For years, I wasn’t even conscious of the voice, but it was always there.
“You should have seen that!”
Every time I made an error — of any kind — the voice told me what I “should have” seen or done or not done. The voice knew everything I should have done. Its standard was perfection.
If I missed a question on a test in high school, the voice was outraged. If it was a complicated algebra problem and I overlooked a tiny key detail in the setup — causing me to get the answer wrong — the voice was angry. It wasn’t a chance to learn where pitfalls were. It was a reason to criticize myself, even if I outscored everyone else on the test, because I hadn’t been perfect.
When I played a game — whether it was racquetball or a word game — every mistake was a reason for outrage.
“Why didn’t you see that? What’s wrong with you?!”
When I used to play racquetball, I ruined several rackets in frustration with myself. I was never angry with an opponent. Always with myself. And without realizing it, I slowly taught myself that my very human mistakes meant I was irredeemably broken.
The voice always tells me that others are aware of my mistakes and my failures. They’re laughing at me and losing respect for me because I haven’t been perfect. The voice is sure of that.
I feel like a performer and I’m terribly sensitive to what I feel from the audience. The inner voice is always there to tell me what they must be thinking and feeling about me. But I’m not really a stage performer. It’s as though life is one long performance and I’m always on stage, silently begging the audience for applause and constantly improving my performance to gain their approval.
I’ve talked with you before about my slow path to understanding that I have been a perfectionist. What I haven’t realized is that there are layers of “programming” built into me that relate to this. Not only am I constantly striving to be perfect and to please those whose love I desperately need, I also have this inner part of me which makes that almost impossible.
Nobody expects me to be perfect. It’s hard for me to fully grasp that emotionally, but I can understand it as an abstract concept. When the voice is there to criticize me and belittle me even when I’m being all that I can consciously be, this sets me up to be evaluated by the standards of things which I can’t consciously control.
I’m trying to stop holding myself responsible for what I see after I’ve done or said something. I still try to learn from my mistakes — and ask what I might be able to change in the future — but I’m trying not to tell myself that I’m responsible for seeing and doing everything perfectly in the moment when I consciously make a decision.
I’m also trying to stop holding my present self responsible for what my past self “should have” done or seen or understood. I have a long history of constantly re-evaluating everything I’ve done and spending time in agony over what I realize — in retrospect — might have given me a better outcome.
I’m trying to learn that all I can do is be accountable for what I consciously see and understand. If a past decision was a mistake, I can’t do anything about that now. All I’m responsible for is cleaning the slate and making the best decision I can make at this point.
I’ve never really had trouble treating other people this way. If a person is willing to deal with his or her mistake, I can get past almost anything.
“Hey, I shouldn’t have handled this the way I did,” someone might say. “Here’s why I did it. I understand now that it was wrong, so I apologize. Can we still fix things between us?”
In almost every case, I can accept that and start over. I can forgive and move on, because I know the people I love are very imperfect.
But I’ve never granted myself the same grace. That’s what I’m working on now. It’s not that I want to accept mistakes. It’s not that I want to give myself an excuse when I’m wrong. I simply want to allow myself to be human — and I want to be able to allow myself a fresh start when I need one.
Earlier today, I was talking with a young woman who has tried to kill herself a couple of times already. I asked her if she has any idea why.
“I hate myself,” she said. “I know I don’t act like it, but I really do. I treat everybody else with love and kindness, but I treat myself like dirt.”
I’ve never tried to kill myself. And I don’t hate myself. But I do have a long history of treating other people better than I treat myself. I’m more willing to forgive them. I’m more willing to show empathy. I’m more willing to understand mistakes.
In the Christian book of Mark, Jesus told us the most important command is to love God before anything else. The second most important command, he said, is to love others as we love ourselves. I do understand his point — and it’s one which we all need to learn — but after we start learning to love others, some of us need to love ourselves just as we love others.
Every single day, I need to accept my faults and forgive myself for my failures. And then I need to move forward in confidence — not in shame — to live the bountiful life I was put here to live.