I spent years as a kid demanding perfection from myself and everyone else. My mom tells me I used to come home from kindergarten complaining about how stupid all the other kids were. I needed to achieve every goal perfectly. I needed to get straight A’s, I needed to get everything right on the first try, and I expected everyone else to do the same. I don’t think this came from any outside source. I wasn’t ever pushed to be the best. My parents, in fact, have always been wonderful about helping me and my siblings follow our own goals and interests. No, something in me demanded the impossible from me, and I set about trying to achieve it.
That’s probably a big part of why I had a nervous breakdown in second grade. No, really. There were other factors at play, but I think my own demands for perfection were at the heart of it. My anxiety was so high I was making regular trips to the hospital with crippling stomach cramps. I came home every day crying. I actually remember very little of this, but enough to know it really happened.
And I think that somewhere in there the drive for perfection became more than just a demand I put on myself. I implanted the idea that to be worthy of love, from myself or from anyone else, I needed to be perfect. Love was something I had to earn with perfection, and keep through never being anything less than perfect.
Growing up in a Southern Baptist church didn’t help either. The double pressure to be both “normal” (I tried, and I didn’t know how!) and perfect was terrible, but also played into the “truth” I’d created for myself.
That’s part of why I stayed in an abusive marriage for so long. I thought that if I just found exactly the right thing to do and always did it, then things would have to get better. If I provided the appropriate care for my mentally ill wife, she wouldn’t need to direct her manipulation and threats toward me any more. If I was perfect, things would be better.
I’ve spent a lot of time rebuilding myself since my divorce. It’s not easy. I still expect perfection from myself. I still convince myself that love is something I have to earn. Luckily I have two wonderful partners who do their best to disabuse me of that notion. Still, thirty years of self-programming that was reinforced by a fundamentalist church and a decade+ long emotionally abusive relationship… well… it doesn’t go away overnight. Or over the last 7 years.
Lately I’ve begun wondering about the ways that I affirm myself. I tell myself that I am good. I am worthy. I am beautiful. I am perfect.
I think I might still be going about this the wrong way.
Lately I find myself thinking that when I tell myself these things, what I’m really doing is convincing myself that I do meet these impossible goals I set for myself as a child. I tell myself that what I’m doing is perfect. I tell myself that I am worthy of love.
I think I need a new tactic.
Hi, my name is Gabe, and I’m a colossal fuckup. Everything about me is broken. At 37 years old I still don’t know how to deserve love. “I’m not perfect. I’ve just been going through the motions of being perfect, and inside I’m screaming.”
Maybe instead of telling myself that I am perfect, I am good, I am beautiful, I am smart, that I reach all those illusory benchmarks, I need to tell myself that I fail, I am not good, I am ugly, I am ignorant and unintelligent. I need to tell myself that I missed every mark I ever set for myself. And that I am still here. I am loved. I can love. I don’t deserve that love and that acceptance, but I have it. I didn’t, I can’t, do anything to earn it.
I need to let go of all the things I’ve told myself that I should be, and even all the things I’ve told myself that I am. I need to accept that I am broken, busted, fucked up. That I deserve nothing.
Love is not about what you deserve. It’s about grace. You can’t earn grace, or lose it. It simply is. It doesn’t hold us to our own standards. It is a miracle, a mystery, that sort of thing that religions try to point toward, but can’t really describe.
I can stop striving. I can stop demanding. I deserve nothing. I have love. I have everything.