Truth Byte #73: “Some things can’t be measured.”
I was a perfectionist as a child.
This was really challenging in the era of pen and paper, before word processing and the delete button were invented. I still remember painstakingly measuring, cutting, and gluing for the border of a title page, and crumpling it up, over and over again because it wasn’t perfect. School was where my perfectionism shone, because it seemed that was one place it was really valued. There was something special about getting 100%, something deeply rewarding.
That, plus my parents were unhappy settling for anything less.
I remember in third grade, I got nine out of ten on a spelling test. My dad was extremely disappointed in me, asking “What happened to the other 10%?” The following week, I came home with all ten words right. I was beaming, so excited all day to show him my test. Somehow, he had realized that there was an option to get two additional bonus words. So he asked me why I didn’t get the bonus marks too. That fueled me to try for the bonus words every week. I finally did get 120% one week, and my dad said, “It’s about time.”
I could feel the balloon of pride pop inside me. Nothing was ever good enough, and there was going to be no celebration, even if I was more than perfect.
The next year, in fourth grade, I came in second place at the spelling bee, and the word I got wrong was “coffee”. (P.S. Why would they expect a nine-year old to know that word?) I was scared to tell my dad I didn’t come in first, so I didn’t even let them know about it. It was a classroom competition and it didn’t really matter anyway, right? As my teachers congratulated me, I just felt like a fraud and a failure.
My dad left us when I was in fifth grade, and I spent the rest of my academic childhood trying to impress a ghost. The silver medal that I got at the science fair in sixth grade felt like a slap in the face, and it was one more reminder about how I was not, and never would be, number one. Then seventh grade came around, and I spent my teen years getting award after award, prize after prize for my academic achievements. I was often number one. But for some reason (much clearer to me now) the emptiness, the longing and feelings of failure just didn’t go away, no matter how many bonus marks I accumulated.
Being the best couldn’t fix my family.
It has taken me many, many years to admit to and begin recovering from my perfectionism. And by sharing this story, I am not trying to blame my dad. He was a hopeful, hardworking immigrant whose university degree was not recognized in Canada, and he knew that as a girl, and as a person of colour, I would be held to a much higher standard throughout my life. And so he pushed me, and I am grateful for that work ethic and that love for striving to be the best that he instilled in me.
But in some ways, it really altered in how I viewed myself and the world around me.
So yeah, it’s taken me many, many years to recover. For most of my life, I wore my perfectionism like an armour, like a badge of honour.
As long as I was getting A++ (remember, there’s always a chance for bonus marks!) I didn’t have to feel the pain of divorced parents or a deeply troubled younger brother.
As long as I could lose myself in school, I didn’t crumble under the pressure of helping my mom raise my brother and baby sister, and the sadness of not fitting in with other kids my age, who were actually having a childhood.
By reading a book in the grass, I could manage the embarrassment of not knowing how to do simple things like swinging on the monkey bars or jumping rope.
My school-orientation gave me a place to be when I didn’t feel like I fit anywhere else, I could lose myself in the world of ideas and not really have to deal with the pain of people.
Fast forward 30 years, and now I am a therapist by profession. I did the academic thing, even got a Ph.D., but that didn’t help soothe the lonely little girl in me. What I have realized as an adult is that I am an extremely deep feeler, and for most of my younger life, I used knowledge and learning as a way to escape my feelings. As long as I could stay up in my head, I didn’t have to acknowledge what was happening in my heart.
And now I swim in the waters of feeling. Every single day. And there is no way you can get 100% in this realm. There is no “right” way to feel.
There are some things that simply can’t be measured.
Now, I have no way of really knowing whether I am doing my job “right”. I have no one giving me a mark out of ten, no one pushing me to be better and get those bonus marks. But what I do have is a life raft of hope that I have been building throughout my life. My job is to simply show people my raft, let them sail on it with me for a while, and then teach them how to build their own. There’s no right way of coming back from trauma, no right way to manage loss. There is only the way that works, which will be different for each and every one of us.
When you find yourself stuck in an unpredictable river, use the quiet times to strengthen your raft. When the rapids come, all you can do is trust and hold on. That’s not the time to jump ship. We are in unpredictable times, and some of us are navigating this time better than others. Help each other fortify your rafts, and whatever you do, don’t let go. You may not get bonus marks, but if you keep your head and your heart connected, you will get through this river and have a story to tell.
You can do this, and I am with you.
It's your life, and only you can live it.
Check out my YouTube Channel, Dragonfly Wellness TV for more inspiration and education to help you get through to the other side. For 1:1 support, contact me at www.talktosaira.com, or join our groups to learn how to build and strengthen your own life-raft with others who get what you are going through.