“You’ll never be a first class human being or a first class woman until you’ve learned to have some regard for human frailty.” ~C.K. Dexter Haven, The Philadelphia Story
This week, my therapist and I began working on my ever-present self-doubt. Self-doubt, I’ve only recently come to acknowledge, has played a big part in my life. It’s not that I always felt confident or comfortable in my skin or my actions. I didn’t. But, through trauma, I became so adept at pretending to be sure of myself that I honestly bought my own fiction. I maintained this alternate sense of self that existed completely disconnected from my true self. My persona was a cardboard standee I would place in front of people, somehow absolutely convinced that they took my bravado at face value and would never peer around the side of the 2-D cutout I’d presented to them to discover there was nothing there to back it up. In fairness, I think some people figured out that my insides didn’t match the outside I presented to the world long before I understood that I had been play acting for others most of my life. Their superpower was being comfortable enough in their own skin to recognize an imposter when they saw one. My superpower was pretending I was perfect when, deep down, I felt like shit scraped off a shoe.
In my therapist’s office the other day, we did some guided meditation to address my lifelong self-doubt. First we did a basic relaxation technique, starting with visualizing my happy place. From there, she asked me to conjure up a meeting place, a place where I would feel completely at ease. I envisioned a warm, cozy room inside a log cabin house with a fireplace, a plush sofa, and floor-to-ceiling picture windows through which my view was the surrounding mountains in their fall splendor. When I was good and comfortable in that mental space, she asked me to invite my self-doubt to join me there. Self-doubt, my imagination decided, arrived in a dark cloud that obscured the sun and dimmed the room, making it feel chillier. She asked me to give the dark cloud a name, so I named it after the place where my self-doubt originated in my early youth. I was required to sit with my self-doubt with a neutral mindset, neither allowing it to overwhelm me nor allowing myself to ignore it. And that’s as far as we got in my session before we had to end for the week, but even that small effort made me consider my self-doubt in a new way.
I wasn’t born with self-doubt. Self-doubt was thrust upon me at a young age, the result of incessant criticism, which led to an understanding I was not good enough or worthy of respect, attention, or love unless I did what others thought was best or wanted. Self-doubt is what I got when I tried and didn’t reach the mark others thought I should. It’s what happened when, instead of being told, “You’re human and humans don’t always get it right and that is okay,” I was informed, “You should have known better” and admonished “You’re embarrassing yourself.” I have since come to understand that my relentless perfectionism is a by-product of continually being told I could and should do better, rather than being gently reminded that life is a process and you learn and grow over time. I wish I had heard more thoughtful “Go easy on yourself, you’re trying” and less demeaning “Everybody knows THAT.” The perfectionism I ended up with in a useless attempt to be good enough for everyone else (in order to believe I was good enough in my own skin) was backwards.
The truth is when you feel good enough in your own skin, you don’t have to be perfect for anyone else to appreciate you. You live your truth and know that you screw up sometimes but you also get it right sometimes. From that place, you learn to forgive yourself and others for the crime of human frailty. It’s challenging to think of myself 10 or 20 years ago, when I was 150% convinced through my perfectionist mindset that I was mentally healthy the way I was. I was throwing down that cardboard cutout of a perfect me as reality and challenging others the way I had been challenged. It was misguided, but it was all from a place of deep hurt and misunderstanding. I didn’t know who I was. I only knew who others thought I should be. And so, with my own sense of self dampened and obscured, I became full of self-doubt that could only be lessened by my attempts to be perfect at everything and for everyone.
Self-doubt is insidious. I know it plagues even the most well-adjusted among us, but it’s such a pointless place to work from, whether that place be a waiting room we occasionally occupy or the impenetrable fortress we inhabit. I’ve come to the place where I can acknowledge it’s a shame that I didn’t get better messaging as I was growing up, but I’ve also come to believe it’s incumbent upon me to give to myself the grace and forgiveness and gentleness and kindness I did not receive back then. It’s up to me to lift that dark cloud. No one else can do it for me.
Listen to Mustn’ts, child, listen to the Don’ts.
Listen to the Shouldn’ts, the Impossibles, the Won’ts.
Listen to the Never Haves, then listen close to me.
Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.
A poem by Shel Silverstein