The Curse of Perfectionism

How do we know what we know? We’re taught and told things. We observe people and events and objects around us. Some things are instinctual. But we also learn a great deal from personal experience. Sometimes what we learn is positive: I love sushi after all! And sometimes it isn’t: I am never going to drink that much again! The positive and negative are equal components: it’s all feedback to your brain so you know what behaviors you want, or don’t want, to repeat. It also gives you the impetus to change your behavior as necessary.

Unless you’re a perfectionist. Perfectionism takes “that decision didn’t work out so well; I’ll adjust my behavior and/or approach accordingly in the future” and transforms it into “I fucked up so bad, like I always do; I should have known; I’m so stupid.” It leaves you feeling like you never do anything right, like you’re worthless and proving it with every decision, every mistake, every action. You don’t accept what’s happened as just an experience; you don’t forgive yourself; you internalize what’s happened and blame yourself and take every opportunity to use it against yourself.

This has been my life for as long as I can remember. From my youngest memories, I see a little girl who’s made what she perceives is a mistake—said something that hurt a friend, inadvertently (or not) disobeyed her parents, answered a question on an exam incorrectly, spoke out in class only to be rebuffed—beating herself up, sometimes literally. I used to rap my knuckles on my head, saying, “Stupid, stupid, stupid.” I gave myself very little grace because I didn’t deserve it.

In many ways, I am still this little girl and have been all along. When sex entered my life before I was married—a terrible sin according to my church and upbringing—I couldn’t forgive myself. It took me a decade to stop hating myself, and even then the disgust plagued me. Even now. A month ago when I asked my boyfriend about alcoholism and he denied it absolutely and was offended and hurt that I even asked, I punished myself by writing so deeply on my arm that I left scratches of the words in the flesh. Last night it was a bad date—turns out the dom/sub scene isn’t for me, and I have an aching cheek from a hard slap in the face to prove it. At least curiosity didn’t kill the cat.

I know I didn’t know last night would bother me so much, that I wouldn’t like it, but logic doesn’t matter when you’re a perfectionist: I’m an idiot. And now I have this memory in my head and I want it to go away and I want to stop feeling stupid, but I can’t. No matter how many times I try to accept what happened, learn from it, tell myself I didn’t do anything wrong by trying something new, and say “at least now I now,” I return to self-disgust. “Stupid, stupid girl.”

“At least I know now” is meaningless jibber-jabber when you’re a perfectionist because it is nearly impossible to see the merits of a “bad” situation. You can’t see that something was learned—you’re too busy hating yourself, bemoaning your idiocy, damning yourself—which means you don’t see how to modify your behavior for better in the future. Which means you repeat the cycle: similar situation, same approach, same result, do it again. When I was nineteen and “committing the sin” of unmarried sex—and being raped—I kept putting myself in the same situation. I was so preoccupied with damning myself I couldn’t modify.

I’m not going to let happen to last night’s experience. Trust me, I’m not going to put myself in that situation again. “At least I know now” doesn’t calm my self-hatred or regret. It doesn’t silence the self-berating. But I do know now, and with careful practice I am starting to be able to see beyond my perceived damnable mistakes and take something of value away. I didn’t like last night; therefore, I won’t do it again.

So where does that leave me? I haven’t forgiven myself. I’m questioning my morals. I’m questioning my intelligence. I’m certain there is more to be taken away from last night, but I can’t sooth the hatred or the feeling of failure or the disgust with myself long enough to break down the mental and physical components of the experience to learn anything.

My perfectionism tells me I should have known last night would go poorly, that I should have avoided my college boyfriend, that I should have obeyed my parents, that I should have known the correct answers on the test. Mistakes aren’t allowed. Which means I’m worthless. At least as a perfect being. And since perfectionism is still my bane, that means I’m nothing. If I can’t be perfect, there is nothing in me that is redeemable. So I’m left living a life of nothingness, always striving for perfectionism, always failing. Talk about living in a bad cycle.

Perfectionism is one of the most challenging internal struggles in my life. It ebbs and flows with life’s situations, only a glowing ember when life is dull and the path ahead is clear, then flaring at the first hint of trouble or instability.  How do I learn to control something so fluctuating and yet so encompassing and powerful that it controls me instead? I can’t give you a straight, bona fide answer or solution. I haven’t beat it yet. But I can tell you what I do know and what I’ve been told by wise people.

Give yourself grace. You are allowed to make mistakes. You aren’t stupid for making them. Forgive yourself when necessary, but then accept what has happened as just that: something that happened. You’re allowed to live.

The affirmation “I radically accept myself” comes to mind. Accept all of who you are: the good, the bad, the confused, the sad, the happy, every decision, every action.

Know you are not worthless. You exist, which makes you priceless. Nothing you can or will do changes that. Period.

Tell yourself you don’t have to be perfect, and believe it. It’s far easier said than done, I know. But do it. Say it over and over again. Change your perspective. Change your expectations for yourself.

Love yourself. No matter what happens, no matter what you think about you, don’t stop.

Not Broken After All

It is not my intention to use my blog as a platform for airing my stories of heartbreak, but it’s been a difficult few weeks. The trials have been piling up. I am tired and feeling tried to my limits, and I think only able to persevere through my days by taking them one at a time. This morning, the emotions hover in my throat and chest, threatening (more) tears and urging me to retreat from the world. But I won’t give in.

PTSD and the fall into shame and depression and anxiety thrive like parasites on negative emotion and on isolation. They depend on you turning in on yourself and forgetting that you don’t have to do this on your own. And so I’m reaching out, “getting out of my head,” as a good friend described it.

Go to a coffee shop or a place where there are other people. Call a friend. Get out of your head.

And I’m trying to remember to be kind to myself, to give myself grace. And the only way I can think to do that right now is to share what happened, to confess how much I hurt right now.

I fell in love a few months back. It was unexpected and not necessarily wanted—I wasn’t ready for anything serious. But I felt a connection I couldn’t deny. The spark between us was Tony-and-Maria-like, and I felt it from the first cup of coffee—and slice of espresso cake—we shared. I felt it when he offered to hold my hand after the first hour and when he stole his first kiss at the end of our first date. I knew I’d found someone amazing when he said he wanted to go slow because this felt like something special and he didn’t want to mess it up. I knew exactly what he meant.

He was like me in a lot of the ways I worry people will avoid me for. We both have PTSD and dark histories and deep sorrow in our pasts. We both have chronic health concerns and medicate to make our bodies work as they should. From the first moment, he accepted all that I was, including that I’m a mom. He cared about my children and went the extra mile to show that to me and to them.

The first month was perfect, the second filled with the need to overcome challenges—and we triumphed. And then, in the past few weeks, as so often happens with romance, it all unraveled. Rumors of alcoholism and a few scary moments that proved the rumors might be true. But I trusted him when he said it wasn’t and we moved past it. A week later another frightening night changed everything. In the end, I’d had to kick him out of my apartment twice—for his sake and then to feel safe in my safe place—and the second time he threatened that we were done if I made him leave. I drove him to the train station that night and watched him walk away. It was difficult to do.

We met two days later to exchange items left behind and find closure. We ended up talking about how much we’d loved each other and what went wrong and how there might still be chance to make things work, if we moved slowly and remembered those first weeks and took care of ourselves and each other. And so we made a final bid to make amends and share our hearts and our love.

Without meaning to, I again gave my heart fully, but he held back and told me he was doing so, and when I asked him to trust me, he stood me up and “ghosted” me, as the teens say—he completely ignored my calls and texts, as if he’d forgotten I existed. It took me more than an hour of waiting on the front steps of his new apartment (I went to help him move in) to convince myself he really wasn’t going to show and that it wasn’t an accident this time.

I know we have ground to regain, and I know we’re going slow. But I promise you I will fight for us, like you asked me to. I will fight with all my heart, because that’s how I love you. Please don’t give up on me. Please don’t stop fighting either. My heart, like yours, is vulnerable, and will hurt unbearably if you break it. But I trust you with it, my love. I trust you.

I wrote these words in a love letter he wouldn’t read because he was “afraid to feel too much” for me. Maybe he should have read the letter. Maybe I shouldn’t have trusted him so completely. Maybe it was all destined to end badly.

But as the shock of being deserted wears off, and I remember the hopes we had and the love we shared and how deeply I cared about him, as I let the tears fall with abandon and without shame, one thought persists: at least I was honest. And I loved him unconditionally. I couldn’t have given more. It occurs to me, too, that after over a year of fearing I’d never know love again (irrational but true), I loved. And this love, however tumultuous and briefly reciprocated, was sincere and whole-hearted. As it turns out, I haven’t been damaged irrevocably.

So, yes, it hurts, and that pain runs deep. But I realize now, after these words to you, that I’ve earned that pain and the right to own it. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. I loved and I lost that love. The pain just means I did it right. Welcome back to the world, Kate.