The feeling that I needed to be perfect began in my childhood. I had loving parents and a happy home, but my dad also suffered from serious mental health problems.
Dad had joined the Navy aged just 16, just after World War II. He was a wonderful person, but his naval experiences affected him badly. He suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression and anxiety. Then he started drinking to cope with his difficult feelings.
Dad would descend into terrible lows and just lie on the floor at home crying. At other times, he was back in charge as our strong, capable, funny dad. We loved him very much, but the healthcare and support he received in the 1980s just wasn’t enough. And growing up in a services family meant we all learned to keep up appearances. We acted okay, even when dad’s behaviour was frightening or out of control.
The pressure I felt was bad enough then. Nowadays it’s even worse. When the Girl Guides carried out a survey in 2017, a quarter of girls said they felt they must have ‘perfect’ lives, just like the images they see on social media. This pressure creates so many negative thoughts. Young people fear failure, or letting others down. Their self-esteem plummets, their mental health suffers and they feel vulnerable and lost.
When I was six, my dad disappeared at sea.
He was missing for a year until his body was discovered. We’ll never know for sure if he took his own life or had an accident. The grief and shock to my mother, my two sisters and me was awful.
No-one talked about dad’s death. Even friends crossed the road to avoid my mum as they didn’t know what to say to her. Everyone just seemed to be embarrassed. Then the bullying began. My sisters and I experienced bullying by kids who told us that dad killed himself because he didn’t love us. No-one ever explained that our dad had been ill.
That’s how my feeling of not being good enough started. It took very deep root in me. I covered up, and always pretended I was fine – but I wasn’t. I tried hard to make a good impression – to be high achieving, pretty and popular – but it was only a mask. Behind it, I felt deeply ashamed of my emotions. I felt that I didn’t deserve to be loved. But I kept it together on the surface, whatever the cost. I had no idea that not loving myself could cause me damage later in my life.
I had always wanted to be an actress. Acting allowed me to express all the ‘bad’ emotions which I feared would be rejected in real life. I was proud to achieve success in the spotlight, but confident Kirsty-on-the-stage was very different to anxious Kirsty-in-real-life.
I met a man I liked and our relationship went well. At first he was charming but gradually, my boyfriend began to dominate my life. To begin with, he would tell me what to wear and how to do my hair. I went along with this to please him and make him happy. But somehow, it never did. Next he started to tell me what I couldn’t and couldn’t say, who I could be friends with and what choices I should make.
From the outside, we still looked like the perfect couple. But my confidence was draining away. My boyfriend kept moving the goalposts so that nothing I could do was ever right. As my self-esteem crashed, I looked to him for permission to make even the simplest decisions.
Then my work as an actress led me to a breakthrough. I volunteered for a charity called Aurora New Dawn which helps victims of domestic violence. Abused women often find it hard to speak confidently. In my voluntary role, I used my acting skills to run workshops for survivors.
I taught the women breathing techniques that actors used to project their voices. I saw how standing and moving freely, speaking out with confidence and feeling better in their bodies helped them to regain their self-esteem.
As I listened to their stories, I realised just how strong the pressure to ‘be perfect or be punished’ can feel. Even today, many women still feel anxious and desperate to please. They think that if they’re less than perfect, they’re unworthy of love. Unfortunately, abusive and controlling partners tap into these fears.
It was as though the scales had fallen from my eyes. Now I could see how much harm my belief that I must be perfect had done to me.
I discovered just how many women, and sometimes men as well, turn themselves inside-out to please their partners. They want to be loved – but lose themselves along the way. It helped so much to realise that I wasn’t alone.
I now love myself more than ever, the good and bad. And when we love ourselves, it’s so much easier to meet a partner who loves us for who we really are – imperfect, like everybody else.
Kirsty Dillon is an English actress. Her new play Groomed To Perfection will be shown at Brighton Theatre Royal in the spring of 2019.
As told to Elizabeth Sheppard, author of Not A Proper Child.