February 14, 2022

How Childhood Stress leads us to Strive for Perfection over Authenticity.

 

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“F*ck, I don’t know what to ask her,” I think.

As I pause, the muscles in my left shoulder jump toward my ear and simultaneously curl in tightly. I can feel myself getting a bit spacey, disconnecting from my body.

As I make eye contact with my client, I frantically search for the next words to say and the awkwardness of the momentary pause roils at warp speed through my torso. My intuition now completely disconnected, I can feel myself frantically reaching for the files of data tucked within the solid structures of my brain.

My breath quickens and becomes so shallow that it takes on a quality of suffocating.

The process of perfectionist flagellation is happening entirely inside of me, invisible to the outside world, but for a barely perceptible tensing of my shoulders.

In an instant, I had snapped into perfection mode: the zone where I believe there is a “right” versus a “wrong” way, and I simultaneously initiated self-punishment for my moment of uncertainty. I thought that not only should I have the material from my training and clinical experience photographically memorized, but also that I should have meticulously indexed the information in order to access it perfectly.

Later, when I watched a video of this event back and reviewed it with my mentor, she didn’t detect my awkwardness and instead noted my skilled delivery of the question that emerged after: “What part of you feels tender right now?”

And instead of feeling defrauded, my client sent me an unsolicited note exclaiming the tremendous value she received and the insights she realized.

So basically, this all went down in my mind.

What I soon came to understand is that our childhood stressors drive us to seek safety in achievement. We fear we might die if we make a mistake.

Despite external displays of competence, our internal processes are deeply rooted in the coping mechanisms borne of chronic developmental stressors.

In moments of uncertainty, we perceive that our survival depends on the solidity of what is “right.”

There’s truth to it: almost all of us grew up in an environment that valued right and wrong. We were punished for being “bad,” which meant being sent to another room, ignored, silenced, or shamed. Santa didn’t come unless we were “good,” which meant love, survival, and presents were dependent on our behavior.

The only way out was to cut off our authenticity in favour of acceptance.

And this coping strategy can often follow us into adulthood.

I was an excellent student when I was 14. But one day, I was deeply and harshly reprimanded by a school administrator when I chose self-advocacy in a situation that I deemed unfair.

As I sat in his office, he looked me in the eye and spat, with contempt, “You are a manipulative b*tch.”

The muscles in my shoulder jumped toward my ear and curled in. My head felt like I had been struck with a tire iron, and I became slightly disoriented and dizzy. My breath quickened and became so shallow that it took on a quality of suffocating. As I made eye contact with him, I frantically searched for the next words to say—and found none.

I wanted to take my shoulders and create a little cape to hide behind myself. I thought: “He’s not hearing me, but he’s an adult, so he must be right.”

I went back to class and never told anyone, even my parents. I was sure they would take his side.

But his words would echo through aspects of my behavior for decades to come. I subconsciously made a pact with myself to ward off future attacks with more rationale, more preparation, and more solidity in knowledge, facts, and data.

Next time, I would know what to say to such hurtful words.

I would build a wall of protection around myself, and the way I chose to do that was through education, degrees, and certifications. I would become the authority.

We cope with parental and cultural stressors in our childhood by developing coping mechanisms to avoid future pain. Our safety strategies are developed as a response to the world around us: we do not consciously choose them, but they instead find us.

In our adulthood, despite receiving positive feedback, we may find ourselves stressed and dysfunctional when these strategies, tailor-made for events years in the past with people who are no longer in the room, create untenable stress and pressure.

When that happened for me, I doubled down on my expectations of myself.

And when we have the repeated childhood experience of not being given space to express our thoughts or emotions, and constantly look to an authority figure for scores, grades, and approval, there is one kind of person we want to be when we grow up:

We want to be the person who is right.

We deem that when we are right, we will be safe.

But we are looking for the wrong thing. What we needed as children was to have the space to feel that our expressions and experiences had a right to exist. We needed an attuned witness to hear us, see us, and validate us.

What we got instead were grades, rankings, scores, and stress. So we try to soothe our need for authenticity with achievement.

It’s not a conscious process.

We are not doing it to ourselves: it is doing itself in us.

Thankfully, we can soften our coping mechanisms and create space for new processes.

We can offer ourselves the space for autonomy, agency, and authenticity that we didn’t get as children. We can offer ourselves space for the voice inside us that was never heard. We can speak, write, and think what is true for us.

We can explore our body sensations and get acquainted with the visceral tension that says: “I’m not safe.”

We can do yin yoga, meditate, and marinate in the discomfort of a pause and silence.

We can develop our intuition and learn the nuances of our gut feelings, honouring our interoception and neuroception.

We can find a balance between the security of knowledge, experience, and certification with the softness and heart of uncertainty, and the gut feeling of intuition and flow. We can find shades of grey when transitioning and integrating these three parts by acknowledging and allowing co-existence, rather than flipping to our head for fear that our body is wrong.

We can embrace the cape of discomfort our shoulders want to create when we allow our heart and gut to dance with our certificates and competencies.

We can pause when we don’t know what to say.

And in the silence, we can hear the 14-year-old inside of us saying: “Please listen to me.”

~

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