In a few weeks I will hit the Big Four-Oh. As I face a milestone birthday that signals I am firmly ensconced in adulthood, I want to make peace with a particular aspect of my personality.
Recently, I found myself crying uncontrollably at work after being reprimanded. There is perhaps no experience more humiliating than showing extreme emotion in the workplace. Every woman’s magazine will tell you it is taboo, and yet I have done it many times. I have been this way my whole life: super-sensitive, easily hurt, and quick to cry. I feel the need to explore ways to develop a slightly thicker skin without losing the sensitivity that makes me a loving, compassionate person.
When I was called into my supervisor’s office, I was given a warning notice for absenteeism. I felt an immediate sting of tears. Within seconds, I was crying. My first thought was not to ask myself if the accusation was true. My first feeling was guilt. It wasn’t until hours later that I calmed down and realized the number of days in question was inaccurate. If my rationale had stepped in before my emotions, I would have had some leverage in the conversation. Instead, I responded like a guilty party. I assumed the worst of myself with lightning speed. The next day, I returned to my supervisor composed, but chastened. It may have been a little late, but I stood up for myself. I defended my absences and reminded my boss that I had filled in for others on short notice. I left her office feeling vindicated, but also questioning how I came to be so “thin-skinned.”
As I considered my sensitivity, I realized that my compassion for others runs deep—but my compassion for myself is nearly nonexistent. I help others see their good qualities but I ignore my own.
Admittedly, I am a casualty of perfectionism. Perfection is unattainable, so anyone trapped in its pursuit is doomed to fail.
And yet the voice of my inner critic is loud and unrelenting. She can complicate the simplest situations and inject her venom into the most innocent shortcomings. I remember a day at preschool when we were supposed to look into a pan of water and see our reflections. Such a simple concept to an adult, but I became inconsolable when I couldn’t see what I thought was supposed to be something magical in the water. I assumed immediately that something was wrong with me. I had failed where everyone else had succeeded. I couldn’t perceive that my own frustrated tears made it impossible to see anything. Later in school, if I couldn’t make an A, I saw myself as a complete failure. If a concept eluded me, I became so blocked by frustration and self-doubt that I made it impossible to learn. I didn’t know it at the time, but I see now that my self-worth was bound up in my achievements and not in the process. Anything less than the best simply wasn’t good enough. Without even realizing it, I had handed over control of my self-esteem to outside forces.
Now, I feel I owe it to myself to pursue self-confidence outside the specter of perfection. Physicality is not an area in which I excel. Unlike academia, perfection has never been a goal for me in the area of physical fitness. For that reason, I began working out with a personal trainer. Through challenging myself physically, I have learned that my body can do much more than I ever suspected. Out from under the expectation of perfection, I can appreciate small victories—a set of shoulder exercises, longer sessions on the elliptical machine.
I want to train my mind and heart to have that same confidence in my ability to be a good worker, a good wife, and a good friend. When I offer kind words to a friend, I offer some kind words to myself as well. At first this practice seemed too self-congratulatory, but that is just the critic’s voice again. I shush her and keep moving forward. I vow to build up my self-esteem so that I am not blown around by the opinions of others. I want to love myself and my experiences, so I will open my heart to myself the way I open it to others. I accept that I will have setbacks. I will cry. I will make mistakes, but I will treat myself with gentleness and respect.
I am beginning to see that perceived failures can be lessons, steps on the way to ultimate success. I surround myself with the words and stories of men and women whose names I know simply because they were willing to risk failure in order to achieve their own personal greatness. I will remember that mistakes do not make me unworthy, they make me human. I will work to go beyond self-forgiveness to self-acceptance. Instead of a thicker skin, I wish to fully and unabashedly inhabit the skin I am in.
Michelle Raiford has lived and worked in Asheville, NC since 1997. She pursues her love of writing while working part time. She shares her life with husband James and beautiful four-legged companion Katy. She can be reached at email@example.com.