Monday, January 20, 2014

In Pursuit of Perfection

I couldn’t sleep. I laid there in the dark with my stomach in knots, dreading the sunrise. They would see my face without make-up and my tangled hair. They would see my puffy eyes and the pillow creases on my face.

They would see me.

My skin prickled and my legs twitched with the urge to run, but there was nowhere to go. I contemplated getting up early and sneaking into the bathroom before anyone awoke. Maybe I could quickly run a brush through my hair and swipe on some mascara. And maybe dab some concealer under my eyes. No, they would definitely notice and make fun of me for getting up early to primp. I felt under my pillow to make sure my hair brush was still hidden there, just in case I changed my mind. I gripped the handle, closed my eyes and tried to sleep.

I was on a weekend retreat with my church youth group at a family’s cabin. All the girls slept upstairs, the boys downstairs. Sleeping bags, blankets and pillows covered every inch of space. It was impossible to wake up without being seen. I was thirteen years old.

At this young, vulnerable age, I had already set the bar impossibly high for myself. The standard of perfection had been established long before. It didn’t occur to me on that sleepless night that everyone else would also have messy hair and puffy eyes in the morning and wouldn’t even notice mine. I didn’t occur to me that waking up looking disheveled was a perfectly acceptable human flaw, and not even a flaw at all. While everyone else slept soundly, I crumbled into a big ball of shame.

My pursuit of perfection was not just limited to my physical appearance. I also felt the need to get straight A’s and master everything I attempted with ease. Failure was never an option. The teenage girl I portrayed was extroverted and energetic, but inside I constantly second guessed myself. I always worried that I said the wrong thing or came off the wrong way. I met every social situation with trepidation and a fear of being exposed for the imperfect human that I am. In my mind, perfect equaled lovable, and anything less was unforgivable.

While everyone else busily rolled up their sleeping bags and started the day, I attempted to fade into the background of their lively chatter. I whipped out my hidden hair brush and smoothed my tangled hair as quickly and discretely as I could. Then the dreaded moment came.

“Okay, Missy, let’s see you.” The snotty voice belonged to “Sarah,” another girl in the youth group who gave me the hardest time. I sat up and looked at her, expressionless, waiting for her lay out all my flaws for everyone to see. “Ugh,” she said as she rolled her eyes and turned away. “Even when you wake up, you’re perfect.”

A mixture of emotions tumbled through me with Sarah’s comment. I didn’t want anyone to notice my flaws, but I certainly didn’t want anyone to think I was perfect either, even though that’s exactly what I was striving for. People don’t like perfect people – Sarah made that perfectly clear. In that moment, my desire became to not be noticed at all.

Logically, I realized that perfect did not, in fact, equal lovable – quite the opposite, but I didn’t know how to change. Almost twenty-two years after that awful weekend, I still fight the voice in my head that shames me for being less than perfect. The voice has gotten quieter with age and maturity, but I’ve yet to master self-acceptance completely. As I have gotten older, I’ve learned to let go of many of my insecurities, however motherhood has unleashed a whole slew of new ones with which I battle daily.

I’m hoping that 2014 brings positive change as I start to get better at accepting myself – not necessarily so others will find me lovable, but so that I can love myself. That’s why I chose “kindness” for my 2014 theme word, with a strong focus on being kind to myself. And since there isn’t a Perfectionists’ Anonymous support group I can join, I will document my journey to self-acceptance here on my blog, and if anyone else out there is on the same journey, you will find support here.