I’ve been meaning to write this post for a very long time, but I’ve been putting it off. I knew it would bring up a lot of emotion and memories of past anxieties, and I wanted to have a chance to sit in quiet and really be able to think. It’s completely for me and to help anyone else going through the struggles of being a perfectionist, not for the SEO gods or Google. It’s a long read, so If you’re just here for the recipes, feel free to skip over this post. So here goes.
Perfectionism is one of those things that our society awards. I used to proudly claim the title of a perfectionist, thinking it was an admirable attribute. That insisting on perfection made me better than other people. But now I know that’s bullshit. Perfectionism is just a façade. My perfectionistic tendencies were a coverup for a much deeper problem that I didn’t know I had at the time.
From a very early age, I was eager to please. I was the young child who always followed the rules, afraid of getting in trouble, afraid of disappointing my parents, my teachers and the other adults around me. I was quiet, thoughtful, and never did anything out of line.
No matter the subject or activity, I wanted to be the best. In elementary school, anything less than a 100 on a quiz or homework assignment was simply not acceptable. I read every book in the library to earn the most reading points. And I did get the most points. Every single year. I was the only second grader on the jump rope team made up of third and fourth graders, and I wanted to be in the front row.
That’s also the first time I remember being self-conscious about my body. I wasn’t a chubby kid, but I wasn’t the smallest either. I was average build, but I remember feeling like I was the fat one, even though I definitely wasn’t overweight. I was an active kid, playing soccer, dancing in multiple dance classes, jumping rope, doing all sorts of water sports. I was muscular, but I remember looking down at my legs and thinking they were bigger than the other kids’. At that time it didn’t bother me much.
I was praised by my teachers, by my parents, and by the other adults in my life that I sought approval from. Praised for being smart, for being well-behaved, for being athletic, for being pretty. For being perfect. And it felt good.
So the secret to being loved was obviously being perfect, right?
That was just the beginning.
By the time I got to intermediate school, I started playing the flute. While my friends all looked at the band as a way to be able to manipulate the scheduling so they could all eat lunch at the same time by being in the same band class, I saw it as another thing to excel at. I practiced every night. I wanted to be first chair (I never actually made first chair. I was always second or third chair. And out of 31 chairs, that wasn’t too shabby. But at the time, it was a failure to me.) That was also when I tried out for competitive cheerleading, which only heightened my perfectionistic tendencies to a whole new level.
My first year as a competitive cheerleader, I was on the junior team, at the lowest difficulty level. Which I should have been, I had only just started after all, and my skills weren’t great. I belonged to a gym that had a reputation for being the best, and my coaches expected perfection in everything. My team was good, and we won every competition that year. It was fun being on the winning team, so of course the next year, I wanted to cheer again.
That year when I tried out, I’d hoped to make the next level team, the intermediate one. But when the results were posted after try-outs, I was devastated. The gym had decided not to form an intermediate team. I was placed as an alternate on the advanced team, with the expectation that I would acquire the skills needed to be on the team, or I wouldn’t be competing with them. There was only one option. Get those skills, girl. I dropped dance and soccer to just cheer.
That’s when the two-a-day practices began. I was only 11.
There were about 5 of us who had been placed as alternates, so we had lessons together to improve our tumbling and jumping skills, then we were expected to be at the practices for the advanced team that we were trying so desperately to be a part of. All the while getting yelled at if we didn’t quite land our tumbling pass or our stunt didn’t hit. If it wasn’t perfect, it was wrong, and we were punished with extra conditioning. It was humiliating being the worst one on the team, even though I wasn’t quite on the team. If I could only get better, and earn my place on the team, everything would be okay. I would belong. We would win all the competitions, and I would once again be a perfect child.
I did end up just barely gaining the skills I needed to be on the team. And we did win every competition that year. It was fun and exciting being a part of such a close team, and it felt good knowing I had worked so hard to get where I was. But there was also immense pressure to keep up.
Working out at an unairconditioned gym in the heat of Texas summers every single day had also changed my body. By the time I finally made the advanced team, I had six-pack abs, perfectly toned arms and legs, and the stamina of a race horse. But I also wasn’t worried about my body at the time. I guzzled Gatorade to keep me hydrated, not thinking about the amount of sugar in it, like any normal kid. I ate energy bars by the box to fuel my practices, with zero care about nutrition or my weight.
I also started receiving ‘compliments’ on my body at that point. From coaches, about how I had a great hourglass figure that looked perfect in our uniforms, from peers about how I had the perfect 6-pack abs. From my own dad about how I had the build of a white-tailed deer and could perform back flips anywhere, any time. I had the approval of all those around me based on the way my body looked, my athletic ability, my grades in school, and my well-mannered behavior.
I was accepted. I felt loved. Obviously because I was perfect. So I couldn’t stop.
And that’s where I’m going to stop for now. Because this post is getting too long. But I’ll share more in part two next week.