Yesterday, I embarked on another EMDR journey–this time, in an attempt to get to the bottom of my perfectionism. The journey itself was not as traumatic and difficult as some of the others have been, and images did come swimming before my closed eyes. One image–of a high cinder block wall that I was trying to scale, jump off of, and leave behind–seems especially relevant in my attempt to escape my little town, where I was known, had history, and, most likely, very few secrets. Breaking into my cliquish peer group as an outsider was never something that I feel like I completely achieved, and my experiences of being bullied, not fitting in, and then trying to prove myself and be better than some of them, certainly contributed to my feelings of inferiority and judgment.
So, while this was telling to me, these are not the moments that stood out to me during this EMDR session.
No. . .
The moment that stands out to me–the one that lights up all of my emotions and is now making me a weepy, overwhelmed mess, came at the end of the session, when my therapist was helping me realize all the things that I have accomplished.
She said, “I want you to close your eyes, and think of all of the things you have accomplished in your life…”
I sat there, feeling the taps on the tops of my hands, and images of winning speech and debate awards, of graduating top of my class, came flying before my eyes. Immediately, my first thought was bitter–these accomplishments, while important to me, are now forever marred by the knowledge and cost of my perfectionism.
Just as I began to have that realization, my therapist continued:
“You are a great mother. A good wife. A compassionate person. A kind friend.”
And, in that moment, something clicked for me–a sudden realization that I do not even consider these intrinsic things as accomplishments. I minimize the good attributes or, worse, feel like I am simply a fraud or a fake when someone describes me this way.
At the end of my session, I was abuzz with feelings that I could not name. Honestly, I did not know what I was feeling. I felt normal enough to be able to pull myself together, stand up, say goodbye, and get into my car to head to my daughter’s school to pick her up.
As I was driving, however, images of all the perceived failings and failures in my life came flashing in front of my eyes, along with the realization that I NEVER let the good things shape me. My life, to me, is defined by all of the bad things that have happened, however slight they have been.
As I pulled up to my daughter’s school, a mere mile away from my counselor’s office, I was already in tears. Waves of shame hit me.
I…who am a self proclaimed optimist.
I…who am bright and sunny (most of the time).
I…am secretly full of self hate and doubt and judgement.
It took this moment of realization. Not only do I lack self-compassion, I lack the ability to see the good in myself.
I could not sleep last night. As I lay, tossing and turning, in the wee hours of the morning, thinking all these thoughts and literally being pissed and frustrated with myself, I tried to draw connections to my realization and my need for appearing perfect.
That is when I also realized that I have never set my own value, or my own self-worth. Feedback from teachers, from grades, has always mattered to me. But not even the positive feedback has made me feel like a better person–sure, there are times when I have felt proud and smart–but the positive feedback has merely been checked and then cast aside with relief.
Instead, it is the negative feedback, the criticisms–constructive or not–that have defined and shaped who I am. Those moments of failure, in my eyes, have continually pushed and fueled my desire to always do my best–and those are the moments that I have taken in, internalized, and tried so hard to fight against.
The positive feedback works to tell me that I am not failing. But, no matter how many times someone tells me I am good at something, or a good person, I shrug it off. That does not carry the same weight, the same meaning, as someone who tells me that I am terrible, not valuable, or not good at something.
I only hear the bad. I only believe the bad…and, to make things worse, this realization makes me hate myself just a little bit more…because I have been doing it without even realizing it.