“Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”
- Brené Brown
While last month’s letter presented a kind of bold and wild commitment to brave authenticity, this month gets into the nitty-gritty: my first roadblock. I chose the opening quote for this reason. So, without any ado, let’s begin.
Hello, my name is Gloria, and I am a perfectionist. (Sort of. Kind of. Not really, and yet totally. It’s hard to explain.)
You could come to my house and see a thousand things a typical perfectionist would never allow: poorly executed paint trim, toys everywhere, crooked pictures, clean laundry in piles that move daily from the floor to the bed and back again. There are typos all over my blog (and maybe here). I don’t brush my hair every day and I don’t always wear makeup. My entire external life is one big “I am not perfect!” and I like it that way. I like sticking it to the conformity man.
But make no mistake, I am a perfectionist. My perfectionism lives on the inside, deep down in the dark. It’s hard to reach, almost impossible to see, and it has been eating away at me for the better part of three decades. Turns out, there’s a word for this kind of thing. Mind you, I’ve resisted this word and its connotations for a long time. I’ve been certain this wasn’t my problem. I’ve all but prided myself on how I didn’t struggle with this thing, because I’m so externally, unapologetically imperfect (see above). And yet…
Shame. It’s shame. I have a shame problem.
Have you ever read a book or sat through a seminar about a topic and were certain you didn’t have the problem they were talking about, and felt so compassionate towards the people they were talking about, bless their hearts? Then sometime later you were driving along Highway 41 going 75 mph and it hits you like a semi-truck (but thankfully not a real semi-truck, like the one you almost sideswiped thanks to this new revelation) that they were talking about you the whole time? That is me after reading every Brené Brown book ever. (You remember Brené from my last letter, I hope, or perhaps you’ve heard of her from literally every media outlet available? Shame researcher/writer/speaker extraordinaire?)
Hello, my name is Gloria, and I am deeply ashamed of myself.
I talk a big game: shame is a liar, we are all works in progress, own your authenticity and weather your storms, mistakes are learning opportunities. Grace, grace, grace. I like to think that I’m good at offering this kind of grace to others. I like to think I offer this kind of grace to myself. Turns out, I do not.
I am bad at this. Like, really bad. Really, horribly bad.
What is your knee-jerk response after you’ve done something not-so-great? Do you also want to go into witness protection? Well, the past few months have seen what could be called an “unearthing” of lots of stuff. Crap. Shit, really. Unaddressed circumstances, unacknowledged feelings. In myself, in my marriage, in my parenting, in my extended family, in my friendships. On all sides. From everywhere. I have very real, very reasonable, very justified, and some very stupid “beefs,” if you will, with several people over these situations. (I’m trying to be vague. I know it doesn’t write well.) And of course, they also have very real, very reasonable, very justifiable, and some very stupid beefs with me. Because I, too, am not perfect and I, too, have done the crappy things. That’s life, right? We live, we do things, we learn, we try to do better. Lather, rinse, repeat.
But for the past few months I’ve stepped back from some people. I’ve taken a break. Maintained distance. It’s partly because the past summer (read: past several years) exhausted me and I have very little energy for (what I deem to be) bullshit. It’s partly because I don’t feel like explaining myself or defending myself whenever someone has a problem with a choice I have made. It’s mostly because it’s so much easier to just walk away.
I’m good at that. Like, really good. Really, horribly good.
If I’m being honest, this isn’t something I just started doing a few months ago. Distance is my modus operandi. It’s my jam. Because for all the talk about grace and forgiveness and being gentle with each other and ourselves, I still don’t get it. Somewhere inside of me, somewhere I can’t quite find or access, there’s still a little girl who believes that what she does is what she’s worth and that she isn’t worth much at all if (since) she doesn’t measure up.
Something inside of me is terrified of not being good enough. Something inside of me is certain that my mistakes are my personhood, that genuine acceptance is only offered if I’m something enough. I have a laundry list of moments in my life when I haven’t been something enough for someone else, and it grows with every passing day.
Often, I keep my distance because I’m afraid of being told what I’ve always feared: I’m broken. I’m the problem. My authentic self isn’t good enough. I’m not enough. I’m not worth it.
The thing is, I don’t feel that way about anyone else. The people I have “beefs” with, I don’t believe they’re not enough. I don’t believe they’re not worth it. I believe they’re flawed journeymen and journeywomen just like me, and of course they make mistakes. Of course they act irrationally sometimes. Of course they say and do hurtful things sometimes.
Something that’s important to understand about codependency is that for years – years – I was told that my anger and pain were always and only my fault. What’s more, everyone else’s anger and pain were also my fault. In self-defense, I tried to flip the narrative internally, to believe nothing was my fault. This is of course not true –I have contributed some things, and other people have contributed some things – but that is how shame works. When we’re too ashamed to accept ourselves and our contribution to a painful situation, we make it about everyone – anyone – else.
The thing is, I never believed the lie that nothing was my fault. Shame is a strong and vicious occupier and, as it turns out, I still believe the first one. Despite all the Brené Brown books!
It all goes back to that little girl’s fundamental belief about herself, that her worth is only as great as her ability to not be in the wrong, that she belongs only as long as she never makes anyone upset, that there is no recovering from a mistake.
Little girl, I don’t know why you didn’t get this message before, but your worth is greater than anything you could ever say or do. You belong to me and with me. You are me, and I love you.
I’ve been expecting external acceptance to translate into internal acceptance for thirty-plus years, and I’ve been sorely disappointed time and time again. What’s more, I’ve mistakenly believed that genuine acceptance (true belonging) depends on my external behavior. Friend, it comes from within. Before I can expect anyone else to love and accept me I need to learn how to love and accept myself, my whole self, my real, authentic self. It has to start with me.
All the love, the words, the compassion I show to my son who is constantly acting up and out (because he’s two and a half and it’s started, friend, send help), I have to say them to myself. “Yes, you did something hurtful but this is how we learn. You’ll make mistakes and that’s okay. I love you.”
Hello, my name is Gloria and I’m a recovering perfectionist.
Until next time, loves.