As the door closed and my parents’ disappointed faces disappeared from my view, I got really focused. My mission? To prove that they must have gotten it wrong. I really was perfect, and all was actually well.
I was mortified. I had reached the ripe old age of 7 without ever having been sent to my room. I mean, I was a good girl.
I simply could not accept the fall from grace.
I wonder what most kids do when they get sent to their rooms. I never asked my friends or siblings what they did. I imagine some kids might cry for a bit. Others might find something to play with. Others might freak out and have a tantrum until a parent comes back to let them out or help them calm down.
Not me. I quickly hatched a plan that would earn me so much praise that this minor blip in my record would be immediately expunged and we could all go back to normal.
I couldn’t have been in there for any more than 15 minutes, but in that time I cleaned my room from top to bottom. Everything got put away. Clothes in their right drawers. Books on the shelf, in alphabetical order. Bed made. Everything in its right place.
But still, I felt I needed to do more. This was the time to go above and beyond. Suddenly, it hit me. I should line all my stuffed animals up around the perimeter of my room as a sincere gesture worthy of complete redemption.
When my parents came to retrieve me after my penance was paid, my plan worked like a charm.
Their stern faces melted as they fawned, “Oh, Brigid. Look at this. You’re such a good girl. What were we thinking?”
That was the only time I was sent to my room as a kid.
As you can see, my roots in perfectionism run deep. For as long as I can remember, I needed to be favoured. Not only did I glow in my parents’ approval, but I practically burst out of my skin with pride when teachers raved about me.
My proudest moment was winning the citizenship award in the fourth grade. As Monsieur Attrell called me on stage to accept my award, I beamed. As if the moment couldn’t get any better, he then shook my hand and gave me a hardcover copy of The Last Unicorn. An award for being a good person? Yes, please.
I was smart and I was good. When it came to getting that affirmed, I was like a moth to a flame. The top priority was pleasing authority figures. Looking back, I think it almost became an addiction.
And that worked while I was in school. I mean, so much of the system is based on following rules and structures and living up to expectations. I got really good at that.
I had no idea that it would stop serving me at a certain point. I had no idea that this habit of striving for perfection as a means to secure my place would end up being the thing that stopped me from following my heart. I had no idea that it would contribute to my intense sensitivity to feedback. Even the most compassionately-delivered constructive criticism felt like a personal attack, a threat to my identity and my place in the world.
My perfectionism was why I was good. This is why I was worthy. This is why people liked me. This is why I would do well in life.
Or at least, that’s what I used to believe – and for good reason.
Perfectionism is not a character flaw. When we don’t feel safe or supported to make mistakes or to be imperfect, the stress response kicks in. It feels like there’s a threat to our survival, and so we figure out a way to regain our sense of safety. Because we are social animals, our safety largely depends on having a place in the group. If we’re shunned by our family or by our boss, we could find ourselves without access to the resources we need for survival. And if we’re flawless, surely everything will work out, right?
It feels really intense in the moment, doesn’t it?
“If I don’t prove my worth, I’ll get fired and end up homeless.”
“If they reject me, I won’t have a sense of community.”
“If I’m not perfect, they’ll see that I’m unworthy and I’ll be on my own.”
Looking back at that time I got sent to my room and cleaned it up, I see that I was trying to keep myself safe in the bubble I had come to know as my own. Somewhere along the line, I had internalized the idea that everything would be fine as long as I was perfect. If I stopped being perfect, who knows? Uncertainty is no fun, even though it’s a fact of life. My mission was to eliminate uncertainty by being beyond reproach.
If I could go back in time and talk to that little girl, I would tell her….
You don’t need to be perfect to be loved.
You were born worthy.
It’s ok to make mistakes – that’s how we learn.
There’s a difference between doing a bad thing and BEING bad.
Imperfection is part of the human experience.
These messages can be hard to take in, even as adults.
How about you? Can you let those words in? Can you sense your worthiness now, even in your imperfection?