When I was a little girl, I was excited by everything and totally unafraid of making a fool of myself or failing.
I never felt the need to prove myself. I only did things that really inspired me.
I wrote poems and dramatically read them to my class. I wore an Ariel costume under all of my clothes and called myself an undercover mermaid. I created mudslides in the pouring rain. Started a “restaurant” in our garage and sold saltine crackers for one dollar a piece. I put on dance performances at family gatherings. I had zero concerns about what other people thought of me. I thought I could do no wrong.
But then, one day, when I was seven, my world came crashing down on me when I was sexually assaulted by an older boy.
I thought that I would never feel clean or good again.
I thought that there must have been a part of me that wanted it to happen. Some sick, gross, dirty, bad, wrong part of me.
The next 13 years of my life were consumed by trying to compensate for feeling dirty and not good enough.
I didn’t want anyone to know that I was secretly a “bad girl,” so I did everything in my power to be good. In middle school, sometimes I slept only a few hours a night to make sure that I got perfect scores on my exams.
On top of being a straight-A student, I was in the school plays, competed in science fairs and cheerleading competitions, was on student council, and did community service.
But I still didn’t feel clean. I still didn’t feel good enough. I was still afraid that others would find out how bad I secretly was.
In high school, I was in all honors classes and still got straight As. I held leadership positions in four different clubs. I was captain on the debate team. I volunteered, taught classes, started my own tutoring business, wrote for the school paper, went vegan and became an animal activist. I was stuck in The Achievement Trap.
Still not good enough. Still not clean.
Toward the end of high school, I started modeling. The industry promised me that I could be world-renowned for my beauty. I thought that this, if true, would finally make me feel good enough. Finally make me feel clean.
Soon, my need to prove my worth extended beyond just grades, extracurricular activities and accomplishments. I looked at my body and thought that any fat that I had might reveal to others that I actually wasn’t good enough.
I thought it might portray to the outside world that I was actually bad and gross.
So I started dieting. To feel clean again. To prove my worth. To hide the bad part of me.
One day, after leaving a casting where the models were rail-thin, I went to the bathroom and saw how my thighs spread out over the toilet seat. “Still not thin enough,” I thought. I pulled up my shirt and saw how my stomach rolled when I bent over. “Not good enough,” I thought.
The refrains from my childhood echoed hauntingly again: I need to be good. I need to be clean.
I was already restricting. The thought that I would have to restrict even more to feel good enough was sickening. I felt desperate. I cried and hyperventilated in the bathroom stall. And from then on, I ate less.
I’d frequently check the back of my thighs in the mirror. If I saw dimples, I’d eat even less. I’d bend over. If my skin rolled, I’d eat even less. I could no longer connect with others or enjoy experiences because I was constantly analyzing how many calories I took in and burned.
I was diagnosed with anorexia. My doctor told me that my body had begun to eat away at my liver (although the modeling industry told me that I looked great).
I ate less and less but never felt cleaner, stronger, or better.
I dieted in order to numb myself from the feeling of being bad that crept in whenever I wasn’t achieving. The emotional hunger I suppressed was so much greater than my hunger for food. I also suppressed my cravings for nurturing, self-acceptance, pleasure, vulnerability, connection, and relaxation. I felt that I was wrong to want these things.
I associated these desires with the same part of me that I thought must have wanted to be assaulted—the bad part of me that must have deserved it. The part of me that I was afraid would take over if I stopped achieving for a second. So I only allowed myself to want what I thought I should want: to be productive, high-achieving, and disciplined.
The restrictive eating, straight As, and over-involvement persisted in college. On top of modeling and working two part-time jobs, I founded and ran a farm-animal activism club that won “Organization of the Year.” I got a leadership service award. I held weekly community dinners. I hosted activist conferences. I worked out almost every day. I didn’t drink or party. I was so “good.”
I felt that if I slowed down, let up, or released some control, that the floodgates would open. I thought that the shameful parts of myself that I had worked so hard to hide for so long would be revealed. I feared that others would finally figure out that I’m actually just a bad, wrong, gross little girl.
I feared that if I let down my defenses, no one would love me anymore. I truly feared my unleashed self. I feared that others would discover the real me. The bad me.
One day, I was feeling disgusting because I had eaten a big muffin for breakfast and I thought I could feel the calories turning into fat on my body. I went for a run, wanting to burn away how gross I felt. I wanted to burn away everything that was dirty and unworthy about me. I wanted to run so hard that my body had to consume every undeserving piece of me. I was trying to run from myself.
But it wasn’t working. I ran harder and harder and I wasn’t feeling any better. I wasn’t getting any cleaner. I started feeling tired and hated myself for being so weak. I ran harder.
I wondered how hard I would need to run to feel good enough. To feel clean. I desperately asked myself, “When will I feel good enough? When will my worthiness return?”
And then, somewhere from the very depths of my being, an answer came: it’s not coming.
The thought repeated itself with every stride.
“It’s not coming.” “It’s not coming.” “It’s not coming.”
My worthiness wasn’t coming.
I had spent the majority of my life trying to achieve enough that I would feel worthy, and the worthiness was not coming.
This realization made me stop dead in my tracks. I crumbled to a heap of sobs in the grass.
I had achieved everything that I had set out to achieve, yet I didn’t feel any better about myself.
And I suddenly understood. My worthiness wasn’t coming—because it was never lost.
I had forbidden myself from everything that I loved about life—relaxation, connection, laughter, joy, spontaneity, fun, nurturing—thinking that if I just achieved enough, that one day I would earn the right to love myself again.
But I had never lost the right in the first place. I had it all along.
Years of self-torment came cascading down upon me and, in a flash, I realized how absurd it was that I had been torturing myself all that time.
I realized I had been trying my whole life to repent for being a weak girl and a bad girl, when all I needed to do was love that little girl inside of me who felt weak and bad. I didn’t need to punish her anymore. I didn’t need to destroy her.
I needed to embrace her, accept her, love her, allow her, let her be seen.
And in that moment, with that realization, I became free. I realized that I had been worthy all along, and that there was nothing left to prove. I realized that I deserved to feel good, and do what I love—and so do you.
Author: Brandilyn Tebo
Image: Anthony Kelly/Flickr
Editor: Emily Bartran