In the fall of my freshman year of high school, I was elected captain of the tennis team. I took on the responsibility with the mindset that I had to be the best on the team, always a step ahead of everyone else. To me, being a leader meant being as close to flawless as I could be.
Tennis, being a two-person game, is full of mistakes that are solely your own. Every mistake I made pissed me off, until some games I began to cry. I scolded myself verbally, with curses and threats, until one day I couldn’t take it anymore. I was being too easy on myself. I dug my fingernails into the skin of my left wrist, in the middle of the court, and cut. It scarred, pink and fleshy, and never went away.
I wish I could say that scar stood alone, but it was soon joined by others, little red railroad tracks on the inside of my left wrist. When people asked what happened, I smiled, laughed, and told them I’d run into a fence or scratched it on a goal post in soccer or simply tripped and scraped it on an edge. I don’t know if anyone believed me, but I expect that they didn’t. I was self-conscious, and never raised my left hand in class or gave anyone anything with my left hand, because it would expose my wrist.
When I wasn’t angry at myself, I didn’t really understand the cutting. I knew cutting was a bad habit, dangerous even, and I didn’t like carrying the scars. I wasn’t one of those girls with emotional problems and a screwed up self-image; everyone saw me as confident, happy, smart, the perfect student and athlete with a future full of promise. But time and time again, in the heat of the moment, I would cut and curse and beat myself up.
The truth was, I cut because of my excellence, not in spite of it. I was a perfectionist, raised on the notion that I was very intelligent and would go on to do great things. As a child, I was typically one of the best, both in the classroom and on the tennis court/soccer field. Part of my identity was being flawless and the best, not because I needed to be better than others, but because I needed to live up to my full potential, which I thought was the potential to be perfect.
When I didn’t achieve perfection physically, mentally, and emotionally, I punished myself (and only one avenue was cutting). I talked down to myself in my head and out loud, pushed myself to work harder, and drove myself into the ground. I loaded myself with activities to balance out my lack of perfection in certain areas. I thought that I had discipline because I could punish and criticize and fix myself and all my flaws. When I cut, I felt like I finally had control.
This extended to my body image by the middle of my sophomore year, which had always been somewhat shaky. I was at a jazz festival, and I ate four ribs (which somehow, in my mind, was a complete failure). I looked at the bones and felt the failure eating me up. I needed control. I cut.
My boyfriend intervened a week after I told him. He sat me down and began a lecture about my body-image and my tendencies towards self harm. I explained to him that I needed to discipline myself, because I saw myself as a person with tons of discipline.
He said something I will never forget: “Discipline isn’t punishing yourself. It’s forgiving yourself.”
I realized that my entire system of punishment, criticism, and “discipline” wasn’t strength; it was weakness. Cutting myself was a lack of control, not an embodiment of it. I knew I always put in all the effort I had, and punishment was not the solution. For me to have self-discipline, it meant I had to love myself more in my failures than in my successes, and accept myself and all my flaws. I had to redefine my self-image: I could never be perfect, but I was doing my best, and that’s all I could ask of myself.
It’s still a process, and there are still days when I feel guilty for eating too much or feel myself tearing in frustration when I have a bad day on the court. But I haven’t cut myself since, and I don’t ever plan on doing it again. I try to remind myself that I’m human and not expected to be perfect or flawless. That I am only authentic and real and lovable because I am flawed.
We tend to define discipline as synonymous with punishment, but the two are radically different. Discipline is simply the process of adjusting one’s behavior and actions so that they are most beneficial to the world and oneself. Discipline means forgiveness and love as much as it means constructive criticism or occasional punishment.
If you find yourself punishing yourself for being imperfect, flawed, or human, remember that you aren’t being disciplined: you are actually being the opposite. Weakness is believing you can be perfect; strength is knowing you can’t, but doing your best and persevering in the face of your flaws.
Which do you value more: perfection or happiness? If you answer the latter, then you are human, and you don’t deserve to be punished for not being the former. You aren’t supposed to be perfect; you are supposed to be kind. Punishment and kindness rarely go hand in hand, and violence is never part of the equation.
It’s ironic: we want to be perfect, so we scar, starve, and mutilate our bodies. We flaw ourselves to make ourselves perfect. Who wants to live that irony?
How do you deal with imperfection and learn to forgive and love yourself in spite of your flaws?