My Soul Made Me A Panic Room

It was called “perfection.”

Awesome original illustration by Bill Ferenc (site + Instagram)

“I have no space in my life for people who pretend to be perfect. It’s fake, and I want real connections with real people.”

Recently, someone I really like and respect was teaching a class about personal inquiry. One of the main points was authenticity—showing up as yourself—and they spoke this gem.

Real connections with real people. It’s a solid point and an excellent reminder about relationships that it echoes another piece of wisdom I once heard: A person can only love someone else as deeply as they love themselves. Judgemental people are beating the hell out of themselves in their own minds. Commitment-phobic people are cheating themselves out of deep roots. And “perfect” people are hiding something, usually their authentic selves.

It’s that last one that really stings because, as they say on the internet, “It me.”

Hello, I’m Sarah and for nearly my entire adult life I’ve sent my avatar into the world to parley on my behalf.

I didn’t mean to; it was automatic. A reflex. Many people equate the “perfect” projection as a mask, but for me, it was more like armor. Something to protect and insulate me from the outside world.

Looking pulled together on the outside was the way I felt camouflaged on the inside. It was a way I learned, through countless tangles with reckless, chaotic people, to be acceptable — if I had no thoughts, opinions, feelings or needs that inconvenienced, upset or confused others then they wouldn’t knock me around. Left to spin out, that manifests as perfectionism, isolation and straight-up control-freakiness.

So, “Perfect” was a little panic room my soul made, stuffing itself inside so that the scary people wouldn’t know anyone was home.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

It took me years and years to unravel all the ways I retreat into that space when I feel too vulnerable — hell, I’m still untangling those knots even today. Anytime someone wants to come over I’m nervous my house is too clean or not clean enough. When I talk about something difficult to a friend, I always want to wrap up the story with a satisfying arc (“This Thing Happened And I’m Better For It!” “I Overcame This Obstacle With Humor and Grace!” “I Solved It Myself!” etc.) And when I have messy emotions, I jump right back into that trap door and push the button to cover it with the kitchen island, a la the new Halloween (which is excellent, by the way).

I wish I didn’t do this, but it’s the shortcut my brain made between “opportunity for connection,” and “UNSAFE!” Yet, now it’s less of a panic room and more of a little birdhouse; a space I can hang out in with a large open door and maybe a few windows, instead of concrete walls six-inches thick. When you come over to my house now, everything is generally clean but maybe there’s some recycling in a pile by the door or counter clutter or a few random pieces of popcorn on the kitchen floor. (Having a five-month-old helps — babies are an exercise in being comfortable in chaos.)

This may not sound like a big deal but for me, it can be really uncomfortable to not have “thought it all through” or tidied everything up completely. It’s a kind of connection exposure therapy, inoculating my anxious mind against judgement (real or imagined) and helping me peek my head outside of the little birdhouse and into the world. These new insights also helped me see other “perfect” people who “have it all together” in a new light.

I can see the code in the Matrix—perfectionism is not some overachieving, ambitious drive to be the best; it’s a pathological reaction to not feeling good enough or strong enough to enter the arena on your own. It’s camouflage, a suit of armor, shield, spear, sword, back-up sword, helmet, moat, fire-breathing dragon—it’s anything and everything that hides, insulates and protects you from the world.

It may have worked really well for a while and helped you get through a rough time, but eventually, you might need to rethink what type of structure you actually need and adjust accordingly.

So, the question then becomes, “Is this panic room still the thing I need?” If the answer is no, this may help.

How to dismantle your panic room

  1. Draw a map of your house. Not your physical house, your emotional one. Where are you living each day? Is it your den (a cozy space with a hand-picked selection of friends and family) or is it your panic room (Perfectly perfect perfection)? If you’re making like a 1960s doomsday prepper and shutting yourself in that bunker to wait for the Big One, it’s probably time to relocate.
  2. Plan an evacuation route. The world is scary sometimes. When you’re wandering around your redrawn floor plan, you might freak out and need to run back into that panic room. It’s Ok. Seriously, it is totally Ok to scurry back in there from time to time as you adjust to a new way of living. Just leave the door open a crack or two.
  3. Start your renovation. Anyone that’s redone their kitchen or spruced up the tile in their bathroom knows that it sucks to live through the renovation process. This is no different. It’s going to take longer and cost more than you realize at the time, but one day you’ll be sitting at your brand-new breakfast bar sipping a cup of coffee and thinking “Damn, this was so WORTH IT!” Start with deep breaths when you feel the familiar itch to be perfect or to hide or to not show up. Choose something—anything—different than your typical response. You’re building a birdhouse or a cozy couch or some other type of place to feel safe one moment at a time. Be gentle, take it easy and reach out to a pro if things get too heavy.

Ghostwriter, live wire. I’ve written for other people—CEOs, former first ladies, TV networks—for almost 20 years. Now I’m writing for you.

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