I knew I was a perfectionist from a very early age. In this video, I share my first memory of my perfectionism, and the very important lessons I’ve learned over the years as I learned to unsubscribe from my inner critic’s fears.
It only happened once. None of us can even remember why, but we remember that it happened.
The year was 1983. I was such a good girl. So polite. Well-behaved. A parent’s dream.
But one day, something happened. Something so out of character that my parents made a bold move. I mean, they couldn’t stand by and just let me get away with it, whatever it was. So they took a stand. They took a stand and for the first time and the only time, they sent me to my room.
If I close my eyes, it’s like I’m there again. I can see the pale yellow wall paper with peachy flowers on it. I can feel the ropey texture of the carpet beneath my feet. I can hear the click of the door closing as my parents left me to think about what I had done.
More than that? I remember how I felt. At the tender age of four, with tears welling up in my eyes, I knew I had disappointed them. I needed to fix it. Just sitting there in my room wouldn’t cut it, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to play with my toys like some normal kid. Oh no. I had to prove myself. So I devised a plan.
“If I clean my room,” I thought to myself, “they’ll realize that they made a mistake. They’ll see that I’m not a bad girl, and all will be forgiven. Everything will go back to normal and I can be perfect again.”
So I gathered my Barbie dolls – they were vintage, hand-me-downs from my mother – and put them back in their cases. I arranged the furniture in my dollhouse just so. I looked around, still not quite satisfied that I had done enough. This was a good start, but I had to go big. It had to be perfect.
In a flash of brilliance, I knew what I had to do. I took all my stuffed animals and lined them up around the perimeter of the room. My Cabbage Patch kid with her brown pigtails and pink dress. My Care Bare – the one with the rainbow on its belly. The bunny rabbit, the stuffed elephant, and all the others too. It was a demonstration of my goodness. A testament to my perfection.
My parents were in for quite a surprise! I sat there and I pictured the door opening as they took in the scene. Their perfect daughter had done the perfect thing and really was perfect after all.
And you know what? It worked. They came in, their eyes lit up, and all was forgiven. “You’re such a good girl! Why did we ever send you to your room?”
I soaked in the delicious praise I was so accustomed to receiving. It felt like home.
But here’s the thing. I don’t remember what I did wrong. That part didn’t stick. In my rush to prove my goodness, I missed the part where I was supposed to grow. I skipped right over the lesson so we could get back to the part where I was good.
And that pattern continued for many years. I became very well-practiced at putting on a good show so nobody would focus on my flaws. And it became more than a show. I upped my game and learned to be really hard on myself, thinking that would protect me even more.
The voice in my head had so many expectations.
You should be perfect. You shouldn’t make mistakes. You shouldn’t disappoint people.
It was exhausting. And not just for me.
It got to the point that, on more than one occasion, people I care about have told me that they didn’t address issues with me because they knew I’d be harder on myself than they would be, and so they just let it slide.
I was so good at shoulding on myself that people just left me to it.
Little did I know that by trying to shut my shadow away, I was shutting down my resilience. In expecting myself to be the embodiment of perfection, I robbed myself of the mental and emotional flexibility I would need to fail forward and come out stronger.
I had to drop the armour. The inner critic had to go. So I fired her.
I traded self-criticism for self-compassion, and that has made all the difference.
My four year old self would be surprised. She’d be surprised to know that…
I swear a lot.
I sometimes eat my feelings.
I screen my phone calls.
I don’t have an insta-worthy morning routine.
Sometimes I hurt people. Not on purpose, but I do.
Why am I telling you this?
Because I know that to make it through this life, I need to be willing to look at my shadow. Instead of being so caught up in fear of how people perceive me, I need to take responsibility for my choices. And the only way I can do that is if I take an honest look at myself through compassionate eyes. To look at the parts that I’d prefer to keep hidden away, and to approach them with kindness and curiosity.
My 4 year old self didn’t know it, but now I do.
Resilience requires us to leave our shame at the door and to sit with uncomfortable truths. Only then do we get the gift of bouncing back better.