Illusions of Perfectionism
By Tracy M. Houchins, Wellness Catalyst
There was a time when I wouldn’t think of leaving my house without hair done, makeup on, nails manicured, clothes starched and pressed. And although I have no judgement to anyone who enjoys enhancing their appearance, my efforts did not come from a place of self-acceptance and choosing to embellish or enhance how I look. It was not my experience to look into the mirror and like what I saw. I would look for all the imperfections and work hard to improve or hide them. There was always plenty of room for improvement. My fear of being judged showed up in everything I did. I often overdid because I was not enough as is.
This way of being in the world was co-created by my mother, who I loved deeply, looked up to in every way and through her own lack of self-worth, projected on to me what she didn’t get to experience in her early life. My mother was the older of two daughters. She and her sister were what they referred to as “Irish twins”, born within 11 months of each other.
When my mother was 14, her father “went out for a pack of cigarettes and never returned”. My mother dropped out of school to help provide for her family. This abandonment affected her deeply and caused her to grow up a lot faster. She missed out on what would be considered to be normal teenage experiences. The disfunction throughout her childhood was the catalyst for her low sense of self-worth. Her inability to graduate from school exacerbated her not-enough-isms. Traumas reside in the cells and can be passed down through the generations if not healed. These traits were passed down to me not only through genetics, but also through her projections, living vicariously through my experiences set in motion by her during my childhood. My mother could only accept perfection from me.
She put me in dance classes at an early age. I remember being about 3 or 4 years old and she would make a big deal because I could walk on the very tips of my toes without shoes. I was placed in ballet and tap class as soon as I was old enough for the class. I was then “en pointe” three years later.
I loved tapping. It’s no exaggeration to say I hated ballet. My mother had my dad install a ballet bar on a narrow wall outside my bedroom in our small home. I was disciplined to practice ballet ever day after school and on weekends. My feet hurt and my toes would bleed, but practicing was not a choice. It was expected. She wanted me to be a dancer and was disappointed that my height stunted at 5’4” and didn’t meet the 5’6” to 5’10-1/2” requirements to become a dancer in the Rockette dance troop.
My mother was what you could call a “stage mom”. She would sign me on for dance competitions. The stress of not being #1 was sometimes paralyzing. I remember being 6 or 7 and I was so nervous backstage. I had to go to the bathroom really bad and when I told her, she got angry because I was on next. I peed my pants, through my rainbow colored fringe and satin costume, into my shoes. This experience was traumatic enough that I have no recollection or that recital or any of my performances in the years following. I was told I was a good dancer. My beloved instructor would regularly tell me she was proud of me, but I have little to no memory of dancing on stage.
I know my mother was doing the best she could with what she knew. I hold no contempt for her, knowing we only know what we know. When we know better, we can do better. But she never got to the higher understanding that comes along with every difficulty or challenge. It seems we both chose big lessons to be learned in this lifetime.
My life was a facade. Although we in no way lived a lavish life, my brothers and I attended parochial school, were always dressed impeccably, and regularly heard the words, “Make me proud. You’re a direct reflection of me.” My present day belief is that we are reflections of each other and can only see in others what we see in ourselves and believe about ourselves. My Mum lived through the lens of an illusion of perfectionism, unable to see her own perfection and divinity.
So I was expected to be an honor roll student and it wasn’t until 8th grade that the struggle to maintain high grades became to much. I received my first “C” at the end of that school year. My mother, in disbelief that her daughter received anything less than honor roll grades, took me to the school that afternoon to see my math teacher. Flailing my report card at Mr. McDonough, she told him he must have made a mistake. I remember that surreal moment clearly. I felt like I was in the twilight zone. And in a flash I saw my true self as nothing less than stupid, imperfect and hopeless. I couldn’t hide it any longer. I had been exposed. Much later in life, diagnosed with ADHD, I realized the challenges were real.
I felt like I collapsed in on myself and this created the redirection of my life. I saw myself at a fork in the road – do I continue the agony of living up to my mother’s impossible expectations or is there something less of a struggle. Moving forward from this, I began my journey of self-defeating actions and choices that launched my journey into addiction. I broke ties with most of the healthiest relationships and turned my focus to drinking, experimenting with drugs and partying as much as I could. My behavior was a huge disappointment. Having three brothers, I was often told “I might have expected this from the boys, but not from you.”
For 30 years I masked my emotions and lack of self by drinking. As daily maintenance alcoholic, I felt it turned my focus outward, becoming less of a self-conscious introvert. I was high-functioning and that was the distraction I created so that others could not see what I believed at the time was my truth. Alcohol gave me energy and made me outgoing, fun and what I saw as more likeable.
For the most part I really did look like I had it all together. Make-up, hair, nails, clothes, volunteering, creating reading elementary school reading programs, room parent, lunch and recess monitor and on and on. All in the name of masking. Literally camouflaging and hiding, creating distractions so others wouldn’t find out who the real Tracy was… a dumb airhead who couldn’t fight her way out of a paper bag. This false belief was how I saw myself until the age of 41.
Fast forward to 1999, after 30 years of drinking, I surrendered to the alcohol that was the salve that soothed my emotions and thoughts. It took me to very low places and I could not imagine my life without it… more about that in a future blog. I agreed to a 30-day in-patient rehab program. I showed up in full makeup, hair, nails, clothes and a suitcase filled with matchy-matchy outfits. It wasn’t easy being there having so much focus on myself, so I began helping others so I could turn the attention away from myself. But they were on to me. I found myself in a “helping blackout”, restricted from helping others and now had no way to hide. The first 10 days I could not admit I was alcoholic. But on that 10th day, I experienced something that would change the way I see myself forever.
It was afternoon small group counseling. There were 6 of us and our counselor sitting in a circle. Her name was Ursula and she was born in Chile. I was enamored by her accent and the way she always looked impeccably put together. This particular afternoon in our circle as Ursula began talking, I notice the collar of her gold silk blouse, under her black suit, was turned up. Being easily distracted myself, my attention was intently focussed on her upturned collar and I couldn’t hear a word she was saying.
Without thinking, I stood up and walked over to Ursula, fixed her collar, then walked back to my seat. It wasn’t until I sat down and looked at her that I realized the room was silent and all eyes were on me. I said to her, “I’m sorry. You didn’t have to stop talking for me.” She responded with “Do you feel better?”. “Oh for sure! You wouldn’t want your beautiful blouse to get messed up.” She then pulled her tucked blouse out of her pants and crunched the collar up half out of her jacket. I sat there with my mouth opened and eyes wide. Then she asked me how that made me feel. I told her it made me feel terrible and it’s unsettling.
She told me, when small group ends, she’d like me to stay, that she had something for me. My first thought was I was going to be rewarded for fixing her collar, doing something to perfect her appearance. Well I was wrong. She told me this – before I go to bed, shower and put on the clothes I intend to wear the next day. She instructed me to sleep in them and in the morning I could brush my teeth but I was not to brush my hair, put on any makeup and to wear the clothes I slept in and to come see her as soon as I finished breakfast. I laughed and truly thought she was joking. She was not. I was so mad and couldn’t find the words to express it. The thought of being out in public like this was inconceivable. I must have heard her wrong. She assured me I did not.
I left there so upset, yet I did what she told me to do – obedient. I skipped breakfast and reluctantly made my way to Ursula’s office as quickly as I could. She was all smiles when she greeted me and told me I was beautiful. She didn’t pay any attention to my upset. She put a sign she made around my neck that said “Can you say something nice about me?” and handed me a legal sized pad of lined paper and a pen. I was then instructed to get 50 signed statements from others in the rehab program and to bring her the signatures by the end of the day. I just stood there crying.
After wrangling in my emotions as best as I could, I told her I couldn’t do that. She looked me in the eyes – I swear I could see her shiny Soul – and she said, “Yes you can.” I left her office so angry… and scared. I thought about escaping the rehab, but in the mountains of Pennsylvania, with no money, where did I have to go? So I sought out the very few acquaintances I had made. They were the first I approached with this ridiculous assignment. They happily signed it and wrote kind messages. But of course they would have nice things to say about me. I had helped them through their rough days… until the rehab staff made me stop.
I kept going – obediently. By 5:00 that day, I had 50 signatures and the things people had to say to me made me so emotional. No makeup, no perfectly pressed clothes and my hair looked like I combed it with a firecracker. I handed the paper to Ursula. She smiled and I bawled for a long time while she hugged me. Never before had I felt so much love and acceptance, just the way I was.
I left the rehab and never again have I felt compelled to hide behind the illusion of perfectionism my mother projected on to me. I continued on my program of recovery working with a wonderful sponsor who instructed me to look at myself in the mirror, directly into my eyes and say “I Love you, Tracy. I truly Love you.” It was so hard at first – lots and lots of tears until I finally broke the chains of my distortions and false beliefs that kept me from seeing my truth and divinity. After a doing this a number of times, I began to sense a shift – a lightness within. It was become less awkward and more authentic, this Love for myself that I was unveiling. After a while, I found myself laughing while I was affirming and began to realize that the Love that resides within each of us, is the Truth of who we are.
My daughter once said to me “Ma, you haven’t always been the mother I wanted, but you’ve always been the mother I needed and I love you for that.” Same goes for me and my Mum. Without her, how would I have learned these valuable, soul-expanding messages of Self-Love? These days, I may choose to wear makeup, but most days I don’t. Don’t have time for hair? Isn’t that why ponytails and hats were made? I don’t iron anything unless it’s absolutely necessary – although I’ll admit I am particular about the way I fold my clothes but this is so I don’t have to iron! Freedom of choice is our birthright. I choose Love ❤️💫❤️