treated with respect and dignity. I didn’t have to be something I wasn’t. In fact, I was encouraged to be honest and share openly. I remember the first time I was honest about how I felt toward my family. I was expecting backlash. “You call yourself a daughter, mother, sister, friend? How can you justify these feelings?!!!!!” But that wasn’t the response I got. For the first time in my life I heard the words, “That’s an appropriate response to your situation.” OH MY GAWD!!! I burst into tears. I couldn’t hold back the flood. It was the proverbial dam bursting. I lived off that one statement for years. My feelings were appropriate to my situation. I didn’t have to minimize my feelings. I didn’t have to stuff them down so that others didn’t have deal with them. It was appropriate. I was appropriate.
I had felt shame because of who I was my entire life up until that moment. This was the first time I was actually told it was okay to be me, the real me, the me on the inside. That day I began my journey to find me. That was in the 1990’s. There are times when I can’t even remember who that person was back then. I am not her. I am not the crippled victim I once was.
No More Regrets
It was scary to face the possibility of being belittled and made to feel like I didn’t measure up. It was scary to stand in the midst of my family and say NO to people I had never dreamed of saying NO to before. I had to learn how to set boundaries. I had to learn to detached and let go. I had to learn and relearn a lot of things. I had to unlearn even more. I regretted the years that I gave to perfectionism and control. I don’t regret coming out of perfectionism and control. I don’t regret coming out of the dysfunctional and codependent behavior which had governed my life. I don’t regret finding the freedom to be myself.
I like who I am. I like my life. I don’t always like the circumstances and there are certain situations I wish I could change but can’t. That is just the way life is a times. I can change my hair color. I don’t have to expose the grey if I don’t want to. I don’t like how I look with grey hair. Some women can really pull off the grey look. I can’t. It washes me out and I just look more frumpy than I already do. I dye my hair for me. I don’t do it to be accepted. I don’t do it to impress anyone else. I do it because it make me feel good about me when I look in the mirror. Does it alter who I am, not in the slightest. I don’t need my grey hair covered to make me feel good. It isn’t about how I look to the world.
Moving beyond perfectionism wasn’t easy but it was worth it. I am no longer controlled or controlling. I don’t try to control the world around me. Neither and I controlled by situations and circumstances. I am not controlled by what other people think or expect. And it feels darn good. It feels like freedom. It feels like life. It’s great to be free to be the me I’ve always wanted to be. At the same time, if I were to say that I don’t give a rip about how other people view my I’d be lying and you’d know it. We all care to a point.
For the most part I am comfortable with who I am. I don’t focus on my insecurities anymore. What helps when they come up, is to acknowledge that I have them and address how I deal with them. Do I still have the tendency toward perfectionism? Not nearly as often as it once did, but yes, at times. When the tendency crops up I try put it in context. I look at the situation which is influencing me in that direction. Then I make a conscious choice as to how I am going to address it. I look at what is underneath it. I remember the shit that once dog piled me. And I put up the umbrella of “that’s appropriate to your situation.” And I don’t let the feces bury me. Until whatever shit storm I am facing relents I can walk through it without getting it on me.
I can remain who I am in the midst of it. I can stay true to my values and not lose who I am in the midst of situations that once prompted me to people please and control. Every time I stood up for myself it was scary. Every time I took a risk it was unnerving. Every time I allowed myself to be vulnerable and take the chance of being rejected, abandoned, or unliked it was scary. Facing scary situations doesn’t necessarily take away the fear of facing them again. Facing scary situations despite the fact that we are scared gives us a greater opportunity of succeeding in living our own life.
I can succeed at being me. I am the best me that I can possibly be. No one else can be me. No one else can be you. You are the only one who can be the best possible you. We can imitate someone else. We can quote someone else, but we can never be that other person. When we try to be someone else we stop being ourselves. It is okay to take prompts from others, to learn from others, to even accept help from others. Not being you deprives the world of the greatest gift you can offer. And everyone is a gift. Some of us are like unopened packages that have been wrapped up and sealed tightly so that someone else doesn’t damage the contents.
If I can encourage anyone it would be to say, unwrap the package and take the contents out of the box. Enjoy you for who you are. Not everyone can appreciate the gift that you are. But assure you, there are people who will celebrate you, enjoy you and appreciate what is inside the box.