CPTSD, OCD and Trauma: How Getting My First Tattoo Became a Lesson in Perfectionism and Control
December 4, 2020
I decided to get my first tattoo at the age of 39. In my 40th year. To mark the new beginning I’ve been gifted. The chance to start my life post-trauma. It symbolizes that the pain from my past is over. And that I’m starting to remember who I am. It reminds me that I’m safe. That I’m grounded. And that nothing can take that away from me. It’s permanent. Just like a tattoo.
Prior to getting my first tattoo, I spent a year preparing for it. To ensure it was exactly what I wanted. But what I wasn’t prepared for was for it to dredge up all of my issues with perfectionism and control.
Growing up with the idea that things needed to always be perfect set an unrealistic precedent for life. Because life will never be perfect. And if you strive for perfectionism, you are only setting yourself up for failure. Trying to control things you cannot control. Making you feel constantly disappointed. Physically sick. Emotionally rundown. Preventing you from seeing the beauty in life. But what I’ve been learning in my trauma recovery is that the real beauty in life—the real magic—lies in the folds. In the imperfections. And that by embracing those imperfections, by allowing them to naturally unfold, we can be free.
Then getting my tattoo became a test of that freedom.
At first, I felt so empowered by getting my tattoo. By having a permanent reminder that I made it through the darkness. A symbol to help me see the light. But then, about two days after feeling the power of this symbol of my new found freedom, my old thoughts started to creep back in. Trying to take my power away from me. To rob me of my freedom. Trying to take back control. And to make me search for imperfection.
First, I started to panic that my tattoo was crooked. Lopsided. That somehow, the tattoo artist and me had missed that the placement was off before it was inked into my skin. Then, I started obsessing that it was bigger than I had wanted. That, because the artist did not show me the picture until the day I was there, I didn’t have enough time to check every little aspect. To over-analyze each curve. To scrutinize. To find the imperfections.
Next, it was the color. Before my trauma recovery began, I lived in black. All black everything, as Jay-Z would say. But through my trauma recovery, I learned I was hiding in the black—in my black garments and furniture and accessories. I was promoting the darkness. The nothingness. The place where my trauma lies. After working with my Guru and Guru Mata, they helped me bring more color into my life. They helped me understand that the black garments I was draping myself in were attracting the negative energy I was so desperately trying to rid myself of.
So when it was time to get my first tattoo, I knew that it couldn’t be black. That it needed to be in color. To represent the fact that I’m no longer hiding. So I chose the color indigo blue. To symbolize devotion, wisdom and justice. I sat on this decision too for an entire year. But then, when my unhealthy thoughts started to attack after getting my tattoo, the blue felt wrong. In the sunlight, it was no longer indigo. It was lighter. Not the blue I would have chosen. But I did choose it. In fact, I believe my exact words to the tattoo artist were that the color was perfect. (In hindsight, a sign that I was in a state of over-idealizing.) Then after, I began feeling angry with myself for not asking her to show me more shades of blue. Claiming it was perfect, which was the exact opposite of what my tattoo was helping me acknowledge for myself.
For days after my obsessive thoughts began, the imperfections were all I could think about. I couldn’t even look at it. I began to neglect my self-care. I started to have a hard time getting out of bed. My obsessions took over. Became all I could think about. All my mind could focus on. Making it difficult to even breathe.
But then I caught myself—which is where I’m learning the healing takes place.
I realized that, if I let myself, I could find one million flaws with it. Be critical of it. Let my new found power turn instead into a downward spiral of despair. Letting my obsessive mind take control and take me over in the process. Beating myself up for having done it. For having altered my body. For having something permanent that I can’t undo. But now, the moment my mind tries to go to that place, my Higher Self steps in and tells me to stop. To enjoy it. To let it be the marker of my present and future joy. To let it be all that it is. All that it means to me. To let it feel good. And that’s it. To let something feel good without questioning it. Without feeling like it needs to be perfect.
My tattoo was the catalyst for my unhealthy thoughts, not the reason. So instead of letting myself obsess, losing more control of myself, I surrendered. And in surrendering, I became free of the debilitating control my mind can have over me. It was only by relinquishing control that I realized I finally had control. Because what I’m learning is that the only true peace is accepting that we really have no control at all. Of course, we must be in control of our actions. Of our words. Of how we treat ourselves and others. But when it comes to my well-being within myself, the only freedom is in not trying to control anything. Not my past. Not my present. Not my future.
Instead, the control comes from acknowledging what has happened and what is happening. It comes from observing and from being open. From learning how to cope. And from accepting that a big part of being an adult is learning how to navigate disappointment. Discouragement. And an overall lack of control. Accepting that things aren’t perfect. And that the more we deny reality and try to hang onto that idea of perfectionism instead of just letting things be what they are, the more out of control we will feel.
Getting my tattoo made me realize that I need to embrace whatever imperfection I feel about my tattoo. Just like I need to embrace any imperfection I feel about myself. Though I am noticing that the more I care for and love my tattoo, the more perfect I find it to be. The imperfections were another illusion. Another old path my mind went down. My fear of having done something wrong—something imperfect—crept up on me again. But this time, I took back control. And I finally realize that it is only by completely letting go that I have the best control of all. For I finally have control over my life. Over myself. And now, I have a beautiful little reminder of it too.
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