A recent disagreement with my daughter helped me to notice this part of me in a more honest way. She wanted to go to the beach with her girlfriend after practice finished at school. That meant it would be after dark. I was uncomfortable with it, as I know the beach closes before dark and usually the only thing going on at the beach after hours is a healthy dose of nothing good. I couldn’t give her an explanation she could accept for my “no” answer;” I could only say I wasn’t comfortable with the whole situation. She was angry and the silent treatment ensued.
It wasn’t that I didn’t trust my 15-year-old daughter, although I know that seems naive. I really wasn’t that worried about what would be happening on the beach either. I was worried about breaking the rules.
In a later discussion about this, my daughter told me, “I know you want to be that hippie-happy-go-lucky mom that questions society and makes controversial choices with her head held high, but deep down, you just can’t do it.” So prescient and wise, that girl is.
Little Miss Perfect has been a major protector of me throughout my lifetime. Critical thinking did not come naturally for me, and furthermore, challenging authority was risky business for this highly sensitive person. Coping with an unpredictable emotional parent, I honed the skill of making safe choices, whenever I was alert to them. I was hyper-vigilant about following the rules, resulting in my dad calling me “a model child.”
This also extended to “being perfect” at school, getting good grades, making sure my teachers loved me. I stayed out of gossip, didn’t pass notes in class, turned in my homework and extra credit when the opportunity presented itself. I was that kid, “miss goodie goodie.” I prescribed to paternalism without ever considering a downside. Self righteousness defended any alienation that I experienced and my mom taught me to “kill ‘em with kindness,” so few of my peers were ever annoyed with me for too long because at least I was nice to them.
To the credit of some other more authentic part of me, I was attracted to kids who had the twinkle of “fuck it” in their eyes. I was too afraid to go along with them most of the time, but I listened to what they had to say with curiosity, wondered about what gave them the courage to face the consequences of their defiance. Admired their bravery. Even if I wasn’t following their lead necessarily, I was taking notes, tucking away their wisdom–because they were so smart in their anti-social way– in a place I could refer back to sometime.
Differentiation happened a little more slowly for me than it does for many. I came to understand my own identity, my privilege, appreciate the injustices suffered by so many of my brothers and sisters. I understand that my play-it-safe-condition can even contribute to and perpetuate injustice. It means that fear still motivates the suppression of indignation and outrage, speaking out and acting out in ways that would be risky–even if it is the right thing to do.
Bear with me in this thought, as it isn’t grounded necessarily in a studied discipline, but I think pain and trauma manifests behavior as if on two sides of a coin. On one side self-preservation is motivated by fear, cringing and playing it safe (Little Miss Perfect); the other side is motivated by defiance, radical questioning and brazen disregard for the pain and alienation that may ensue (Betty Friedan, Dian Fossey, Rosa Parks, Georgia O’Keefe, insert other brave ones here.) Both sides of the coin suffer, spinning and turning in the confusion. It can be hard to see straight with all of that spinning, but there are moments of clarity, for some anyway. Duality is so interesting.
I know Miss Perfect has had the best of intentions. She also has a lot of power. She has been a guiding force for a really long time, but I know I don’t need her anymore. She doesn’t step aside easily as she is self-righteous as hell. There is even a way in which she influences my efforts to be an advocate for social and racial justice–my thinking becomes wrapped up in how I can be the “perfect” advocate. Dialogue that involves speaking up becomes a dance of “one-up” instead and I trip over my own indignant judgement.
So, I’m working on it. While becoming a parent wasn’t done with a great deal of critical thinking or intention on my part, I have to say the privilege of raising children has really helped raise me. I’ve made all kinds of mistakes and I often wonder who is getting more out of all of this, me or them? I have enjoyed the Mom-part of me, the one who loves, cares, grins and giggles, smells the wonder of freshly washed baby hair and skin, holds, caresses and tucks the sheets in at bed time. She is also completely insane, but those are some of her good points.
2 thoughts on “Little Miss Perfect”
Well done, Beth. I enjoyed reading this and, as someone with too much “good girl” energy going a good deal of the time, I related to much of what you had to say. I know you are a fan of Brene Brown, as am I. She would have a lot to say on what drives perfectionism!
Thank you Mary, so much. Yes, I’m always working on loving the imperfections!