"To accept ourselves as we are means to value our imperfections as much as our perfections." – Sandra Bierig
2020 was a year of a lot of mental health crises for a lot of people, and obviously for good reason. But my major mental health crisis had little to do with the events of the world and more to do with my own personal reasons.
Before we knew covid was a serious threat to the world, and before the racial reckonings and the election, I started the year desiring one thing: love. And preferably not just any type of love, but a love that would lead to marriage. See, I was turning 28 in 2020 and that had always been the age I hoped I’d be married.
Wanting real love is a completely natural and healthy thing. But two things made it completely unhealthy for me. 1) I realized it had been ten years since I’d been in a relationship with reciprocal love; 2) I found out that the only guy I’ve ever had reciprocal love with was getting married.
Needless to say, this made me desperate. And not the throw myself at every guy I see desperate. No, I’d already gone through that stage years ago and I would very much never like to go back to it. This desperation fueled my desire to be ready for when a new man would come into my life. And by ready I mean perfect.
I had to be in good shape. I had to be in a good place spiritually. I had to be working towards all of my goals (and I always have many). I had to take care of my mental health. I had to be flawless so that there would be no reason it wouldn’t work out.
I started working out 3-4 times a week, practiced Spanish every day, read daily, journaled, spent time with my Bible, etc. My mom told me she was proud of my determination, but I eventually had to confess to her the truth. That whenever I missed a day of doing any of these things, I absolutely hated myself. I had a checklist of things to do every day and whenever I didn’t check something off, or heaven forbid multiple items, I was filled with shame and self-contempt. I knew this wasn’t normal.
I was also experiencing the worst body image issues I’ve ever had. I have loved my body for a very long time and have seldom struggled with my appearance, but throughout most of 2020, I was disgusted with it. I hated the persistent backrolls I’d developed that were so hard to get rid of. I was more overweight than I’d ever been, which still wasn’t large. I did everything to lose weight, but the fat came off slower than it ever had before.
It took me well into the year to place a word for all that I was experiencing – Inadequate. Nothing I did was good enough. No matter how hard I worked on my daily goals or larger ones, it didn’t make a difference. No matter how much I worked on my body and even slimmed down, I still didn’t like it. I was inadequate. And all because I was about to be 28.
I was suffering from extreme perfectionism, and when I failed to be perfect, I felt not good enough. Dr. Brené Brown, who has written books on perfectionism, shame, and vulnerability explains there is nothing wrong with “striving for excellence.” It can definitely be healthy and produce growth. But perfectionism is different, she defines it as follows:
- Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of blame, judgement, and shame.
- Perfectionism is an unattainable goal. It’s more about perception than internal motivation, and there is no way to control perception, no matter how much time and energy is spent trying.
- Perfectionism is addictive, because when we invariably do experience shame, judgement and blame, we often believe it’s because we weren’t perfect enough.
- Perfectionism actually sets us up to feel shame, judgement and blame, which then leads to more shame, judgement and blame: It’s my fault. I’m feeling this way because I’m not good enough.
The fourth point is what resonated with me the most. Though it wasn’t conscious, the underlying toxic beliefs of my body image issues and perfectionism were: If I looked better, I would have a partner in my life; If I were more accomplished, someone would love me; If I were more spiritually and mentally healthy, I would be worthy of a good relationship; If I, If I, If I…
Since I didn’t feel like I was achieving any of those things, and also because I did not find love in 2020, the next message became: I cannot find love because I’m not good enough. Something is wrong with me.
While trying to understand this feeling of inadequacy in myself, I knew it had to be about more than the fact I was turning 28. Though I have struggled with perfectionism throughout my life, it had never felt this pervasive before.
On the Harley Therapy Counseling Blog, Sheri Jacobson lists the possible reasons we may feel inadequate in her article, “Always Left Feeling Not Good Enough? The Real Reasons Why.” Some of these reasons include:
- “You had critical, demanding, or aloof parents.” – If your parents constantly wanted more from you, “the message was that you were not enough as is.”
- “You surround yourself with critical people.” – Others keep putting you down no matter how hard you try.
- “Your main caregiver couldn’t offer you safety and stability.” – If you had a parent that suffered from depression, alcoholism, or anything that made them less present to fulfill your needs, you might’ve felt the responsibility of fixing them. And if you couldn’t fix/help them, then you believed you weren’t good enough.
This list isn’t extensive. Comparisons exacerbated by social media can also contribute to feelings of inadequacy, as well as many other messages that we can internalize throughout the years. Sometimes it’s just remembering cruel words someone once said to you when you vulnerable or putting your all into something.
If you are having trouble figuring out what the root cause of your inadequacy might be, Hilary Jacobs Hendel posed a helpful question in her article, “Why Do I Feel So Inadequate?” She asks us, “How old were you when you first felt not enough?”
For me, it’s hard to pinpoint, but I know I was very young. Maybe 5 or 6. Maybe younger. My parents fought a lot and I remember feeling responsible for them to stop fighting. I remember my mom’s anger and my dad’s passivity, the way he lifted me up in front of him to protect himself and calm her down. He says he only did this when she wasn’t really mad, when it was playful. But I remember being in the middle.
As a very young child, I internalized the message that I was supposed to keep the peace between my parents. When I couldn’t do that, I felt like I failed. Something was wrong with me. Being an adult, I know now that their fights were never my responsibility and something I should’ve never been involved in. I didn't fail them. They failed me.
But the memory that is the most vivid of my childhood was when I was 9 years old lying awake in bed listening to my parent’s screaming argument. It’s the first time I remember feeling unloved, though I know I must’ve felt that way before. I remember silently crying and telling myself that their fighting hurts me. If they really loved me, they wouldn’t hurt me. Since they know it hurts me, they must not really love me.
I think from that point on I felt love had to be earned. I learned that it wasn’t freely given. Something must’ve been wrong about me for them to not love me. So, I had to be better to get love.
The sad part about these horrible messages I internalized so young was that my parents were truly loving towards me. They couldn’t get along well, but they treated me like a princess. My mom has always lavished me with compliments and praise. My dad has always made me feel like he’s my biggest supporter. I had good parents who never mistreated me. They just mistreated each other.
Understanding where my inadequacy with love comes from is very helpful in understanding why I felt the way I did last year. I still felt like I had to earn love, and since I couldn’t find love, I still felt not good enough.
Inadequacy in me takes the form of perfectionism, but that’s not always the case. Good Therapy lists other symptoms someone may experience:
- Anxiety, particularly with regards to performance
- Heightened sensitivity and self-criticism
- Reluctance to accept or trust in the affection of others
- Low self-worth
- Perception of failure
- Fear of rejection
- The inability to accept praise
- Feelings of powerlessness
- The inclination to conform or succumb to peer-pressure
What struck me most is that another symptom of inadequacy is isolation out of the fear of being truly “seen.” Throughout the course of 2020, that guy who I’d had reciprocal love with long ago did get married, and it shook me to my core. Not out of any hope that we’d one day be together, but because in my entire life I feel like I’ve only been truly seen by three people, and he was one of them.
He had seen me, all of me, and loved me despite my flaws. I had to earn nothing. He relentlessly loved me no matter how hard I tried to close off to him. To this day that still means so much to me. Since then, I’ve had several guys tell me they love me, but it’s very hard for me to ever believe them. How can someone love me if they haven’t truly seen me?
I realized my goal with love is not finding someone who will love me, it’s finding someone I trust enough to be my full self with. Someone who knows me and sees all of me and loves me anyway. But perhaps I still hadn’t reached that part of my life where I trust anyone to do that. I still may not be there.
I had wanted to be married by 28 since I was a kid. I’ve always been the kind of person who has their whole life planned out. I wanted to date and travel in my early twenties. Meet the man I’d one day marry in my mid-twenties. By 28 we’d get married. By 30 I’d have my first kid.
Needless to say, my 28th birthday came and past very uneventfully. I did not achieve this goal, nor am I any closer with my 29th birthday being a few months away.
Yet, since then I’ve been more and more okay. I failed at reaching my goal, but that perceived failure did nothing to change my life. If anything, since I no longer have a goal to achieve, I no longer have to care about being perfect. My perfectionist self has since then decided to take a break with goals and just live each day striving to feel good about myself.
Brown says, “Perfection is, at its core, about trying to earn approval.” And the approval I wanted to earn was my own. If I achieved the goal of love and marriage when I said I would, then that would mean I am enough, that I am worthy of love. I didn’t achieve this goal yet I am still enough.
At 28 years old, I am worthy of being seen. I am worthy of being vulnerable. I am worthy of a good, healthy relationship. I am worthy of a loving partner. I am worthy, and I am good enough, as is, for it all.