Seeing it Again–Where the Pressure Really Came From

Photo by Barbara Webb on

I used to think that the pressure in my life was from proving myself to my parents and maintaining a standard they set for me.  They always praised my grades and the events or clubs I partook in.  I loved it when they showed me off and when they talked about how smart I was.  They were always expecting the next great thing from me and wanting to see how far I surpassed myself. 

I know now that they were also feeling enjoyment in their pride and relief that I managed to do well with school.  I strove to maintain that level of esteem from them for as long as I could.  Their pride in me was like a drug and it made me feel like I was capable of anything.  I wanted more.  With good grades, I felt like I could take on the world.

My sister and I used to talk about how frustrating it was to have that pressure on me and she had a tendency to emphasize that it wasn’t my inner drive that went for perfection, it was my parents pressuring me.  The more I think about it, I honestly never felt pressure from my parents.  They never scolded me if I did something wrong or if I didn’t get a perfect score.  They were actually incredibly supportive if I made a mistake.  But they also didn’t go out of their way to make me feel like mistakes were ok or a natural part of learning.  And the attention I got was different when it came to a mistake versus success.      

In spite of all that, I couldn’t pin that this is where the pressure came from.  I’ve been having nightmares a lot lately and a lot of memories coming up.  I woke up one morning after it had snowed and I started thinking about how some people really have a hard time driving in those conditions and I felt myself getting increasingly angry.  Then I remembered getting into an accident in the snow when I was 19.  I remember the sound of the tie rod breaking and sliding into a street sign.  I remember an incredibly sweet woman stopping and asking if I needed her phone.  And then I remembered the aftermath, being terrified to drive in the snow.

Stick with me, because I realized that the pressure came from trying to keep up with my siblings.  When I was little, I always wanted to be with my sister.  I wanted to do everything she did, I wanted to be her.  After that accident, I panicked and asked for my family to help by driving me when I was really uncomfortable—like in fresh snow. I had been picking up my sister from the train station for months and I figured she would help me.  One nasty snow after the accident, she was taking me to class on campus not too far from home and she was pointing out every five seconds that her car slid too and telling me that I needed to learn to get over this.  It really hurt me and embarrassed me and it made me feel like I couldn’t rely on her.  Then it really hit me: I had been driving for almost two years and she had been driving for over 11.  She was holding me to her standard when she had five times the experience I did. 

Then I started remembering her making snide comments about not getting number one in class—while at the same time telling me that I had to let go of the perfectionism and that she was worried about me.  We had a complicated relationship—like most siblings if I really think about it.  She told my secrets to my parents and to my aunt—including the first time I had sex.  I kept everything she ever told me and she told the darkest parts to those closest to me.  But I envied her.  So I know the pressure wasn’t directly from my parents, and reading these stories, maybe it wasn’t even from my sister.  I put that pressure on myself.  I thought I was a failure if I couldn’t get something right the first time.  I hated myself for it and I even thought I was never meant to do certain things if I couldn’t get it right immediately.  Worse, I started holding people to that standard as well.  Completely unfair, I know, but I grew up with the people I looked up to expecting me to get it right because there was no room for error.  I know I can’t breathe like that, so I am letting it go.  This month is about love and I am practicing loving who I am—including where my neuroses came from.  Make friends with what I can’t change, and relieve some of that pressure.   

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