This is a repost of a piece written by Amy for Rachel Grant Coaching published here on December 19, 2017
and is a follow on to 5 Ways to Heal Your Abandonment Wound
A couple years ago, I had a conversation with a wise woman who used the term recovering overachiever to describe the ideal qualities of people that her organization likes to hire. A jolt of energy ran through my body as I heard those words. Yes! That’s me!
Many people like me who suffer from abandonment wounds or other kinds of childhood trauma can link their obsessive perfectionism to that childhood pain of guilt and shame from feeling unworthy and unlovable.
My mom tells me stories of being a worrier, even at 3 years old. She’d give me a crayon and paper and show me how to write a-m-y. I’d stand there next to the end table in the living room, crayon in hand, for over an hour - worried about making those a-m-y letters perfect. Uh-oh, she thought, this one is going to be a real worry wart. Yes. I was.
Not surprisingly, as a dancer for nearly 20 years, my obsession with perfection led to bulimia. Sadly, there is indeed a high correlation between obsessive perfectionism and eating disorders. And, I sure as hell wasn’t going to fail at bulimia - I was obsessed with doing even that perfectly.
The rituals - washing the hands, carefully placing my towel on the floor, then a large tupperware bowl on top, perfecting what foods I could vomit easily, hiding the tupperware in my closet so no one would know, then sneaking into the bathroom to flush it down the toilet after everyone was asleep - all of that I did with a level of perfection that made me feel proud and very much in control, while my emotions and the world around me spun out of control.
Until one day, after I shoved my finger down my throat, I looked down at my hand and it was covered in blood. How could this have happened? I had calculated everything so precisely. I thought I was the perfect bulimic. And, the validation from my dance instructors made it all worth it. They complimented me on rapid my weight loss - all that extra jogging I was doing on top of hours of dance practice very day (oh, and the secret vomiting) must be the winning formula to my slimmer dancer body. Yay for me!
Looking at the blood and saliva running down my hand, I felt both panic and utter failure. I didn’t realize then that that moment was the first step towards my recovery.
It would take well over a decade to stop the bulimia altogether, through a combination of medication, individual therapy, and group therapy - and another decade to continue treatment for the depression that goes hand in hand with eating disorders.
But alongside that, I started learning how to embrace the imperfection that is life. Changing my job from one that encourages obsessive perfectionism (as a CPA) to one where I must surrender to chaos (in a nonprofit that works in global trauma recovery) has forced me to let go of over controlling everything and everyone, and to start looking at failure as an opportunity for learning and growth.
And… I’m still in overachiever recovery. Here’s what that looks like for me:
Self-compassion above all
I took Stanford’s 8-week Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) and it changed my life. Learning self-compassion was like learning a new language - it was hard, required baby steps, and opened up doors to connection. I still have to work at it every day (some days are harder than others). But, I can now soften towards myself - and not just towards my wounded child self - but also towards the adult version of myself who I’m good at judging harshly. She also gets to be human, make mistakes, and in doing so, connects more deeply to her own humanity and that of others around her.
Compassion for others
Any judgement or resentment that I may feel towards others is often just a reflection of my own insecurity and need to be perfect in order to be loved. Ever heard that quote: When you point the finger at someone, there are three fingers pointing back at yourself…? I hate to admit it, but it’s true. CCT and lovingkindness meditationshelped me see those around me in a whole new way - as complex humans who inherited trauma, just like me, and who have their own coping mechanisms, just like me.
Notice when I’m fixating
Even if I embrace the chaos, I still find other ways of trying to exert control. Sometimes, it can feel liberating or even helpful - like stopping in the middle of my workday to clean the inside of the microwave or taking a 5-minute brain break to meticulously color mandalas in my adult coloring book.
Other times, it can be counterproductive - like throwing a tantrum at 11pm because someone left a dirty dish in the sink (No wire hangers!), or realizing that I’ve changed the color of a particular cell in Excel 6 different times because I can’t find the perfect shade of green - meanwhile I had a deadline to get that spreadsheet to someone yesterday.
When I try to stay present and notice what’s going on, I can see it and name it: Oh, I’m fixating. This must be about something else. What’s the worst thing that will happen if I let this go and move on?
Practice imperfection with intention
When I started grad school, I reverted back to my 3-year old self trying to write my name perfectly. I spent so many extra hours on assignments, where that extra time had no benefit to my actual learning process. I got a 99.25 out of 100 in my first class and found myself writing an email to my professor to argue for that last 0.75. Luckily, I called myself out (and by I, I mean my husband) before I sent that email.
I’ve now started to intentionally just do what’s necessary to get by. No, not with everything. But with the many things where it doesn’t fucking matter. Like letting the kitchen be messy when I know people are coming over, throwing away those papers that I will never file and don’t need anyway, and leaving those spreadsheets an unsightly black and white when they don’t need color coding!
These may be small things but they are symbolic. They’ve helped me to surrender and built that muscle that helps me cope (most of the time) when the bigger, more important life things happen.
Remember that recovery is a lifelong process
If recovery were school, I’d try so hard to get an A. But it’s not. It’s messy and imperfect (sigh). Oftentimes, my overperfection hurts people, and I need to own up to it, apologize, and practice compassion for myself and others. Mostly, it hurts myself. And, if I can stay in the process, notice, acknowledge, and not fall into shame, then I can build new neural pathways to heal those old wounds.
Luckily, I have a dozen chances to do that every day.
This is a repost of a piece written by Amy for Rachel Grant Coaching published here on December 6, 2017
Confession: I am the original martyr.
It’s true. Just ask my husband. Or my parents. Or my friends. I always have to do it alone. No one ever helps me. In fact, I’m just alone all the time.
After 41 years and decades of psychotherapy, medication, meditation, healing circles, and all the things I am supposed to do to take care of my inner child, it still hurts. But, childhood wounds are deep. And, my healing journey is not linear.
For me, abandonment isn’t a myth. It was a true story. At least, my adoption paperwork said so: Abandoned at a police station in Seoul, Korea. No family history attached. My adopted parents always reassured me that I was loved - otherwise, I wouldn’t have been left at a police station where I could be found and cared for. That made sense in my head. But, I couldn’t reconcile that in my heart. I tried to visualize my birth mother leaving me at the police station and being able to walk away. Did she cry? Did she look back? How could any mother do that?
I grew up feeling a profound sense of loss, an overriding fear of being alone, and the deep shame of feeling unlovable.
But, abandonment issues aren’t just for adopted kids. Anyone who has experienced loss, neglect, abuse, or lack of attunement (physical and/or emotional responsiveness) from a parent, caregiver, or loved one - especially during childhood - may suffer from abandonment wounds, even later in life.
As a child, my wound looked like trying to win the love of my adoptive parents by being perfect - straight A’s, dancer, musician, volunteer, and all the school clubs - then as a young adult, lashing out by engaging in risky behaviors (sex, drugs, and alcohol).
On the outside, I looked like little miss overachiever. On the inside, I felt alone, miserable, and unloved, suffering from depression, bulimia, and self-hatred.
As an adult, my abandonment wound looks like (still) trying to be perfect - then beating myself up when I’m not. Stressing over the small stuff. People-pleasing. Taking personally other people’s shit. Feeling like a martyr - or even putting myself into situations where I can be the martyr (then complaining about it later).
The good news is that it can get better. At least, it did for me.
The first step: acknowledge the abandonment wound
While I’m not one for labels (that’s a lie actually, I have a deep love for my electronic label maker), naming my abandonment wound made me feel like it was valid - and that my resulting emotions and behaviors were justifiable. As someone who has always felt crazy, the impact of acknowledging my wound helped me feel normal.
Notice, with curiosity how it shows up… then honor the wounded child
For me, this started with a list of the ways in which my childhood wound has affected my life. Though I love making lists, this one was painful, eye-opening, and like the naming exercise above, liberating. I listed out all the emotions, the people-pleasing and self-sabotaging behaviors, the fear-based career moves, and even the ex-friends and ex-boyfriends who meandered into my life, and who left, painfully and dramatically.
Sure, maybe not everything can be wholly traced back to my abandonment wound (there were certainly other wounds too), but noticing patterns - and trying my damndest to do it without judgment - has been super fascinating and highly educational. I now get to see myself with a whole new level of self-compassion for the wounded child that I once was. And, I get to notice, with much more awareness, when that wounded child shows up at my doorstep and wants to be acknowledged and loved.
Resource, resource, resource
In the world of healing, resourcing is doing something that feels good, regulates the nervous system, and reminds the brain that I am not in danger in the present moment, so calm the fuck down and reeeeeeelax. So, when my wounded child shows up, and that familiar feeling of panic, scarcity, and fear of being unloved rises up in my chest, I do something resourcing.
For me, that looks like breathing, meditation, music, dancing, yoga, hiking, cuddling my cat, getting a massage, taking a bath, or watching movies that help me release my sadness.
Once the chatter in my brain and the pain in my heart subsides, I can, from a more regulated, state of mind, body, and heart, think about what might have triggered my abandonment wound. Then, I can move to the next step...
Own what’s mine. Dump what’s not
With abandonment trauma (and most other traumas, for that matter), one of the most painful feelings is the lack of agency. I had no choice in being abandoned. Someone did it to me. And it fucked me up for years.
But, with healing, I get to reclaim my sense of power. When I find myself building a narrative about how I always have to do it alone, or how I’m always failing at being perfect, I get to (from a resourced state) acknowledge that my wounded child was triggered, own my own feelings, and then release anything that doesn’t belong to me (like someone else’s guilt, usually the result of their own wounded child).
Resource, resource, resource
And, then I come back to my resources. Again, and again, and, again. Because healing, for me, is a lifelong, never-ending process of my wounds showing up, acknowledging and honoring them, owning my own shit, releasing what is not mine, and taking care of myself with self-love and self-compassion every step of the way.
When I pay attention, I get the opportunity to heal even the tiniest part of my old abandonment wound. And when I don’t pay attention, without fail, it’ll come back to teach me a bigger lesson next time around.
Ironically, when I finally did look my trauma in the face years ago when I reconnected with my Korean birth mother, I learned that I was never, in fact, abandoned. At least, not in the way that my paperwork said I was.
Learning the truth of my story hasn’t lessened the pain from my abandonment wound. But, it has helped me reframe my abandonment trauma into intergenerational trauma. Tracing back the legacy of trauma in both my biological family and my adoptive one, and seeing how those cycles impact me today, has been, in many ways, resourcing. It’s a poignant reminder that, it’s not all about me and my wound. It’s about healing generations of wounds - for my ancestors, and for my future children. And, that, is a gift.