The chains are long and heavy, they connect to thick, cast-iron shackles on each of my limbs like the strings of a marionette. Oblivious that I “do” life imprisoned, my ankles are permanently bruised and I walk with weighted-down shoulders.
I am able to function with moderate dexterity and mobility. The puppet-master keeps me blind, her theater an illusion. Her name is Perfection and she has built a world around me, a well-polished one where performance is exceptional, children are well-behaved, and husband is pleased. She projects an atmosphere of enthusiasm and optimism, a delusion of contained happiness, where sadness and anger are banished to the shadows. Mistakes are never made because mistakes would mar the beautiful, flawless picture.
…and then I spilled the tofu…
It happened my first year of graduate school. The Marriage and Family Therapy Department gives the 16-PF Personality test to all their first-year students. While I don’t remember what the test measures, what I do remember is that the test said I was “good,” so “good,” in fact, it was referred to as “faking good.” Not insulted at all I found it funny, and innocently believed I was that “good” and the test just didn’t understand.
The MFT department also has their students create a Family Sculpture. This is an experiential therapeutic tool designed to highlight a person’s position and relationship to members of their family of origin. These two things prompted my professors to “strongly encourage” me to seek counseling. So I did, because I’m “good” and “good” is compliant.
I sat in a fairly comfortable chair across from John, my therapist. The office was a moderate size with enough room for his desk, two chairs, several book shelves, and a side table that held a lamp and clock. A six-foot high window provided us with natural light. After a brief greeting John looked directly at me and asked, “what’s with all the perfect?” I stared back at him, brows furrowed. He then reminded me of my email response confirming our appointment. I had used the word “perfect” (in some form) three times in two sentences, the longest sentence being five words long. With no insight to offer we continued our discussion and I told him about myself and what my goals were. At his suggestion we agreed to explore my relationship with perfection.
It was another month or so before the illusion I was living in shattered and a saw the invisible chains of a belief system that was destroying me….
It was a normal end-of-the-day. I arrived home from school, put my stuff down, and made the mental switch to wife-and-mother mode. My children laughed and chattered in another room and I greeted my husband who stood at the kitchen sink preparing supper. He asked me to get something for him from the fridge.
“Sure,” I opened the fridge and reached to the back to grab what he needed. As I maneuvered around the items in front of it my forearm hit the open container that held a half block of tofu sitting in water. It fell over . . . water went everywhere . . . and I broke!
I wish I could tell you what I was thinking. All I know is what I felt . . .
Shame, the black, sticky, tar-like emotion that grips your heart. It’s caustic tendrils travel through your veins permeating every cell in your body. You are left believing what a horrible person you are, how no one is as bad as you, that you deserve the severest punishment for what you did.
All for spilling tofu and two cups of water…
Leaving the mess, water dripping through the fridge, I ran to my room, lay on my bed and wept. Tim hurried after me, the children, hearing the commotion, behind him. He crouched beside me, brushed the hair off my face and asked, “what’s wrong?”
Words broke between sobs, “I can’t live like this anymore!”
Those words began the hard work of chiseling the shackles and removing the chains Perfection locked me in.
There’s a song, Take the Shackles off my Feet so I can Dance. I love that song. I love to dance. I love the freedom I’ve found. The freedom to be messy. The freedom to be imperfect. The freedom to be real.
Perfection lied to me. Perfection had me believing my life was shiny, with a fresh coat of unicorns and rainbows. Yet behind the facade Perfection masked the caustic, destructive, blackness of Shame.
There are times when the tendrils of shame try to sneak in and wrap around my ankle. When I see them, I shake my foot … … … and dance.