I was a bit of an underachiever when I was a kid. I did fairly well in school, without a lot of effort, so I kind of skated through most of my education. When I did hit bumps along the way, e.g. Mrs. White/Algebra II, I floundered. I was ill-equipped to handle difficulties. On the surface, I just looked like a slacker, and I am sure there was an element of laziness; but what lay at the root of my underachievement was perfectionism.
Some who knew me then, would laugh to hear this explanation, but I see it now. I was desperately afraid of failing. My parents had very high expectations of both my sister and me, academically. She rose to occasion – neat handwriting, AP classes, graduating with honors. I was determined to lower the bar for myself. If I put out marginal effort, there would be an excuse for marginal performance. I procrastinated, famously, for big assignments, because I dreaded the difficulty of maintaining the steady pace required to do the job. I feared the tasks would overwhelm me. I learned about the all-nighter early in high school and perfected it in college. I never did rough drafts – seemed like a waste of time! Each time I was able to pull it off, but this only reinforced these bad habits. Looking back now…what a stressful way to live!
I changed strategies in dental hygiene school. I was really working for myself, for my future. And I was scared. The work load there required my constant attention and my best effort. It was all so foreign: new vocabulary, new hand skills, new priorities and responsibilities. I became a classic perfectionist then. The harder I worked, the more I could see that I was not “perfect”, and instead of feeling overwhelmed, I redoubled my efforts. I had no more confidence in the outcome, in my own ability, than I’d had when my effort was half-hearted. But, I learned that it was more comfortable to know that you put forth the best effort. I learned that I could live with the disappointment of a poor test grade if I had really tried my very best.
I faced my fear of failing – and I thrived! I loved competing with myself to see if I could do better and better. I never compared myself with others, only with my own previous performance. This attitude carried over into my work after I graduated. And when I became a dental hygiene educator, I saw how much I could accomplish by putting in extra hours, and proofing, revising and honing projects. I was rewarded for my efforts. I enjoyed a fair amount of recognition in my job. Yet, underlying it all was the constant fear of being exposed as inadequate, which made me work even harder. I never found the place where I was “good enough”. How could you stop improving, when you still saw room for improvement?
This perfectionism was my undoing in motherhood. I read all the books, watched all the TV shows, did the prenatal classes…and when the baby came, I was still unprepared. I couldn’t figure out why she was crying, much less make her stop! Pretty soon I was crying too. I couldn’t tolerate the messy house, the feeling that “surviving another day” was not really a great achievement. I didn’t care if it was “normal” to feel that way, to live that way. Surely if you worked just a little harder, you could do better than “normal”? Why settle for “normal”, if you could do better or best? Even if no one saw, or knew, my failings, I knew. And it crushed me. So once the baby became a toddler, and life started to feel less complicated, we had baby number two and it all started again.
There were many other areas where my perfectionism haunted me, but as my children grew, the stakes got higher. Now they were going out in public and showing the world whetherI was a bad or a good parent, depending on their mood. This was hard enough, but mostly, I hated the thought of failing them. I wanted to know how to teach them humility and quiet confidence, honesty, goodness, loving others, good manners, a solid work ethic, to love the LORD with all their hearts…whew! I was overwhelmed. And I was a terrible role model because all this perfectionism and failing made me grouchy and insecure and, sometimes, a little weepy.
In my own life, as a grown up, it was hard too. My husband and I were in constant disagreement, I was over committed at church, I was facing “difficult people” in every direction and I was ill-equipped to deal with them. I wanted to please everyone, but it seemed I couldn’t please anyone and I was devastated.
My walk with God was the same. I was trying to do all the right things, to get better and better at my spiritual life. I was working on the various areas where I saw my sin and my shortcomings. What I realized was, if I could live in a way that pleased God, I would be a better mother, wife, friend, sister, daughter, daughter-in-law. The relationship with God was key to every other relationship and to becoming the best version of me I could be! But somehow it felt completely unachievable. I had finally realized my worst fear – with God, my efforts would always, ultimately, result in failure. I finally saw that I was a Big, Giant Mess! This Bible passage illustrates my state of mind at the time:
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it (Romans 7:15-20)
Paul was such a comfort to me – I saw that I was not alone in my failure! The important part, the part at the end, I skimmed over it for many years; it should have given me comfort… What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 7:24-25).
This is not meant to be a cliff hanger, but you will have to stay tuned for the second part: I Found the Answer to My Perfectionism…and I would love to share it with you! Meet me here Wednesday and we can chat about it. In the mean time, tell me, are there any other perfectionists out there?
justAgirl…just like you!