I consider myself a recovered perfectionist. In my youth, my perfectionism helped me succeed and achieve great things – valedictorian, top female scholar-athlete in both high school and college, president of clubs – too many to list, active in church ministry positions and on and on. However, what festered underneath my achievements was a depression that reared up when I felt I didn’t hit the mark. From adolescence on, it led me to stand on bridges contemplating a jump, led me to isolate vulnerabilities from others, led me to focus on helping others while I neglected my own needs (sacrificing sleep, meals, restoration time). By my mid-twenties, I’d had mononucleosis recur three times (most likely from stress and lack of sleep). My doctor said it could turn into a permanent disability. Also present were my suicidal thoughts — the idea of ending the pressure to do life perfectly seemed tremendously appealing.
It was around this time that a combination of circumstances, which I could no longer navigate while achieving, caused me to enter into counseling as I’d once done in college. It was in this relationship that I came to know how perfectionism was ruling my life. Like a hamster on an exercise wheel, I consistently felt like I wasn’t making any progress. The celebration of my achievements never stuck, or never even happened because I was already onto the next thing. As a result, I constantly felt incompetent, not enough, inadequate, and most importantly, unimportant. I discovered perfectionism was an idol – an erroneous target. I needed a new perspective.
The Bible reminds us there is no perfection here on earth – all have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God (Romans 3:23) and yet, God steps in and promises His faithfulness to us as the work which He has begun is completed. A popular belief in the American church culture is that we need to work and then do more work because God is abiding in us so we can do mighty things. However, we miss an important point in this perfectionistic mind-set – we miss the importance of being known, being seen and being relational. God did not create us like he created the turtles which are left on the sea shore to hatch by themselves, without family, and then make the journey back into the sea without any help. Instead, God created us as dependent beings right from the beginning. In fact, the only clear vision a newborn has in those first days is the distance between her mom’s breast and her face. This is how our design is meant to be – a flow of being seen and seeing.
It reminds me that a perfectionistic mindset can make me believe the best way to conquer life, to live like Jesus did, is to move straight up the proverbial mountain, forget noticing the different landscapes, the animals, the birds because it’s deemed unimportant. But Jesus didn’t move up any so called mountain, any prestigious positions, or any social ranks. Instead, he rambled. He noticed. He observed. He interacted. He saw and was seen.
I think a growth mindset is similar; it requires us to notice and observe. It requires us to sit in the imperfect conditions of life and lean into them, not make them perfect or run away. In fact, growth most often happens in less than ideal circumstances – when we face into negative realities, uncomfortable feelings, when someone important dies or gets sick, when we’re fired or laid off, when we confess our addictions and idols and do the hard work of being transformed out of those unhealthy coping mechanisms. For the most part, growth happens when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to be open to our brokenness and to not collapse under the feelings of guilt and shame. It’s in this rich soil of vulnerability where patience and self-compassion are required.
Patience is the discipline of compassion. The word passion and patience both have Latin roots, pati, meaning “suffering.” Patience is the capacity to accept life, all one’s circumstances, as present as possible – digging into one’s inner world in order to mindfully navigate one’s external events. As a facilitator, I open my groups at the OWI or UL with a body awareness exercise that requires each person to track his breath. It is in this simple, yet difficult, exercise that we learn to accept our present experiences, feelings, thoughts, associations, and sensations about being in our current circumstances and proceed without the need to be well; instead, accepting what is, not changing a thing, and looking at how we can move through it staying connected to ourselves and others.
This is how I see it; too often we need ourselves to be well – to be perfect. It’s in this false place of being that we miss, like overlooking the foliage and animals on the mountain, what’s truly before us – our need for others, our need for God, even our need for grace and truth. Our need to be well, no matter what the cost, creates a fortress that keeps out our real needs, experiences, and vulnerabilities. If we can change our fortress into a house with windows and doors – boundaries and assertion, then we can emerge as individuals fully alive to the possibility of God’s perfection taking the place of our own. Being patient in the present – it’s an experience worth daring to get. It has the potential to wipe away shame and other remnants of perfectionism – both the kind that keep us from trying new things and the kind that never let us stop – and replace it with eyes to see and ears to hear truth and grace. Grace, truth and time, as John and Henry remind us, are the nutrients needed in growth. And like this once suicidal perfectionist is reminded of, they can take us from the depths of despair to pastures of safety and relationship, where we can thrive and connect – in success and failure.