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.


A Question by the Sea

view of Italian roadThe cursor blinks tauntingly at me. My page is blank. On the horizon, the sun is rising over the Mediterranean, beginning another impossibly beautiful day. In the distance a woman calls to someone in a language I can’t understand. A man yells back a curt response. On the road below my balcony, a scooter flies by, nearly colliding with a semi-truck that is much too large for the road space. The sky and the sea stretch endlessly before me, competing with one another for the prize of “most brilliant blue.”

I close my eyes, feel the sun warm my face. “I can do this,” I tell myself.

It’s 2014. Despondent and in need of drastic action to correct my life’s course, I’m on a three-month sabbatical from work. I’ve traveled around the world, visiting new and familiar places, working my way through a writing program designed to help me uncover past patterns so I can use them to outline my desired future. Things had been going reasonably well, I was nearing the end. Through weeks of emotional exhaustion, brutal honesty with myself, and an intense commitment to writing, I had completed every piece of the program with the exception of the question that troubled me, “Describe your ideal mate.”

With another sip of coffee, hands poised to type, I let my mind wander back in time, three years earlier, to the darkest period of my life. The time that makes this question hard to answer.

“I want a divorce,” he says. “I don’t see things changing for me and I can’t keep you in limbo as I try to figure out my life.” The words hang in the air. I hear a clock ticking in the distance, mocking as it marks this moment in time. “How odd,” I think, “I don’t remember owning a clock that ticks.” I let go of the breath I didn’t know I was holding.

Part of me knew this was coming. We had danced around the topic for a year, always stopping just short of a decision. We’d had this exact conversation before. A few times.

“I’ll figure out the paperwork, get it to you to sign,” he says standing and moving towards the door.

I nod once, staring into the space he just left. I focus on the grime on the window, visible now that he’s moved. Willing myself not to cry, I pick out the shape of a rabbit, then a clown.

“I’m sorry. Really. This isn’t how I expected life to go,” he says softly.

“I know,” I whisper back.

I can’t turn and face him. It’s too hard to watch him walk away. I straighten my spine, using my last ounce of strength to stay upright as he leaves.

I hear the basement door close, his truck start, and the motor’s acceleration as he pulls away. I listen as it retreats into the distance, wanting to hang on to the last familiar sound before facing the new world around me. In its absence a thick silence descends. The window grime clown changes back into a rabbit. A tear slips free. Then another. “Is the rabbit crying? Wait. No, that’s me.” The thoughts tumble, each one odder than the next until I let the truth in.

It’s really over.

I collapse on the couch, letting the sobs long held inside flow. Their escape allows space for the darkness to descend.

Darkness that will stay with me for years.

balcony tableBack on the Mediterranean balcony, I let my mind wander to that memory. I relive the way it felt, the details somehow unmarred by the passage of time.

My thoughts drift to a time one month later when with a final signature, I sign away my marriage and with it my sense of self-worth, ushering in three years of listless drifting as I struggle to rediscover who I am.

Moments from those years flash in and out in quick succession. I let them run free, seeing where they take me. I journey through times I turned to God then alcohol, cycling between the two as I sought answers or relief.

To moments I cried myself to sleep, crumpled in the fetal position on the floor, certain I had no strength left to continue another day. To days when I couldn’t get out of bed, overwhelmed by the energy it would take to fake my way through the day so the world felt comfortable around me.

I relive moments under the vast Montana sky as I lay in my hammock, hummingbirds fluttering about my head, strangely interested in the sound of my tears.

I reluctantly follow my thoughts to the face of a man I dated after, desperately seeking evidence I was lovable. A man I traveled to the other side of the world to forget. A man who reinforced my belief I deserved nothing more than to be used, cheated on, and left behind. A man who kept my heart broken.

Ideal mate?” I ask myself, “Is there such a thing? Love causes so much pain.”

I scroll past the question, slightly uncomfortable leaving a portion unfinished.

I hesitate.

Scroll back up.


The cursor blinks in the space where my answer should be.

“Yeah, but…what if?” The question filters up from the farthest corner of my heart, lingering. I gaze out over the sea, spot a couple of birds flying by. I’m torn between self-protection and hope, at war with myself.

I’m tired of being sad. I’m tired of love hurting. If I avoid it, never let anyone in, I can ensure that won’t happen. It’s safe,” argues my mind.

“Yeah, but…what if?” whispers my heart.

The question catches me off guard. My heart had recently joined forces with my head on this issue, what was happening?

“What if?” my heart persists.

 “What if what?” logic snaps back, “You know, whatever. It’s your funeral. Besides, it isn’t as if by writing it you actually have to do let anyone in, it’s just a silly exercise.”

 With little to draw from, I start. Grudgingly at first, describing someone the complete opposite of everyone I had known.

My ideal partner would love me unconditionally. He would care about the things that are important to me just because they were important to me. He would love to travel with me. He would share a compassion for the poor and have a strong sense of justice.”

“Be more specific,” my heart chimes in. “What do you want? No one will read this. Tell the truth.”

I dig deeper and continue on, describing someone so perfect for me I would have to be in a Disney movie for him to exist.

He would open doors for me and help me with my coat. He would be tender and affectionate. He would treat me as though I was the only woman in the room, having eyes only for me. He would have a healthy relationship with alcohol. He would be comfortable with people and also alone. He would be smart, able to engage in intellectual conversation. He would be successful in his own way. He would be comfortable with what he contributes and not be threatened if I make more money than him. He would not take advantage of that either. He would admit his flaws and what he has learned from hard times in his life. He would be honest, real, raw, and confident.

I write. Then I forget about it.

I return home from my sabbatical and find myself sucked into the same behaviors, repeating the same patterns, unable to maintain the clarity of my time away in the midst of real life’s expectations. My friend despair creeps back in as I work hard to convince myself I’m happy. Despite a profound life experience, nothing feels different.

With one tiny exception. On that balcony, I let my heart write what it yearned for.

Maybe that’s why, one year later, while most of me worked overtime to keep Kris at arm’s length, one small piece looked out from behind the wall I’d carefully constructed around my heart and recognized him. Recognized him as the one I had written about. The ideal man I didn’t believe could possibly exist.

He was real. And he had found me.

Life hasn’t been all butterflies and roses since then. I continue to struggle with feeling unworthy of unconditional love. A sharp word of criticism spirals me into dark places in my head, where I easily beat myself up for perceived failings. My history and the scars attached to it travel with us as we build a life together, part of the baggage I carry.

But as we work together to heal my wounds, I begin to see my baggage and that season of time differently. Instead of being the end, it provides a stark contrast to this happier season, making its brilliance brighter and sweeter.

Recently I stood on a mountain roadside with Kris and his kids, twisting a decoder ring they claimed to have found. Its message actually written for me, “I love you. Sara, will you marry me?”

For the briefest beat the last six years replayed in my mind, moments and memories flashing in quick succession. Overhead a bird sang as I looked at the man who waited so patiently while I healed my heart, tenderly nurturing me along the way. I realized over time I had sewn all those painful moments into a beautiful tapestry. Into the woman I was designed to be.

The years hadn’t defined me, they had refined me.