The past two days, the mirror of self-awareness has been shoving my penchant for perfectionism in my face.
Okay, so it’s not merely a ‘penchant’.
It’s an all-encompassing, enslaving propensity which sends me into a debilitating spin cycle of self-berating; a default that switches on with the force of a tornado if it is not stopped; a merciless mental taskmaster that takes over my mind and heart, and scolds me, wagging its finger, until I have come up with a proper correction for my imperfection, or a fitting penance if no correction can now be made.
On Monday, after a bit of a rough morning, I had this nagging feeling that I just wished I could rewind the morning and do it over. Because if I could, I would do four or five things better the second time around, and then the whole of the morning would have gone much smoother and I wouldn’t be feeling so silly.
Somehow in the midst of all that, I managed to stop myself and ask, “Why do you care so much about rewinding the morning and doing it over, doing it better? Why can’t you just let it go and get on with your afternoon?”
And then, there it was in the mirror of self-awareness: Because I was enslaving myself to perfectionism’s rule.
It wasn’t the actual events of the morning that were bothering me as much as the fact that I had not executed them perfectly. I could do better. And other people had seen me not execute them perfectly. And I wanted these people to know that I could do better. And I wanted them to know that I knew I could do better.
So, you can see, it was pride at the core, of course – the thing that perfectionism appeals to in us to secure its hook.
But in a moment of lucidity (rarer than I’d like), I thought to myself, “This is ridiculous!” and I went to Twitter and tweeted something clever, which then posted to my facebook page, which was then ‘liked’ by many friends.
But, for me, the victory was not won in 140 characters; the battle raged on in my head all afternoon and into the evening. I had gained tremendous ground, mind you, in naming the thing. But I had not conquered it. I was constantly reminding myself of the Gracious Master that I serve, who, while perfectionism wagged its finger at me, telling me that I should be able to keep it together at all times and I should’ve done better, kept asking this little child (for that’s certainly how I felt) to come unto Him, crawl up on His knee, and accept His redemption for my mistakes and my transgressions as well as His guidance for handling things in the future.
Though, still not quite free, I wanted to wake up Tuesday and do better with my day. But by the afternoon, I found myself in new circumstances where I was irresponsible, disorganized, unprepared, and unjust and ungracious with others, and the spin cycle started all over again. Each day indeed has enough trouble of its own. (With no intended insensitivity to singles, this is where it’s helpful and/or aggravating to have a husband that reminds you, as you berate yourself anew, about what you’d tweeted the day before.)
I once (in the quite recent past) had an actual boss like Perfectionism. Two, actually – it was a married couple – so doubly worse. And working for them was a nightmare – a kind of hell – of daily living out all the accusatory projections that my head manifests on its own. You know all those things your head tells you about how you’re not productive, you’re doing everything wrong, you’re unhelpful, you’re worthless, you don’t measure up? They actually told me these things out loud. They would tell me one thing I wasn’t doing right, and so I would, much like a pathetic little puppy dog, fix it and try to do better, eager for them to see and applaud the change. But instead of recognizing the change, they would then point out something else I was doing wrong, and I would set about fixing that thing, only for the cycle to start over. I could never win. I could never do enough. I was always in trouble for something.
But I needed a job and I foolishly stayed (when I should have left and trusted that God would provide something not dysfunctional), until they fired me after six months. As they well should have. You shouldn’t keep on an employee who can’t ever be what you want. And you shouldn’t keep on an employee who has absolutely no respect for you and loathes you with the core of her being, which was who I was after compromising everything I believed for six months to try and make this job work out.
Shortly after that disaster (lesson learned, I hope), God did faithfully provide a new job, and more importantly, under a new boss, who is everything they were not. She is gracious and forgiving and works for the good of her employees, making sure we have what we need. She deals with problems as they arise, not ignoring them, but addresses each with the appropriate level of gravity; that is, serious ones are taken seriously, but little ones are not blown out of proportion. She thanks us and praises us for our good work, even as she is well aware of our particular weaknesses and goofiness. She often tells me, even, in different ways, to stop being so hard on myself when I inevitably am over an error or transgression. It has been incredibly redemptive and healing.
In precisely the same way, Perfectionism rules our minds, when we let it. It is never satisfied, never satiated. Never impressed, never applauds and gives us a break. It always wants something else changed, some wrong righted. Even as it tells us that we should be able to do what it’s asking, it tells us we can’t do it. And under its rule, we try everything we can think of to please it, never succeeding, miserable all the while. And then we come to loathe it and its cruel, unmeetable expectations, even as we keep ourselves enslaved to it.
But God provides another way, another boss. He says we can’t do what we need to, too – and then He offers us atonement for our flaws, missteps, failings, in Jesus (He paid for them all so we don’t have to try to anymore), and His daily presence with us to guide us through life’s pitfalls, to enable us to grow in faith and character, and often when we’re at our worst or have done our worst, to comfort and encourage us and clean us up and set us back on track.
I know that perhaps all that sounds Sunday School-y and trite. But it doesn’t make it any less the reality. I’m thankful for this clash in my head this week, especially this week. Celebrating Easter year after year as a Christian, it’s easy to put on a new dress and show up at church and check off that I’ve celebrated. But it’s a whole different holiday, a whole different celebration, when my heart and mind get confronted with such clear examples of my need for a resurrected Savior who conquered death and sin, and the glorious freedom that this reality brings to my every day. Up from the grave He arose, with a mighty triumph o’er His foes! And He empowers me to do the same. I don’t have to be enslaved any longer to ridiculous masters. I am still battling and learning…but most of all, I am rejoicing.