I had my first panic attack in the first grade. When my teacher returned my paper with See Me written in red ink instead of the usual Excellent, I felt such paralyzing fear that I almost couldn’t breathe.
It wasn’t until years later that I wondered: Why, at six years old, was I so terrified of failure? How did I acquire this near-primal need to be perfect?
Of course, the answer is complicated. Some of it goes back to my younger brother Willie’s autism diagnosis and how I took on the role of the Golden Child in our family.
Some of it goes back to the cultic church of childhood where I learned to earn God’s favor.
And perhaps some of it was with me from the get-go as the lesson I needed to learn in this life.
Doing My Best to Be Good
Growing up, I won awards and accolades and fought against failure with everything I had.
When Willie started having violent meltdowns, I held it together in public, then hyperventilated and cut myself in private.
When I got into a serious car accident on the way to high school, I insisted on going right to class afterward. (Trauma? What trauma? I’m fine!)
I showed up as a problem-solver, yet in my secret heart, I feared that I WAS the problem. What’s wrong with you? was the shaming mantra in my mind, appearing at the slightest sign of weakness.
I believed that trying harder would save me, when in truth it kept me stuck. I tried to reason my way out of deep fear, and it simply didn’t work.
The thing that did help – the thing that saved me, really – was learning to bring love to the parts of myself that were hurting and terrified.
Fortunately, I had true friends to show me how to do that.
There was the one who sat with me after my first breakup, holding space and refusing to leave until I let myself cry. There was the one who showed up with water in the morning (and not a drop of judgment) when I drank too much the night before.
Then there was the L’Arche community where I lived alongside adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. There, I learned how to love in vulnerability, not just in strength. I wrote my first book, met my beloved husband Jonathan, and risked reaching out.
What I Do Now
Now, I’m honored to help kindred-spirit women who are really good at doing what they’re “supposed to” do, start doing what they’re MEANT to do. Through writing, speaking, and coaching, I walk with them toward their true selves: fully alive, fully human.
I’m the author of You Don’t Owe Anyone: Free Yourself from the Weight of Expectations (Broadleaf Books, 2021).
And I am still a recovering perfectionist, meaning that I don’t have it all figured out. But here’s what I’d tell that little girl I was in the first grade …
“Oh honey, little one – I know that you’re scared to fail. But here’s the secret: You are stronger and braver than you think you are. You can face failure and live through it. In fact, you WILL. It’s part of being human. You will stumble and fall so many times. But trust me on this … You are meant to rise again.”
Join me on the journey; receive your free Perfectionist Recovery Toolkit.
The Toolkit includes Getting Real & Letting Go: A Collection of Quotes for Recovering Perfectionists, the 5 Day Goodbye Good Girl Email Challenge, posters, & more! You’ll also get posts via email.
Light-bulb moment at TEDxBirmingham’s 2016 All Star Salon; photo credit Kate Rexrode Smith Photography.
Caroline’s Personality Typologies (for those who love to geek out on this as much as I do): Myers-Briggs INFJ; Enneagram 1 wing 9 (Perfectionist with Peacemaker wing)