If I want to think of a time when my inner thoughts weren’t self-critical, I have to think back very far. Practically to a point where life was largely non-verbal, and I don’t remember too much aside from images. The warmth of sunlight on my face. The view of my own tiny stockinged feet shoved into full-body pajamas.
Those memories are flashes, entirely lacking in context.
But I can remember that stillness, that sense of peace, that state of just being.
Glorious. But it didn’t last. Those memories exist at some distant edge of my recollection, of my life. And the vast majority of what’s actually there is marked by an inner monologue that’s always doubting, fearing, tearing myself down in more and more creative ways.
Looking around at my environment, it’s little wonder that this came about. I was raised by two perfectionists. My father was hard-working but often absent, typically off at a distant job site, pulling long hours.
My mother was lonely, often overwhelmed by having four small children to raise on her own, while she still felt like a child herself. She singled me out early on as a good prospect for sidekick. For her little bestie. A walking, talking human pet.
This was because I was an adorable child, all chubby cheeks and ringlets. The trouble was that I had a habit of saying weird things.
Sometimes this was beneficial, and I was funny and entertaining. Other times, it was shameful and embarrassing.
I didn’t have an inner sense to help differentiate between the two, not until I was a teenager and living at various other homes.
So my mother kept after me, trying desperately to correct me. To mold me into a perfect representative for her.
I never quite got it. And what I internalized instead was her critical voice, postulating constantly on the way she viewed the world, which was largely through the lens of other people’s imperfections.
One of her favorite things to do was to go to the mall, walk around, and people watch. And as those people passed, she would lean over to me and whisper about them. She particularly prone to criticizing other women. “Did you see what she was wearing?” “Did you see the stomach on her?”
And every time, I’d feel embarrassed and hope that the person hadn’t heard us. Sometimes I’d argue with her, but that never went well, usually escalated into something I didn’t want to deal with. So instead, I learned to give some kind of ambiguous non-response or change the subject. Anything to let the words fade from my memory.
As I grew into a woman, she turned that same criticism full force onto me. She still constantly found fault with what I said but she expanded her criticisms into negative commentary about my body — and my friends’ bodies. “Filling out,” she called it. “You’re really filling out.” She’d then give extreme diet advice, some of which involved bringing the food back up.
More and more, I became preoccupied with shame, with fear, with guilt. I felt like I couldn’t say or do anything right. And that I looked horrible. Ugly. Bloated.
What unfolded was a constant struggle. I kept trying drastic, harmful things in a desperate attempt to rid myself of what was wrong with me. Physical and mental.
But it all backfired. And I became quite ill.
Feeling Bad About My Imperfections Did Me More Harm Than My Imperfections Ever Did
I’ve written extensively about that illness and the process of recovering from it. As I write this, I’m 20 years into that recovery.
The last few months have been incredibly challenging. The covid-19 pandemic has meant that I’ve spent nearly all of this spring indoors (only leaving my house once, in my car to drop off some tax documents that wouldn’t fit in my home mailbox).
About a month into the pandemic, my father passed away. I am still figuring out my grief. The first few weeks were harrowing as something primal and unconscious rose up within me and screamed at full volume.
And of course, as I write this, mass protests are ongoing all around the country decrying police brutality and racial inequality.
It’s a bizarre time to be alive. One would expect it to be a terrible time to heal.
And yet… I find myself catching more glimpses of those tiny stockinged feet, in my memory. I can hold onto those mental snapshots of a happier time when I could just be — without being on a constant hunt for my imperfections, without being on the inexorable quest to eliminate them.
And as I do, it occurs to me that feeling bad about my imperfections did me more harm than my imperfections ever did.