In my mother’s mind, there was always room for improvement.
Feeling guilty has been a predominant theme in my life. As a child, I learned to feel guilty about eating, ashamed about my body and, for some reason, responsible for my family’s collective happiness.
I often felt at fault; just in the wrong somehow. This could be attributed to the prevailing anxiety disorder that made its presence known around the age of 5. It could also have something to do with the way my mother operated. She rarely doled out praise and, when she did, it was underscored with some sort of veiled reprimand. In her mind, there was always room for improvement.
When I came in first runner-up at the Little Miss Flagler County pageant at the age of 7, she rationalized that the reason for my “loss” was because I was considerably larger than the winner, a tiny, adorable girl named Maven.
To be clear, she did not say outright that I was large, but that the other girl was very small, and that was why she won. I thus inferred my relative size to be the problem. Additionally, she made some grumbling remarks about small-town nepotism on the judging panel that I didn’t quite understand at the time. Either way, I felt guilty for losing.
As I got older, there were additional instances where my size proved to be my downfall and hindered me from progressing in activities that my mom had championed. I felt guilty for growing too tall for gymnastics, and guilty for being too awkward to be a dancer.
I wanted to be small like my friends; tiny. I equated smallness with thinness and thinness with value. I greatly disliked being the large, beastly giant amongst my pixie-sized girlfriends. I towered. I felt like Lurch from The Addams Family most of the time. I wanted to shrink into myself. I wanted to fit into my friends’ clothes so we could share. I wanted to fit. I wanted to fit in.
When I was in middle school, I befriended a very beautiful girl named Stacy, whom I am still friends with today. Stacy has blonde hair, blue eyes, and could give Heather Graham a run for her money. Upon meeting her, my mom was immediately enamored by her, and she remains one of my mom’s favorite friends of mine to this day.
While Stacy and I were growing up and becoming interested in boys, she always expressed disdain in Stacy’s dating choices. No one was good enough for Stacy. Stacy should be a model. Stacy shouldn’t settle for this person or that person. Stacy looked just like Heather Graham! She was like a broken record. Yes, my friend was (and is) very beautiful. I agreed with everything she said about my friend, but this friendship dynamic triggered the same old feelings of inadequacy by comparison. It’s wearying to the soul after a while.
Stacy and I had a falling out in high school, but then became roommates later in college. However, by this time, I was very ill with my first major bout of anorexia and I was unable to foster any sort of human connection, even with my former best friend.
Years later, Stacy and I were still in touch, just not as close as we once were. Stacy, normal and well-adjusted, had married and had children. My mom’s laser focus praise for Stacy suddenly turned to Stacy’s children who “absolutely had to get into modeling and acting.” Soon she was emailing Stacy with all sorts of unsolicited information on exactly what she should do with her beautiful babies, complete with links and contact names for people in the biz.
Stacy is pretty level-headed when it comes to her kids. She’s got them enrolled in plenty of activities, but they are character-building, and none of them have anything to do with appearance. I had begun to feel guilty, worrying that maybe the “helpful suggestions” might seem appealing and wind up damaging the kids in the long run.
However, I quickly realized that my worry was unfounded. Stacy is not my mother, and seeing how easily she ignored her suggestion was kind of empowering to me in a way. How did she do that? I’ve always felt trapped, as though I’ve had no say. Either go with the “suggestion” or wrestle with that sick feeling of guilt in the pit of my stomach.
Is it possible for me to let go of guilt and still act autonomously?
I think so: If I can pay attention to my own wish to get rid of my guilty feelings. If I can keep my own needs and the needs of the other people in my life in my mind. If I can forgive myself for wanting happiness.
Happiness: That’s one thing I don’t have to feel guilty about.
Kristen M. Polito aims for brutal candor in regard to her own struggle with anorexia, bulimia, and bipolar disorder. Besides writing, she loves running, reading, organic gardening, and dogs. You can read her public blog, SaltandPepperTheEarth@www.saltandpepperthearth.com, follow her on twitter @saltandpepperth, Facebook, or visit her author page here.