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This is an essay I wrote for a contest last September. I wasn’t interested in winning and am not entirely sure this essay is really a final draft. I just needed a reason to write. In the past, when I’ve been given a prompt or a deadline, I could motivate and discipline myself enough to get words on paper. So I took advantage of a contest to write this self-reflective piece.

Allow me to introduce my lifelong companion, Perfectionism and her flunky, Low Self-Esteem. They have traveled with me for much of my life, acting as advisors in every decision I’ve made. In truth, they criticized and condescended, and I listened, choosing to see their hateful opinion of me as reality; I chose to believe that I didn’t matter. I ache just to write that, to allow that thought to see the light of day. It seems so bleak, but when I look back on the last ten years of my life, I have to admit that it defined much of my behavior. It was my decision to infect myself with this twisted belief that I regret, because it allowed me to make countless more choices that would only reinforce this belief and strengthen its hold on me. It also forced me to seek validation from external sources, rather than to recognize my own self-worth.

Perfectionism is an insidious creature. She lets you do great things but never lets you take pride in them. She disguises her unrealistic expectations as humility – there’s always room for improvement, right? When you inevitably make a mistake, however, Perfectionism will be the first to remind you that it was only a matter of time before you showed your true self. Indeed, she would shame me for any transgression, no matter how minute, and I would submit to her condemnation without fail. Enter Low Self-Esteem. The choice to believe Perfectionism was one I made each day, mindlessly but fatefully. While she clouded every aspect of my life, my belief in my inherent lack of value kept me in and out of relationships with hurtful and neglectful people. I desperately sought approval and love from these people, including many ill-advised infatuations. Invariably, they all go back to one man. The man whose emotional extremes both thrilled me and sent me tumbling into despair. In some ways, this is a simple “good girl meets bad boy” story. In other ways, this is a story that exemplifies my choice to believe my thoughts and feelings were pointless, easily sacrificed for his affections, transitory as they were.

He was a musician. Aloof and wanting to be mysterious, he spoke cryptically and assured me that his experience was much too complex for just anyone to grasp. And how I longed to be the one to understand! He would offer just enough of himself to draw me in and then dramatically cast me out, explaining that he would only hurt me if I got too close. Had I thought better of myself, I would have listened. But Perfectionism and Low Self-Esteem gave into the thrall. Here was a challenge with an ever-changing standard of excellence – how could I not enter into the game, open-hearted and ready to offer my devotion? How could I not martyr myself to his bottomless pit of artful despondency?

My friends insisted that I leave him, but I refused. I could not be another person who would abandon him; I had to be different. For once I had to feel special, and if I were special enough, he would choose me. And if he chose me, then I would finally feel validated. Perfectionism snickers in vindication, while Low Self-Esteem gluts herself on self-deprecation. Sadly, I believed their wicked version of the truth.

There was an honor in placing myself on the back-burner for him, and I could always find a way to excuse his dismissive manner. That was my choice: to dishonor myself in hopes of finding honor. When his empty promises crushed me, I convinced myself that it was my fault. Clearly, I hadn’t given enough to make him want to fulfill those promises. I chose to believe that I didn’t deserve better. If I did, where was this elusive better? He was the one who kept coming back to prove that I had some allure, that I was interesting and beautiful and provocative, rather than ordinary and boring, as I feared.

Of course there were moments I felt strong and self-possessed, when I knew I wouldn’t let him do it again. When I moved out of state to attend graduate school, I thought for sure it was over, that I could put our mess behind me. And then he offered to visit. The visit itself was damning. When had he ever made such a grand gesture for me? Why now? Though I had rightful misgivings, I decided that it meant he cared for me. Besides, Perfectionism and Low Self-Esteem would never let me believe that a man would get on a plane for me; I must be important! I chose to ignore my gut instinct and give in to my ever present need for affirmation. As it turns out, he had committed the ultimate betrayal by visiting me while the supposed love of his life sat at home, each of us unaware of the other.

His indiscretion led to a year of no communication. For the first time, whether of my own volition or not, I was free! I spent that year trying to understand my proclivity for such a man. I grew. I healed. I developed a stronger sense of self and a recognition that my needs were valid. I demanded that Perfectionism and Low Self-Esteem take a vacation.

Although I thought of him often and even missed him, I remained determined that he was part of the past. As if the universe wanted to test my resolve, I eventually received the “I’m sure you hate me, but I’m sorry” email. I did well not to respond for about a week, committed to keeping the revolving door to my heart sealed shut. Initially, I replied only to inform him that his email would never be enough, because he had caused too much damage. That was all the opening he needed. Calculating and manipulative, he oiled the hinges on that door and launched himself through it. Longing to feel the thrill of affirmation that only he could offer, I allowed him back into my life. Perfectionism and Low Self-Esteem had managed to follow him in and quickly reclaimed their advantage over me. Despite my efforts, I could not escape the lesson they had taught me long ago. Once again, I had chosen to believe that I was not good enough.

Every installment of this story had always ended the same – painfully. This time, however, was different. I was disappointed and hurt when he eventually left , but I didn’t automatically surrender to the self-blame and criticism. Instead, a quieter voice tempered the hostility and wanted to be heard over the cacophony of Perfectionism and Low Self-Esteem. This new voice wanted me to know that I could choose to honor myself and that my self-worth could not be tied to anyone else. Compassion began with a whisper, and she has grown louder over time.

Though I have learned to recognize Perfectionism and Low Self-Esteem when they arise, I admit they continue to plague me on a daily basis. I discovered, however, that the goal is not to annihilate the interlopers but to manage their influence on me. I do so each day by making a mindful choice: I choose to believe that I am valuable and worthy of love – to have compassion for myself. This is an active process that allows me to accept the good that has always been available to me – like freedom from anxiety, like safety, like love – but seemed so out of reach.

Although this was a story of heartbreak, I don’t regret the relationship; I regret the choice I made to believe that someone else could define my worth. I regret the choice to listen to the lies that Perfectionism told me, which only fed Low Self-Esteem’s hunger for validation. I look back and cannot believe I chose not to honor myself. More than anything, I regret not knowing that I had a choice.

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