Thursday, October 13, 2022
I have spent a lot of my life in a state of fear.
Fear of being left.
Fear of my caregivers not being able to provide for me.
Fear that I wouldn’t get into the right schools, get the right job, find the right partner, and do life “right.”
For whatever reason (childhood trauma, white-dominant culture), perfectionism has been the name of the game for me. And, for many years, I have been rewarded for perfectionism.
When I control my body, I receive praise and admiration for the physique I’ve shaped.
When I control my grades and performance at work or in school, I am promoted, given raises, or receive admission into programs that others with lesser GPAs cannot access.
I gain a level of privilege in a society that rewards perfectionism. I don’t consider myself a victim in this regard; but I have been shaped, as we all have, by our culture
I do not blame society for my internalized perfectionism, heteronormative expectations, or desire to achieve perfection. I do not blame my childhood trauma for the unrelenting need to control all possible variables before opening myself up to a potentially threatening experience. I don’t even blame the Catholic Church for making me think I needed to be perfect in order to “get into Heaven,” although I do give them credit for a wonderful behavioral-modification tactic. No, I do not blame any of these circumstances for the mindset in which I find myself today. I’m sure part of the Type-A-ness is just how I was born. It is just as much Nature’s doing as Nurture’s. What I am saying, however, is that at age 30 I am just NOW realizing how much of my behavior has been driven by fear of not being good enough, fear of not being perfect, and fear that somehow my own actions will result in emotional pain and distress. And so, for many years, I’ve been immobilized by fear without even knowing it.
Now that I’ve woken up to this fact, I am honestly shocked. How could I not have seen how afraid I was? How could I not have noticed every time I said “no” when I wanted to say “yes?” How could I have been so blind to my own internal feelings of distress and chaos? Perhaps the trauma response of disassociation contributed to it; if I left my body, I couldn’t feel anything. I couldn’t feel when I was scared. I couldn’t feel when I was excited. I was so disconnected from feeling anything. In this state of disconnect, I had lived a “successful” life. Even in a state of disassociation, I make money, I have friends, and if I never doubt or question my behaviors I can lead a very mediocre, even amiable existence. But additional trauma in my early twenties led me to start questioning: is this all there is? Is there another way to live? There must be something I am missing.
And so, I dug. I read. I researched. My fear and anxiety acted as fuel to accumulate more and more knowledge. I wrote (still do). I tried to conceptualize an understanding of what it means to be alive because actually feeling the sensations of living in and being connected to my body was too much to process, too much to handle. The visceral feelings that accompany joy were too high of highs; similarly, the depths of depression were too low of lows. I couldn’t be in my body. I didn’t want to be here. The distress of emotional vulnerability was too much for me to tolerate and so, I disassociated. The lights were on but nobody was home. Even during my sobriety, there was a level of emotional disconnect that could not be found in talk therapy or other healing modalities.
Then, during the pandemic, I started surfing.
I was scared SHITLESS of the ocean. I never went in past my ankles. Fear took over my ability to act and I did not try something I’ve wanted to try forever because, you know, sharks. But then, COVID-19 swept the globe and I realized, truly, that I could die any moment. Might as well try surfing while I was still alive. It was the actual meditation on death that encouraged me to live more of my life, to expand. The shortened timeline. Ending my 20s. Reflecting on the fact that life could end at any moment seriously improved the quality of my day-to-day life.
This isn’t some new approach to living. Buddhists and Stoics and many different cultures and religions meditate on death with regularity. There is a well-known Buddhist meditation technique where you go to a graveyard and sit amongst the stones, contemplating your own eventual demise. Taking time to ponder what others might say at your funeral is less about what people actually think of you and what you think of yourself. Will people say you were brave? Loving? Bold? Kind? Or will people say you lived a quiet, small life? Will people say that you struggled a lot and never got the help you knew you needed because you felt like you didn’t deserve it? Will people say they are happy that you are no longer suffering?
I realized this morning that life is not in our control. That’s very antithetical to when Western Culture tells us, “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” We hear through consumer messaging and the way our socioeconomic systems are setup that we must be perfect to succeed, that we have the power to choose exactly what type of life we will have. And, in some respects, we do. But it’s not the whole story. You can move to the city you want to live in, get the dream job you’ve always wanted, and be pursuing your own myopic goals and self interests when suddenly you get an illness. A loved one dies. A global pandemic affects the hearts and lives of every living human being and “life as we know it” becomes altered in a matter of moments. The only power we retain in those moments is the power to choose if we go with the flow or if we let fear and worry make our worlds smaller and smaller. We can choose to accept the situation (“life on life’s terms”) as my AA friends would say, and make the most of it. We are not in control. Fear-driven behavior gives us the illusion of control when we’re acting out. We act in hopes of avoiding negative outcomes more than we act in hopes of creating positive outcomes. What if, instead, we trusted? What if we believed that maybe, just maybe, we might catch a wave instead of being thrown to the reef below? What if we trusted our bodies and the intelligence of our DNA to guide us through life? What if we thought a little less, and felt a little more? What if?
These are all realizations that accompany a recent injury to my spine. I’ve had to stop and think. Stop and FEEL for the first time in a while. My daily life has been interrupted. I’ve been given the opportunity to reflect upon how I’ve been living my life. With nothing to do but time, I am able to see how my own perfectionist tendencies and fear-based behavior affects the people I love. The people I want to love. The people with whom I seek emotional support and vulnerability.
You see, I have expected perfection from myself for a long time. I’ve rarely approached any activity without a goal. Trying voice lessons? It’s because I want to pursue a career as a singer. Learning how to surf? It’s because I want to become a professional surfer one day. There are so few things I do for the actual experience of doing it. There is always a goal. There is always a hidden agenda. There is always a different reason behind what I’m doing what I do except to get to a place I want to be. However, this pattern of behavior is HORRIBLE in relationships. And I’ll tell you why.
If I expect myself to be perfect, I subconsciously expect my partner to be perfect, too. I expect them to communicate exactly how I communicate. I expect them to understand my needs without expressing them. When triggered, I act like a child (an infant, really) in my belief that they exist to take care of my emotional, physical, and spiritual needs and that I am not responsible for doing this on my own. I can be a codependent dickhead who can’t even see when I’m putting unfair expectations on someone who is simply trying to love me. I make it impossible for people to love me because I cannot love myself unless I am perfect. And so, I exist in a cycle where I wait for someone else to prove I am lovable, because if they love me maybe I can love me. And if they don’t love me, I get angry because they’ve either reflected back to me my own imperfection or, worse, they’ve proven my worst fear and made it come to life: that I am unlovable. I sound fun, right?
This is a child’s mind. This is the mind of a 6-year-old girl who lost the core unity of her family when her parents got divorced. This is the mind of a child who can’t imagine the complexities of life and relationships and who decides that she must be the reason there is so much pain and suffering in the world. She must be the reason her dad acted the way he did. She must be the reason her parents aren’t together. She must be the problem. And, if she is the problem, maybe she can be twisted and warped into somehow being the solution as well. Maybe if she becomes perfect, she can fix everything. Maybe if she achieves enough, gets the best grades, has the prettiest hair and the fittest body, everyone around her will behave in the way she expects. Maybe she can have some power or control over how people around her behave if only she is perfect. And so, for the last 24 years, this has been part of my MO. This has been the behavior fueling the 4.0 GPA, the career tenacity, the endless, ENDLESS striving (have you seen the name of this website?). And now, at age 30, I’m realizing that this no longer works. Learning must occur for behavior to shift. Learning can become more difficult as we age. As I get more set in my ways the more afraid I become to learn, to shift, to adopt a new approach to life. But it must be done not only to survive, but to have a chance at real joy, freedom, and happiness occurring before I (inevitably) die.
So, what do I have to learn now? I have to learn that other people’s behavior cannot be controlled by my actions. I cannot manipulate someone into wanting to be with me by learning all the things they like and pretending I like them too. I cannot avoid painful or hurtful behavior from others by being kind, agreeable. I cannot continue to shape-shift into what I think people want me to be in order to receive a pleasant reaction from them. I cannot lie about what I like and do not like. As a matter of fact, I have to get to know myself more than I ever have. And that, for someone that’s avoided emotional presence and intimacy, is terrifying.
But so is surfing.
Most days, if I want to, I do it anyway.
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