A few weeks ago I had the privilege of hearing Jane Fonda speak to 700 psychotherapists at a conference sponsored by the Renfrew Center Foundation. This venue, filled with experts in the field of eating disorders, was a most fitting audience for Jane's talk on "The Tyranny of Perfection."
Jane's family history was striking. The combination of her mother's suicide at age 42 when Jane was just 12, along with her father's obsession with thinness (he grew up in a tall, thin clan) led Jane to develop an eating disorder that lasted 30 years, hidden from her husbands and friends until her early 40's (perhaps not so coincidentally, the same age point when her mother died).
My ears perked up when Jane talked about reviewing her mother's medical record from the perspective of an adult. It was then that she discovered that her mother had been sexually abused by someone who worked for the family and, had tumultuous times as a teen. "It wasn't me," Jane exclaimed upon reading the records.
Immediately I knew what she meant. She needn't say more: it wasn't her fault that her mother has been unable to express love for a daughter; it wasn't her innate sense of being unlovable that could any longer explain the feelings of rejection that caused Jane to feel so unacceptable and spur her into a drive toward perfectionism in hopes of changing herself to compensate for assumed deficiencies.
There in a medical chart held the missing pieces to Jane's identity puzzle. It wasn't her. It was the damage done to her mother by an alcoholic and physically abusive father and the misguided mental health professionals at the time.
"I wonder what might have happened to my mother if she had been sitting across from a professional who worked relationally and cried with her" rather than one who would tell her to cover it up. The next sentence that flowed within my own mind said "yeah, and what would have happened to her mother's daughter- Jane - if her mother had received adequate help?"
So often, daughters and sons blame themselves for the unknown tragedies in their parents' childhoods. Often without awareness, they seek to transform their parent's sadness by seeking means of achievement or "self-improvement." Getting oriented to pleasing others can become a way of life, not because it's an attempt at being self-destructive, rather quite the opposite, it's an attempt at being self-sustaining. Generally its gains are short-lived while the pursuit to please and/or impress lives on.
Like Jane, we are all vulnerable to finding ourselves on a path that's quite divergent from the one we originally intended. Whether it be through manipulating one's body image as she did or needing to project a sense of always being "together," when we believe that we are to blame for another person's shortcomings, we inevitably turn against ourselves.
Moved to tears throughout her talk, Jane Fonda spoke about how we all need to learn about the ways "we lose our authentic voice and pursue elusive goals." Those ways we judge ourselves and exaggerate the importance of our imperfectness make it so much harder to develop the awareness we need. Clinging to the early life myths that shape our self-perception keeps us locked in family lore and stuck in habitual patterns.
The tears of this 71 year old woman before me were the tears of authenticity and wisdom. It took Jane Fonda until 42 to end the cycle of her disordered eating, It took another 20 years for her to eventually "move inside and take up residence inside" herself. Healing our wounds and becoming whole just might take longer than we'd like it to, but if we are willing to be more with our authentic voice, and pursue life affirming goals... we will eventually get there.