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.

I Decide Now

There is a certain amount of shock—and in my case panic—that comes with realizing that much of what you believe and trust in is false. When I learned just how much control shame had of my life and that the things that perpetuated it were a combination of lies and false beliefs, my world, in a word, shattered.Imagine life as a game of Jenga. You start with a sturdy foundation, three wooden blocks on the bottom, topped by three more laid perpendicular to the first three. The building of the tower repeats this patter until its builder runs out of wooden blocks. The result is a rectangular cuboid. There will likely be a few wonky blocks, but for the most part, the tower is stable.

In the form of a life, this stable tower represents the average child with his or her basic understanding and rules, values, and beliefs laid into place by parents, guardians, family members, caretakers, churches, schools, etc., in essence, a child with a steady base for healthy functioning, making decisions, and moving forward in life.

Now, as the child grows and adjusts his or her understanding, rules, values, and beliefs according to new experiences and the input of new knowledge, the tower that represents the child’s basis changes shape slightly. Some of the initial structure will shift a little, parts of it will disappear completely to make room for new information (imagine the delicate removal and placement of Jenga blocks). But most shifting, changing, growing will take place with the firm foundation (the tower’s first two rows) in place. Everyone who’s played a game of Jenga knows the tower stays steadier if the bottom-most row and the one just above it stay fairly intact.

In the lifespan of the average person, the game of Jenga would go on forever, beliefs and values (the blocks), always growing and shifting while the base remains firm. But in the game itself, there is a moment when the tower becomes too unstable—perhaps when it becomes necessary to pull blocks from the foundation—and it tips and the wooden blocks scatter to the far ends of the table, some even to the floor. If you want to start another game, you have to gather these blocks and rebuild the tower.

My tower built upward as I went to college and got married and had children and worked and went to church and met new friends, always on the solid base of religious beliefs and family values and the dos and don’ts of a righteous life burned into my brain. I depended on this base for everything: guidance for decisions and behaviors, judging right from wrong (in my eyes it was only either/or), how to raise my children, how to process new experiences, how to be a good wife, that shame was normal, even how I viewed and felt about sex and my body. Everything.

And then I discovered that much of what I’d been told religiously about sex and my body and marriage was a lie, and it changed everything. Nearly every block of the first two rows, the foundation, of my tower were pulled out from under me, and lies upon lies that I’d grown to know as my belief and value system tumbled. My tower crashed.

So here I am, in my mid-thirties, gathering up all of these blocks that have scattered and trying to rebuild. I need a new foundation, a new set of values. I have my faith in God, but that’s a single piece, and lacking the religion that goes with it, it seems to mean very little. Essentially, I am beginning over again.

What about divorce? What about shame? What about sexual orientation? How do I feel about sex outside of marriage? My church says stealing is wrong, but it also told me I should let my husband rape me. Now that I know the latter is wrong, I have to ask how accurate the former is. And do the same thing for adultery and coveting and killing. Every part of my belief and value system needs to be reevaluated, even those things written in the Bible.

Now, some of these are easy: for example, killing, stealing, and adultery are generally accepted as wrong by society’s standards, and I agree with this. And I’ll teach my children these things. I will also teach them kindness and generosity. I will teach them to love people for themselves and to not judge by looks or behavior or gender or whatever. And I will lead them by example. I will be tolerant and caring. I will not be prejudice. I will not shame.

But what about sex? Everything I have known about sex and dating was based on what my religious beliefs told me, no questions asked. I determined right and wrong the same way. And how men and women are supposed to behave in relationships. I was told and I accepted, rarely asking.

(Yes, I know there was a HUGE flaw in my thinking; I’m working on that too.)

Even when my feelings told me something that contradicted my belief system, I lied to myself, manipulated my own emotions to match what I was “supposed to” feel. I trusted it all without doubt or hesitation.

So now I have questions, lots and lots of questions. And I have very little foundation to base my answers on. I could ask friends, but people can be wrong and they can lie, just the same as family members or the church. No, I must actually learn and experience and answer my own questions and make my own decisions as to those answers.

It is perhaps the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, to create my own set of values to live by, and sometimes I am completely lost. Never mind past trauma, my anxiety, PTSD symptoms, old and new shame, the resurgence of former beliefs, or that others want to weigh in. Making a decision or choosing a path is never just making a decision or choosing a path.

Some days I don’t know the answers or how to find them. Other days I don’t even know my own opinions, let alone my feelings. Sometimes I change my mind. Sometimes I don’t trust myself. Sometimes my perspective changes and my new values shift, and sometimes the values do a 180. Some days I believe opposites are both true. And sometimes, like yesterday, like today, I don’t know what I believe.

I’m holding fifty-four wooden blocks in my hands and sitting at the table ready to begin, but I can’t place even one block because I just don’t know.

So shock and panic. My instinct is to curl up and try to be small and invisible, to disappear from the world so that I don’t have to decide or know or believe anything. But I don’t. I maybe hide for a few hours, an evening maybe, but then I go to work, and I talk to friends, and I laugh and cry, and I face my questions head on. I tell myself this state of unknowing isn’t permanent. I remember the only way to find the knowledge is to experience and learn. And so I search for my answers. It is not my only option, but it is the one I choose.

And piece by piece, block by block, I put my life back together.

Keeping a Handle on the Trigger

I haven’t written in while. It’s not that life has been quiet but that it’s racing past me. School has started for the year, and I can’t believe the summer is over. Vacations and work and counseling and memories and still taking days one at a time.

I am moving forward, healing, having more positive days than bad. But I’ve learned over the past months that it doesn’t matter how good my day is or how peaceful I feel or how long it’s been since I felt sad, I am still susceptible to the trauma of my past. It hides in words and faces and actions and tones and songs and voices. And, often, it’s only a breath away from being triggered.

I recently discovered the irretrievable loss of several documents as the result of my computer crashing last spring. I thought I’d managed to save all my files. It was frustrating and saddening. A friend tried to ease my disappointment by offering some advice: he told me to learn from what happened. He suggested I take a “lesson” from it. It was a harmless suggestion, merely encouragement to choose a different perspective. But it felt more like a slap that night.

I argued that I’d done nothing wrong, that I’d saved my documents, and that my computer had crashed on its own. He tried to explain it again, that he wasn’t accusing, but he used the word “lesson” a second time. I felt the shame go through me hot and fast and knew “lesson” was the word that had triggered it. I told my friend to stop using the word, shouted it. I needed to get away from the word and the feelings it caused. I needed to stop the physical reaction.

I started crying and I couldn’t breathe. I was shaking, panicking, afraid of I didn’t know what. The shame felt heavy and demoralizing. My friend became angry that I’d yelled, but I fought the urge to apologize. I focused on what was happening inside me, on stopping it before it was out of control.

Preventing, stopping, and coping with emotional and physical reactions to shame is something my counselor and I had been talking about less than a week before this happened. My assignment as I left that day had been to think about how I react to triggers, what triggers me, and how I calm down after being triggered. So how to manage my shame reaction that night was already something I’d been thinking about, and I realized through all the emotions, that I already had the skills and resources to calm myself down.

I started taking deep breaths, counting through them, a technique called box breathing. In for four, hold for four, out for four, and hold for four more. Repeat. And some time ago, I’d put together a shame first aid kit, with things to remind me that I’m lovable and a good person and worthy: a letter I wrote to myself saying these exact things, pictures of people who love me unconditionally, a rose quartz to remind me to love myself. There were also things for soothing and calming: lavender scented soap, notecards with breathing exercises, something soft to touch.

I pulled my first aid kit out that night and used it to calm myself down. I read the letter and did the breathing and looked at my friends’ faces and I relaxed. Then reason took over again: I’d done nothing wrong—I had nothing to be ashamed of. What my friend had said was just words.

After I was thinking rationally, I considered why the word “lesson” had triggered the reaction it did. It was simple: remarking that someone should “learn her lesson” is shame speak. Someone somewhere used those words to shame me.

I still didn’t apologize to my friend, but instead I explained what happed. I told him that when I shouted, I was feeling traumatized and attacked, and that I did what I needed to do to protect myself, to stop the panic and shame from breaking me down any further. I did what I’ve been slowly training myself to do. I understood that I was having a trauma reaction, and I identified the cause and got away from it. Then I used breathing and self-encouragement and loving myself to calm down, and I did it on my own. No one needed to remind me or guide me or encourage me. I took care of myself. A little less than a year ago, a trauma reaction took three days to overcome. This time, it took me thirty minutes.

I’m learning. I’m healing. I don’t do it gracefully, not yet at least. I shouted at one of my closest friends. I cried. I needed my shame first aid kit. But I did get through it.

I’ve grown from the experience. And even more importantly, I recognize what I’ve accomplished personally over the last year and a half. I know without a doubt today that I’m worthy, that I’m a good person, that I’m lovable. I know I deserve to have good, happy things in my life. I know that when the bad days find me, when the triggers are beyond my control, when I feel broken, I have everything I need to come back and be stronger than before. I believe everyone does.

If you’re doubting or afraid or ashamed, take a few deep breaths.  Look inside of you. Love yourself. Recognize that you’ve come this far. You did it. You are strong too.

Five Months

Five months ago I turned paperwork over to the judge and he finalized my divorce. My husband—now ex-husband—having read none of the papers I’d given him the month before, was surprised when I called him. I felt free.

Today, though, five months feels nothing like restitution for the sixteen years I gave him, the years he spent trying to make me less than I was. There is still a lot of healing to get through. He took so much from me and left me with only shame, an entire world of it. I would like there to be a way to give it back to him—not turn it back on him, but to package it up and hand it to him.

“And here’s your wandering hands and cursed dick and blaming and accusations and lies. I think that’s everything. Oh, wait. Here’s your controlling nature and your pouty lip and your hot temper and your cruel family. Good riddance.”

And then it would rain, downpour a warm shower, and I’d stand in it and let it wash from me fingerprints I’ve of yet been unable to erase, let it cleanse the scar tissue so that, though it remains as a memory of my hard-fought battle, it doesn’t burn like the wounds are still fresh and raw.

I want him out of my life completely, but it seems I’ll need to come to terms with him being part of it because of the kids. It will be something I need to learn to cope with—long after the kids are grown, when five months turns to five years and five to ten and twenty. It’ll be a journey in itself.

But he can’t touch me again, and I can find comfort in that. I can make peace with the history he represents, and relegate my life with him to nothing but a moment. I can accept those sixteen years by honoring my memory in that time. The fire inside me never went out, no matter who tried to douse it or how. I kept it alive. I had the strength then and I have it now. Nothing will ever stop me again.

Five months freer, five months more independent, five months wiser, five months stronger, five months braver. Five months spent growing and healing and learning. Five months knowing I am good and loveable.

I am me—five months better than I’ve ever been before.

Silver Lining

A friend told me today about the elaborate plans he had for him and his girlfriend this weekend: a tango lesson and dinner at an uber fancy restaurant. It sounds nice, but it took me a little while to realize why this particular date was a big deal, and it took me a little longer to figure out why it made me uncomfortable. It’s Valentine’s Day this weekend, for starters. Which reminds me that I’m newly divorced, not dating, and looking back on a marriage that makes me slightly ill to remember.

It’s not that I didn’t know it was Valentine’s Day. I’ve been thinking about something nice I could do for my kids. I’ve also been thinking about some of the Valentine’s Days I shared with my ex-husband—before he was my ex. We were a couple almost sixteen years, so there were fifteen Valentine’s Days. The first one, in particular, keeps replaying in my head. We were dating. I was pregnant.

I wrote out quotes and Bible verses about love, cut them out, borrowed a key from my ex-husband’s roommate, and taped the verses, etc., around his place while he was at class. It took time and care and dedication, the kind of effort and love I put into so many of the gifts I gave him. Now all of that seems bitter and a waste, and I find myself nursing self-hatred and shame  for how much I cared, how much I loved, how stupid and blind I feel I was.

My friend apologized later today, realizing that I’m probably having a tough time with regards to “love” and that maybe I didn’t want to hear about his wonderful plans. I told him not to worry about it, and I meant it. I was already stuck in a whirlpool, spiraling downward toward where I might drown. The sadness I felt at his joy really had nothing to do with him at all, but he did give it some life.

Two days ago I was talking to my counselor about going through boxes and cleaning out old things, trying to get rid of the stockpile of useless junk I took with me when I moved into my own apartment—I’m striving for minimalism. I told her how exhausting it was to come face to face with reminders of the relationship I’d shared with my ex-husband. Pictures, a ring he gave me, movie ticket stubs. I told her I didn’t know what to do with everything.

You see, I have this fear that I will wake up one day and remember good things from my marriage, and that at that time, I’ll want keepsakes from those good things but won’t have any left. So I think that I need to keep things. But since I don’t know what times I’ll remember as good, I think I need to keep it all or I’ll regret throwing things away. But throwing away is what I want to do right now, with all of it. Or burn it. Or smash it.

My counselor looked me in the eyes after I told her of this fear of regret, and she told me what it turns out I already knew, deep inside: because of what my ex-husband did to me, my memory of my marriage is forever changed. I can’t go back. I might remember good times, but my relationship with my ex-husband will always be tainted. And the things that I fear might be meaningful, they aren’t going to be. They’re painful memories now, and they’ll stay that way. I knew that she was right, and the truth made me angry and frustrated with myself.

I find that I’m ashamed of how much I put into dating my ex-husband, how much I put into our marriage. I find that I’m ashamed I loved him after he hurt me so much and that I wasted sixteen years of my life on him. I want more than anything to go back and change things, to have a redo so that I don’t have to feel the anger and sadness and pain inside me right now. At the height of this fantasy of mine, I go back to my nineteen-year-old self and tell me to walk away, or I tie me up and drag me away if I won’t listen. I keep accusing myself of having been stupid. I keep muttering “what ifs”: what if I’d never met him; what if I’d gone to a different college; what if I’d broken up with him; what if I’d left my marriage sooner?

I know this is not the correct method for healing. Logically, I know I can’t get lost in hoping for things that aren’t possible. Those sixteen years are gone. I loved him the best I knew how. And now we’re divorced and I have a new life ahead of me. I need to move on. When I can shut down the shame, I know that new life is what I should be focusing on. When I can’t, the past swallows me whole. I know all of these things, and yet I’m still very sad and still blindly wish I could change things.

This is not something I can fix with advice from my counselor or unconditional love from my grandma. It’s not something that will heal because of sheer willpower. I hurt. I have regrets. I’m angry and I’m sad. These things aren’t going away anytime soon. So I think what I need to do right now, tonight, is to allow myself to feel all of this, to tell the truth about the way I feel and about the things I want. I can’t face them or deal with them until I admit they’re there. It wasn’t until I confessed to my counselor about my fears that I understood my marriage would never be good again. And it wasn’t until I understood that that I could be honest with myself about how I see my marriage now.

It’s all a process, like writing a book. You write a little and then delete most, if not all, of what you wrote, and then you write something better. You take three steps toward healing, stumble back two or three or even fall on your ass, but then you get up, dust yourself off, and take four steps forward again. Inch by inch, fall after fall, I know I’m moving toward healing. It’s exhausting. But I know if I can accept what exists inside me, allow me to be me, and be honest about it all, I’m already better off than I ever was in the sixteen years I was in love.

My friend didn’t know that sharing his Valentine’s date plans would make me sad, that they’d make me think more about what this “holiday” means to me this year compared with the past so many. But he didn’t know there would be a silver lining either, that his words would loosen my tongue and give me the wherewithal to be honest. For that, I am grateful.

Unfreezing

Rough days come in many shapes and sizes. Sometimes they’re caused by people or stressors outside of ourselves; sometimes they’re caused by what’s within. Sometimes both. Sometimes they freeze us so completely we can’t go forward or backward. Sometimes they last 72 hours.

I’ve been having one of those days, but I’m inching my way out of it, bit by bit, and wanted to share how, because I know I’m not alone. My advice, ask for help (you don’t have to do it alone); ask for prayer (if this is a thing you do); do the next tangible, logical thing (for me this morning, this was getting out of bed and making breakfast and coffee); and then the next thing and the next; and go slow (stop to take care of yourself between each thing if you need to). Most importantly, be brave.

The problems, concerns, worries, sadness don’t go away in this, but I am moving, not frozen, which means I’ll be able to change, deal with, cope with, fix things in time—my time.