Are you a perfectionist? I am.
In third grade, I quietly tore an imperfect spelling test into tiny pieces at my desk. Mrs. Mayhew noticed and mocked me in front of the class, “Oh! Little Miss Perfect, didn’t get a 100%?”
In fifth grade, I documented every waking moment as my family road-tripped to the Southwest for a week. Upon our return, the journal just didn’t capture the magic of the trip, so I threw it in the trash.
Five years ago, our family attempted a fridge-worthy, heart-warming Christmas picture to send out. The results were humbling (“bloopers,” all). I think I cried.
It hasn’t been infrequent throughout my lifetime that someone would call me a perfectionist, and I would cringe. Of course I’m not a perfectionist! Wouldn’t that require some glimpse of actual perfection – some order, some beauty, some goodness that clearly isn’t? Then the more troubling thought: Maybe I am a perfectionist and failing at it. No one has ever accused me of “having it all together.” That’s for the perfectionist that is actually measuring up: charitable works and no plastic waste/poreless skin/snowy-white towels and teeth/beautiful planners with swirling handwriting.
Recently while journaling, God impressed upon me the need to address this perpetual sense of failure. I hadn’t really dealt with perfectionism because I saw my glaring imperfections daily, and so didn’t consider myself on the perfectionism train. But that was a blindspot. It’s not at all about the level to which I am able to achieve the standard, it’s about the enslaving standard itself.
With it comes chronic disappointment and disillusionment. This negative mindset was tricky for me to unravel because it could masquerade as humility. Because I had an acute sense of my failure, I experienced my need for Jesus on a gut-level. That’s a very good thing, but it was twisted just a little, and a little is all it takes. Instead of surging with joy and gratitude that my Savior loved me and had covered all my sins and shortcomings, I felt apologetic.
Instead of “Thank you, my Savior!” it was really, “I’m sorry I need a Savior.”
Not only is this terrible theology, but it’s tragic. Every belief that is based on a lie is a belief that is hurting us. It’s actively causing pain, keeping us captive, thwarting our healing. Somehow along the way, I had reinforced the not-quite-conscious idea that perfection was possible for me, and to attain it would be to truly honor Christ. I wouldn’t have said this outright – I knew that every human being falls short of perfection (Romans 3:23), but I felt as though needing a Savior was wrong.
Let’s consider some of the lies that may lie at the root of perfectionism:
to be perfect = to be able to save myself
to be perfect = to be able to save another
to be perfect = to be worthy of love
Not one of them is true, but all three are so tempting to believe somehow…
When I stumbled upon this verse again, I clutched it close:
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust. – Psalm 103:14, ESV
Remembering that I am made from dust feels good to me. It’s not that I am inconsequential or insignificant, but there is a rightness about realizing that I am not God and I don’t carry his responsibilities. These truths make me feel small and free – like when you stand at the edge of the sea and feel that liberating smallness in the face of vastness.
I was created. He is the Creator.
I am finite. He is endless.
I am flawed. He is perfection.
If I saw myself as a dusty, broken vessel, wouldn’t that allow me to celebrate every little victory? Every good and beautiful thing accomplished by me or in me would be just a little bit…shocking…a sign of God’s grace. I would be joyful over the little ‘wins’ and not so undone by my failures. This is what I want. To see myself as I really am: imperfect but perfectly loved by my Savior.
The new mantra I whisper to myself (over and over, intentionally washing my brain of the wrongs that have long stuck) :
I need a Savior. I have a Savior.
Thank you, Jesus.