Posted in anxiety, beauty, Christian dating, college years, depression, people pleasing, perfectionism, relationships, shame, teenage depression

Beauty, perfectionism and Christian dating

“I am not worth anything until I am dating or, by a certain age, married.”

I was always told I was “pretty” and “cute.” My mom was good at doing that. She would make me cute sweaters, bows and even clothing that matched with my dolls’.  As a child I always felt so happy wearing all those beautiful things.

My mom would also do my hair very “pretty.”As I got older, she taught me how to “do” my hair (and later makeup) correctly. I later realized being able to do one’s hair without help was a sort of a coming-of-age event for the girls in my family.

Most things I learned about girls and women I learned from my family. My mom, her sisters and my grandma, always presented themselves well. Always beautiful, hair styled, makeup on, impeccable outfits and matching accessories. The message I received from the women in my life is that a woman was expected to do everything possible to make herself beautiful (externally) to the world.

I began comparing myself to my family members especially as a teen. I wanted to be dating but we were not allowed to date until age sixteen. I knew most women in my family married very young (by age 20) so I had to make sure I got a “good start.”

Puberty struck me late in life; as a perfectionist, I constantly felt less than. I was obsessed with being on the “in crowd.” While my girlfriends talked about boys and periods at the junior high lunch table, I sat there pretending like I could relate. I had a lot of contempt for my slow-developing body; I longed to be taller and less flat-chested. I was also self conscious of wearing glasses. One of my brothers and I would often talk about our relationship woes. We both probably struggled with self-esteem and the need to look perfect for the opposite sex. One day, my brother made a matter-of-fact comment, that once I got contacts, the guys would “be all over me.” Through comments like these and the influence of my friends, I began lying to myself about the way I needed to look and the experiences with guys I needed to have.

Finally, everything started falling into place by my tenth grade year when I reached full puberty. At 16, I was finally “of eligible age” to date. I finally got a little bit more self-esteem; some days I even felt as “cute” and “beautiful” as when I was a child. Soon, I  did receive attention from guys, but they were not “quality” guys; my term for the guys that typically liked me was “messed up.” I would go back and forth between feeling flattered by their comments and disgusted. Then I would always question, what is wrong with me that no decent or popular guy would like me. I would find myself in a war when it came to relationships with guys. If a guy liked me I would initially act interested to comfort my wounded inner self, but later I would come to my senses and realize I didn’t want to spend time with these particular guys. I ended up having quite a bit of guilt for “crushing” guys, though my family and friends told me to forget about it.

During the later part of my junior year, I fell in love hard. I was head over heals for a guy in my youth group at church. I initially had no interest in him until he began giving me quite a bit of flirtatious attention. During a period of about six months, his actions toward me fueled my passion for and fascination with him. It’s so interesting because my feelings of that time come back so quickly. They were so intense yet I now realize they were all about me. I really had no love and care for the guy. I only cared about how I was perceived. My self-esteem finally sky-rocketed because I felt I was finally “worth something.” Any day now, this guy would ask me out and everything in my little life would be perfect. The world would finally love me. This never happened. The guy barely even talked to me much less asked me out and later denied even liking me. Even though my interest in him had died down, I was still crushed and found myself believing I was not good enough for good, popular guys.

These thoughts continued throughout high school and hit their peak my freshman year at Bethel University (formerly Bethel College), a Christian liberal arts school where the common ditty was “ring by spring.” The theory is that, since most Christians are virgins, they just have to get married young; a marriage proposal would come by the spring of the girl’s senior year of college. There was a lot of pressure to find “the One,” that perfect Bethel boy, especially for someone like me whose only dream in life since the age of eight was to be married. Not only married, but preferably by age 21 and to have all my children before age 30 like my mom. (I used to pretend to pop babies out of my stomach with my dolls growing up! I just couldn’t wait for the real thing!)

I continued to believe the lie I believed my whole life: “If I only work hard enough to look beautiful, people—especially guys—will notice me. If can just be perfect, I will be worthy of love.”  I would often daydream about certain guys I met who I considered perfect. Sometimes I had proof that they found me attractive but wondered why they never asked me out. The conclusion I came to was always the same: “I am not good enough.”

I continued to swing from feeling like the most sexy thing ever to feeling like the scum of the earth, not even worthy to be an ant under a guy’s shoe. The summer after my freshman year, I was working full time and living with my parents at my Wisconsin home. One day, I had to bring my younger brother Tim his lunch at his work—a car dealership. I knew that Tim worked with all men and, for that reason (though I didn’t admit it to myself), I made sure I looked extra attractive. Sure enough, when I pulled around to the back of the dealership where Tim worked I noticed his co-workers staring at me. My desires to be noticed were met and I felt really good about myself. A few weeks later my brother revealed to me the conversation that came about after I left that day. His coworkers told him I was hot and asked him if I had a boyfriend. Tim said no and they responded: “Why not?! Is she gay?” Tim, of course, was disgusted with them and stood up for me, but I couldn’t help feeling overwhelming grief and self-pity at that moment. There is something wrong with me, I continued to lie to myself.

My dating experiences in college and afterward became predictable. My obsessions with perfection clouded my judgement and my own sense of identity. The judgments I put on myself were extended to the guys I dated. I was often petrified that we weren’t “good enough” together. I was terrified of how others would perceive us as a couple. I often made decisions based on what everyone else thought. I never really figured out my own identity or, if I thought I knew what I wanted, I would constantly doubt myself. If my family and friends liked a guy, I would feel pressure to like him too. I would constantly berate myself for not feeling love for the guy I was dating, when in everyone else’s mind, he was “perfect.” This came with the territory of people-pleasing and performance addiction.

I had such a profound hatred for myself during those times. I intellectually understood I was beautiful “inside and out” as everyone always told me and that I was dating material. I believed I was worthless, like I, the “bad” girl, was hurting and scarring this “good” guy for life. I was a failure in my mind. I couldn’t live up to all those women in my family who had great men and had married young. I would scream and cry out to God, “Please help me like him the way he likes me, Lord!” My low self-esteem spurred on my depression which in turn negatively affected every relationship I had.

One minute, I would come to the conclusion that he was the wrong guy for me and I had nothing to do with it. The next minute I would think, it’s all me. I am too unlovable and I’m ruining his life. Either way, I would break up with him and look for the next “perfect” guy, a dream relationship that existed in my mind. I was searching for love and truly believed I couldn’t be happy until I found it.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized that it was probably best to heal before I dated, that I was able to separate my worth from my dating status. That I discovered this truth: I didn’t need to search for love because I no doubt already had it. Instead, I was searching for the ability in myself to accept this love. My profound inability to accept love from myself, others and God is what kept propelling my depression onward.

 

Posted in anxiety, Christian life, depression, people pleasing, perfectionism, performance addiction, Shy Bladder Syndrome, social anxiety disorder, suicidal thinking, teenage depression

Perfectionism’s ruthless grip

High school depression continued (see my last post for the first part)…

Luckily, when it came to non-church areas of my life, I didn’t have to worry as much about God and what he thought of me. I worked really hard in school and was obsessed with getting A’s. I would do whatever it took, including going in for extra help, doing all the extra credit I could, and using my friends or brothers to perform well on an assignment. I went to the guidance office every few weeks to check my GPA. At the beginning of my senior year, I remember the high I felt for a moment when I looked at that little white piece of paper. “3.98, 6/437.” I couldn’t believe that I was sixth place in our entire class! At the same time, I knew if I wouldn’t have gotten those two A minuses in gym class the last two years, I could be even closer to the top.

That year I was in an advanced Biology class that was difficult. At the time, I was severely depressed (as the result of a devastating social anxiety disorder) and had a full load of classes, including a 7:00 a.m. Advanced Placement class. I couldn’t keep up in the Biology class and ended up with a B at semester. It was devastating for me. I knew I didn’t need the class and since it was my 8th hour class, that meant I could go home early each day, which sounded heavenly. I dropped the class, even though my teacher disapproved. I told him that B had ruined my GPA and he just laughed. I was not amused because I knew I was no longer in sixth place. Sure enough, when I checked my stats a few weeks later, I now had a “3.96” and was in ninth place. I was so disappointed.

My thoughts spiraled on and on. “If only I hadn’t taken that class…If only I had worked harder…Ninth place isn’t so bad, you’re still in the top 10 people of the whole school.”  I would negatively compare myself with my brother Greg who was Salutatorian of his class and positively compare myself to my brother Nate who was only in the top twenty percent of his class. Soon I found out who the eight other students were ahead of me in our class. I was not surprised by most of the names. The top two or three students I knew I could never compete with. They were in a different world of smarts. Then there were a few I knew I could have “beaten” if I’d only worked just a little harder. That aggravated me, but still I respected them because I knew, like me, they worked for their grades. But one name out of the eight surprised me. I couldn’t help feeling shock that this girl, a former friend of mine from youth group, was supposedly fourth in our class. In my mind she was a space cadet and a partier and could not be capable of such high grades.

I took lessons from the same private piano teacher as the valedictorian of our class. Instead of comparing myself in the usual way by putting myself down, I compared myself to her by putting her down. While I envied her smarts, I praised myself for gifts and talents that she didn’t possess (in my opinion), such as my singing voice and my physical appearance. This girl was also gifted in science and math, which I did not envy. Instead I praised myself for my giftedness in speaking a foreign language and in working with children.

My feelings about myself at that time were all or nothing. I felt either on the highest cloud of heaven or at the bottom-most rung of a ladder descended deep into the earth. And these thoughts would shift in minutes, based on who I was around or what environment I was in. I felt like a phenomenal musician at church but when I messed up at piano lessons under the watchful eye of my perfectionist teacher, down I plummeted. I was the star of my Spanish class, but felt like a total imbecile in pre-calculus class.

My mind was obsessed with performance. I did not know another way to look at life. The more I thought about performing perfectly, the more I would long for it. I would get a rush after each perfect paper, each A + on my report card, after each perfect score at a music competition. But usually the rush would last only a few moments. I would immediately begin thinking, “There must be some mistake” or “It’s no big deal. A lot of people got the same score.” And, inevitably, I did not always get a perfect score. In my mind, this meant I was imperfect, flawed, and worthless. These kinds of thoughts are what fueled my depression.

In quiet moments, while lying in bed at night, I would nurse a severe, aching emptiness in my gut. I would begin thinking, “Is this all life is about?” But then I would wake up the next morning and it would begin all over again. I was driven by what I did, how others perceived me. Like any addiction, I continued to strive for that high feeling. I never realized how powerful its grip was on my life.

I began to think a lot about escaping life.

The first time I became suicidal I was in tenth grade. My friend, Sue, was a girl who used to attend my junior high youth group. Since I was still new to the group the year she moved, I had only met her a handful of times. We became pen pals starting in eighth or ninth grade. Our letters were long; we’d discuss typical Christian teenage girl stuff: guys, feelings, church, family, school. Over time, I felt a deep connection with Sue. It felt like she really understood me, unlike the friends I had in “real life.” In one letter, Sue opened up to me about her history of depression. She wrote that, several years ago, before she recommitted herself to the Lord, she wanted to die. She had a Jars of Clay CD that skipped every so often it played a certain song. One day she decided that she would shove some scissors down her throat when the song played through without skipping. The song, of course, never played without skipping. Sue had an awakening that day and believed Jesus had literally saved her life. From then on, she became active in youth group (the youth group I later attended), was mentored by youth leaders and soon struggled less and less with depression and suicidal thoughts.

I was struck by Sue’s confession. I vividly imagined her planned suicide attempt. The more I thought about it the more I couldn’t get it out of my head. I wondered what her bedroom looked like. I wondered where the CD player was located. I wondered what the song was called. What kind of scissors were they? How was she holding them? I thought of my small sharp pair of purple-handed scissors that would probably do the trick. But didn’t she realize that was a painful way to die? Why did she decide on this method? Was anyone in her family home at the time? Did she plan who would find her? Or was she even serious about it? If the song would have played without the skip, would she have done it?

For a long time, I mulled the planned suicide attempt over and over. I knew it was wrong. I knew that my friend would not want me to be thinking this way. Of course, I knew her purpose in sharing this story was to testify how God got her out of that dark time. But, still, I found comfort in thinking that this girl and I were so similar. I, too, wanted to escape. However, I never imagined a way to do it. I was afraid of pain. I preferred to just go to bed at night and never wake up.

Despite the pain my thoughts caused me, I now recognize the strength I had during those years. Though I didn’t realize I had an addiction, I definitely knew I was not healthy. Somehow my deeper self continued to pull me toward life. The smallest things kept me going during those times, reminding me of why I was alive and soothing my aching, striving heart.

One friend who I could always count on was my beloved Yorkshire terrier Preston. During my senior year, I was often the first one home each afternoon. I looked forward to seeing Preston’s reaction to my arrival home and my high-pitched sing-song voice calling out to him lovingly. My heart would swell with joy hearing his small yip as he sat wriggling and writhing behind the child’s gate in the bathroom downstairs. As soon as I would free him from his prison, it was as if he hadn’t seen me in a year. He would dart out of the small bathroom like a startled mouse. Then he’d dance crazily around my feet, sometimes rolling over several times and finally ending up on his back, four paws in the air. I loved lying on the floor and watching my little dog’s mouth rush at my face to give me kisses.

I loved Preston because he played hard to get. He definitely liked his alone time, so I didn’t get to hold him or play with him for long. That’s why it was extra special when he would slink in my room during homework time. I’d be studiously working and he would crawl under my chair, curl up on my feet and sometimes jump up on the edge of my chair begging to be held. Preston’s warm body and soft kisses were a tangible reminder of a kind of love I could receive with no strings attached. In response to this love, I found I had so much love to give back. This simple realization often reoriented my thought patterns and placed me back on the path of life. Even if for just a few short moments.

Another life giver was writing, a habit I’d had my entire life. I had begun journaling in fifth grade and it started out as kind of a compulsory activity. While I did talk about excitements, fears and hopes, mainly I would write about my day, feeling compelled to depict specific activities in painstaking detail. I was especially dutiful on family trips or mission trips. I tried to never skip a day, and if I did, it was necessary that, in my next entry, I catch up on every little thing that happened. I wrote fewer words about feelings and more about general facts. For the longest time, I felt like I was writing for someone. I knew one of my parents or brothers could easily get ahold of my journal, so in a sense I had to guard what I said.

As the years went on, I slowly eased into more transparency with my writing. For a while I just wrote to my “journal;” soon I began writing to God. After all, He already knew everything anyway.

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My perfectionism followed me into my college years. In many ways, college was an extension of high school, a new backdrop for the same painting. I was the same little girl on a canvas, trying to make a name for myself, trying to reach all the expectations my professors had for me, so I could get the high I longed for—a kind word, a pat on the back, an A on my transcript…