“I’ve always been the good girl.
I try so hard to do everything right and not screw up.
Caroline, do you know how exhausting that is? I think you do; that’s why I’m writing to you.
I’m a grand perfectionist; I’m never worthy enough. I am super hard on myself, with very high expectations. I feel guilty about so much of what I do and say.
All my life I’ve been good at offering help to others, but I don’t want to ask for or accept help myself. If I am able to do it on my own, then I should, right?
But I’m so tired.
I can put on a fun-loving front some of the time, but lately it’s getting harder.
If I’m honest, I don’t think I am worthy of love or companionship. Secretly, I think that I am a disappointment to my family and friends.
I have had enough of living this way. I have a daughter who I hope does not turn into me.
I want more for her than just going through the motions. I want her to live freely and without regrets. But how?”
The Good Girl*
Dear Good Girl,
The night of my dance recital, I had a sparkling sequined costume and a belly full of butterflies. For an elementary school girl, it was pretty much heaven.
At one point, I was having so much fun on stage that I added a little improvisation.
Instead of just pushing myself up from a kneeling position like I’d practiced, I wrapped my hands around a silver microphone stand and sang my heart out.
That moment was golden. I felt like a star.
But afterward, a grown-up used a critical tone to say something like, “What were you doing up there with the microphone? You just had to do it your way, huh?”
I tell more of the story in my forthcoming book, but suffice to say, the shame I felt at hearing those words cast a pall over that bright evening.
And I decided that I would do everything in my power never to feel that way again. I would get everything right, and I would be safe.
There were some problems with this plan, such as intense stress. When I thought I’d received a bad mark in the first grade, I had what amounted to a panic attack.
Good Girl, getting to the roots of perfectionism means going way back.
You have spent so many years believing in your own unworthiness that it seems true on a fundamental level.
When confusing things happen to us as kids, we create stories to make sense of them. But our brains aren’t fully developed yet, and neither are our narratives.
One of the most popular stories is: “If anything bad happens, it is all my fault.”
Your perfectionism was (and is) a way for you to have a little control. It’s an attempt to keep yourself safe. That’s all.
It doesn’t mean that you’re hopeless or bad. It means that you’re human, and at some point you were hurt.
As this insightful post puts it:
“The secret sorrows – and future difficulties – of the good boy or girl begin with their inner need for excessive compliance …. Their goodness is a necessity rather than a choice.”
When you were hurt, the good girl role became your refuge, your necessity. Given what you knew and believed at the time, it was the best that you could do.
But how do you move forward now, as an adult woman?
It starts with treating yourself as your own beloved child.
It starts with looking into your daughter’s eyes and deciding that – for her sake – you’re going to do the work of learning to accept yourself.
Your mind is telling you that you’re a failure, that you should never have worn the sequined costume and risked the stage.
But the good news is, you don’t have to believe your thoughts. You can let your mind yammer on while you find a picture of yourself when you were little.
Really study it. (Here’s one of mine.)
Imagine that this child is your child. Imagine that you are her parent. Do you despise her for doing what she did, for making the choices that she made when she was scared and lonely?
I don’t think so. I’m guessing there’s at least a glimmer of compassion, a flicker of empathy.
If that’s too much of a stretch, get a picture of your favorite animal. Maybe it’s a dog that leaps with exuberance at the sight of you, or a cat that curls up with you when you sleep.
It’s probably clear to you that this animal is good, simply because it is itself.
So ask yourself: What if the same is true for me? What if I am whole, even when I feel broken? What if my deepest reality is light, not darkness?
It’s so tiring to hate yourself, honey. And do you know why that is? Because it’s exhausting to believe a lie.
Every loving thing that has ever happened to you was real. Everything else is just illusion.
Go for the real thing.
Could you relate to “The Good Girl”? Join the conversation in the comments section below!
*This email represents a compilation of real comments sent in by blog readers.
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