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.
Occasionally 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.
It 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.