Curse of the Gold Star

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The room is hot, unbearably hot. The lights dim as I sink into pigeon pose. A bead of sweat traces a path towards my eye as I lower my head to my mat. Wiping it away I focus on my breath, silencing my overactive mind. I hear the instructor’s voice as he circles the room, zeroing in on a student to guide into the pose. He is moving my way.

“Pick me, pick me,” a thought budges in. He takes a step closer. “Pick me, pick me,” it whispers again. I take a deep breath, refocus. He steps behind me. “Yes! We got picked! We win!” a chorus of voices in my head sing as they do a collective happy dance. I shake them off, trying to focus on the instructor’s hands on my back, guiding me lower into the stretch, readjusting my pose for maximum benefit. I breathe deeply, exhale fully.

Walking to the car after class, my fiancé Kris mumbles, “I never get picked. You always get picked.” A fleeting moment of smug triumph flashes through my mind before I catch it, an automatic response leftover from my childhood, just like the voices desperate to be picked. Neither are welcome, these roots of my perfectionism, for they remind me how far I still have to go to be free of them.

As we begin our drive home, watching the sun rise on the horizon, I let my mind drift back to my earliest memory, one that set me on my perfectionist path.

I’m sitting at a table surrounded by other students in a cozy room. The walls around me are dark wood and shelves of books line the perimeter, leading to an elevated reading area in one corner. A small sink sits near the work area, ready for little hands to use. Outside an open window I can hear Candy Mae, the farm school cow, munching her breakfast. I adore her.

We sit shoulder to shoulder, weaving paper placemats. I’ve chosen my paper strips and colors carefully, using only the best pieces with the flattest edges. I work slower than my peers, wanting to get it right. My brow furrows as I concentrate, lining up the pieces carefully, weaving the pattern perfectly. One by one those around me complete the task and run off to enjoy free time. I labor on, pushing the pieces together tightly, careful not to rip the paper. Over and under, over and under. No spilled milk is getting through my placemat.

IMG_2654Occasionally a teacher walks by to check on me, murmurs a few encouraging words and moves on to mitigate a crisis brewing in another part of the room.

The last one at the table, I weave the final strip into place, pulling it tight against its neighbor. I pause. Take one last look. Wiggle a piece into a straighter line. Give my head a small nod. It is my best work to date. I sit quietly proud of myself, waiting for a teacher to excuse me. She comes over, takes a look at my work, reaches over my shoulder and adds something to the right hand corner of my placemat. As she pulls her hand away, it glistens, reflecting the lights overhead, shining up at me.

My first gold star.

IMG_2652It mesmerizes me with its beauty, instantly turning my placemat into a treasured piece of art. My pride in my work soars to a new level. An addicting level. I sit a little straighter. Smile. I take my placemat gently to my cubby, place it carefully next to my things. The star twinkles up at me.

I want another one.

Back in the car, I rest my head on the side window, letting the passing neighborhoods blur into stripes of color. I feel sad for that girl, my younger self. That moment started her on an exhausting path, a path chasing gold stars and their equivalents for decades.

Each one became more important than the last because somewhere along the way I stopped seeing them for what they were, validation of my mastery of a subject, and started seeing them as validation for who I was as a person. They became something concrete I could point to as evidence I had worth when inside I was filled with insecurity.

I thought if I just kept earning them, one after another, I would always have value and never have to address my insecurities. Instead, I could point to my pile of gold stars and report cards filled with A’s as proof I was worthy.

But this strategy came with a price.

With each passing perfect year, the pressure to maintain that level of performance grew. Subjects became harder, tension mounted, my efforts tripled as I tried to avoid failure. Eventually perfectionism consumed me, limited me, kept me living in fear with its endless hunger for the next perfect grade.

I began to measure my worth by what I could provide for people and their corresponding validation. It started innocently enough. A perfectly woven placemat. A well written paper. Sharing my toys. A listening ear.

Yet with each passing year, the more I achieved, the higher my standard moved. Suddenly instead of a well written paper, I felt pressure to increase my annual commission, year after year. To lead my real estate team to the top spot in the market. To provide a comfortable home for my spouse. A fancy vacation. To obsessively count every calorie and log every treadmill mile to maintain a thin frame. To offer unlimited forgiveness for the consequences of addiction, no matter the pain it caused me.

Always striving to produce the perfect product, the perfect response, the perfect gift.

And I succeeded. For years. Never failing. Able to juggle and control everything. I went through life piling up gold stars.

In the end, it nearly crushed me. When I finally experienced my first real failure with my divorce, the first time I couldn’t perform my way to a gold star ending, my world fell apart. All the insecurities, dark places, and fears my gold stars had kept at bay for 35 years came flooding to the surface, sending me into a deep depression.

I floundered, convinced what I suspected all these years was true…I had no intrinsic value outside of what I could produce for others. And I didn’t have enough energy to perform.

So I stopped trying altogether.

I went through the motions at work but with little drive or interest. I hid from friends. I drank nightly, using alcohol to numb my overwhelming self-doubt. I paired myself with men who treated me poorly, certain I only deserved the most broken until I could earn my way to someone better.

I lived this way for months, years.

Until I found myself tipsy one night, sitting on the shower floor, crying as water poured over me, knowing the man I was with was outside the door on the phone with another girl and calling her baby, wondering what went wrong.

I had tried so hard. I had been so perfect. I had met every spoken and unspoken expectation of every person in my life. I had woven my life’s placemat well. Yet here I was, a shell of myself, drowning in despair on a cold tile floor.

In that moment, I remembered that sweet little girl smiling at her first gold star.

A gold star she never needed. She was already proud of her work. She knew she had done a good job and liked the end product. She didn’t need the validation that star had provided. She already knew she had value.

And she was still a part of me.

This journey to be brave, not perfect is a journey to find her again. To remember her. To hug her. To love her. To give her grace. To listen to her voice. To tell her she has value. With or without a straight placemat. With or without a ripped corner.

With or without a gold star.

Because in valuing her, I learn to value myself now.

With or without a high paying job.

With or without saving the world.

With or without an extroverted personality.

With or without a size 2 body.

With or without others’ gold stars of approval.

Valuable just because I’m me. A woman who is doing the best she can. One who is sometimes brave, never perfect, but always worthy.


Guest Blog – My Own Racism

Editor’s Note: Hannah Kaull is an alumni of Million Girl Army, my non-profit organization that transforms middle school girls into globally compassionate teens. She’s had a lot on her mind lately and I invited her to share. Hannah is dedicated to doing her part to make the world a better place. She is an inspiration and I think you’ll enjoy what she has to say.  – Sara



Whenever I even say the word, I feel tension in the room.

Why? Where in society did we go wrong? Why because of skin color do issues suddenly exponentially rise? What makes a person feel like they are superior based solely on the color of their skin?

I don’t know. I don’t have many answers. I wish I did. I wish I could change the way humans view each other. But I can’t. I don’t understand the thought process of my peers, the generations of people below and above me. However, I do know my thought process and my experiences. I can only speak for myself. And this is my story; a story of what I want to change.

I was raised in a predominately white community and being one of the only brown girls brought a set of challenges. As a young girl I wanted nothing to do with my skin color. I felt different, which is the last thing I wanted to feel navigating my way through elementary school as I attempted to make friends. I vividly remember tears streaming down my face as I realized I wasn’t like everyone else. That was just the start.

IMG_9558Through middle school, already an incredibly awkward time, I felt singled out because of my skin color. Sometimes it would be funny to joke about, other times teachers wanted me to tell them more about my “home country,” both challenging when I already felt like I stood out just going through the day. Then, the latter part of middle school when many of my friends starting getting more interested in boys, I worried no one would ever like me because of my darker complexion. And high school, where even as I begin I accept my skin color, embracing my difference, I remain aware I’m usually the darkest person in the room.

These are just little snippets of my life.

I did enjoy the attention. Sometimes. I liked when people seemed to genuinely want to know the backstory of where I came from. The jokes could be funny, I would usually laugh along, a lot of them I even made myself. I don’t think people even meant to be rude, I think their intention was good most of the time. It was just the way it was.

IMG_1607But, equally and if  not more, I didn’t want to feel like the odd one out. I didn’t always like to answer questions about where I was born. Because it was Bozeman, Montana. Not India. Maybe I didn’t like to be asked if my marriage was going to be arranged. Because it isn’t. So while the questions can be humorous, after a while maybe – just once – it would be nice to not feel as if people are staring at me or asking questions because of my skin tone.

The first time I went to New York City I realized there was a deep rooted issue boiling inside me. Around the age of ten as I got off the plane, I made a comment like, “These are my people.” It was the first distinct moment where I didn’t feel looked at because of my skin color. I wasn’t singled out. It was the first moment where I felt I could hold a conversation with another human being –  person to person – without race as the unspoken theme. At the age of ten.

Looking ahead, I see that a lot of my decisions about where and what I want to do are rooted in wanting diversity in my life, to be surrounded by more people of color. But in seeking this I also realized this …

I’m subconsciously racist.

I was talking to my mom about plans for college a few weeks ago and made a statement along the lines of, “I want to get out of a place with so many white people in one area.” And immediately, I realized I showed that same racist attitude I felt I have been shown my whole life. The comment may seem funny to some, rude to others. But it truly comes from a place of hurt.

And that’s a huge take away. As I put the blame on others because I feel insecure about my skin color, I end up doing the same thing to them.

This is a problem. It is a never ending cycle. Look at the news. Look at our political climate. I think we are all racist. You may not mean to be. But from our day-to-day lives and our life experiences we all lean to our tribe. When we start to swing too far to one end of the spectrum either focusing on the minorities or the majority, we encounter issues.

We need to find a middle ground. It is far from equal. I don’t know if it can ever be. I truly don’t think it will be. But I do think as much as we want to put the blame on other people for being racist, it needs to start within ourselves. How?

Change the small day-to-day comments.

Change the way you approach someone.

Change how you have a conversation.

Change the minor details of interactions you have with people.

Make a difference in the way you view race.

We are all human. We need to all be looked at as humans. I don’t care what your race is, your sexual preference,  or your socioeconomic background.

We all deserved to be loved equally.

We are all to blame for not sharing that love equally.

Just love.

Love regardless of anything, treating everyone as you would want to be treated. It’s a message every adult has been telling us over and over our whole lives.

Yet, maybe it’s time to do more than talk about it. Maybe it’s time to actually try it. It may be the only thing that could, over time, bring real change.

-Hannah Kaull, 16