Notes from a Recovering Perfectionist

Notes from a Recovering Perfectionist

Party day had arrived. I had been planning my son’s first birthday for months. I mailed handmade invitations weeks in advance to 40 people, and every one of them was coming. Cupcakes encircled a homemade frosted gold sandcastle cake complete with ice cream cone turrets and handmade sand dollar cookies. A red captain’s wheel hung on the wall, framing month-by-month photos of my son. Family who arrived early were put to work, putting the finishing touches on Pinterest-inspired fruit skewers and croissants disguised as small crabs. As guests continued to arrive, my heart raced, knowing things weren’t quite finished. I was focused on the presentation and not on those who came over to celebrate the birth and life of my baby boy. Instead, guests were ambushed with more food than they could ever eat, a video slideshow, dessert options for days, and favor bags stuffed with more sand dollar cookies. 

I had placed my worth as a mother in the presentation of this particular party. I wince, remembering the undue stress I had created for myself, a new mom, the day of his party, which happened to be my own 29th birthday. 

Several years into motherhood, I realized I could simply let go of striving for perfection, and it was freeing. My definition of hospitality changed. I was not stressed when friends came over. Allowing myself to be vulnerable strengthened my friendships. My house is never immaculate and rarely Instagram-worthy, but I am comfortable in it. I now enjoy hosting birthday parties without the expectations. I’ve learned to ask for help and be okay with delegating. I still love themed parties, but I try to do a few things well, instead of every idea perfectly.

Perfectionism not only impacts me and others around me, but it also creates a barrier to accessing God’s unconditional grace.

When I am around other perfectionists, this tendency is especially difficult to shed. My own narrative tells me that the expectation is still there. But freeing myself from the burden to always be right, always appear put-together, and always complete the perfect DIY project showed me how impossible it was to not only uphold that standard, but also how unsettling it was for others around me. The appearance of maintaining a perfect life creates an invisible barrier in relationships. 

In the past, perfectionism has silenced me from sharing my gifts out of fear of rejection, worried people would only see the flaws. How often do we withhold our gifts out of fear of judgment, imperfection, or vulnerability, paralyzed from sharing our dreams, offering plans, or expressing hopes? Perfectionism does not allow room for others until the presentation is ready.

Winston Churchill approached his creative outlet with an attitude of grace: 

“Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb.” (61-62, Painting as a Pastime)

Perfectionism scripts an unfair narrative, an unrealistic expectation that everyone is judging, and the self-fulfilling prophecy takes over. These insecurities make trying new things especially difficult.

Perfectionism makes it hard to delegate tasks, especially if you fear they won’t be completed the way you would have or be done perfectly. You may even be asked to do more because you appear to have it all together, which can be toxic when paired with people-pleasing tendencies.

These impossible standards infiltrated every area of life, even my self-worth. It was hard to feel as if I was doing anything well or ever completing a task. The piles of unfinished projects and the lists of unfinished tasks became overwhelming. Suddenly I was drowning, realizing I’d lost control, my old standards completely unattainable in my current season. I used to have time to pay attention to detail and now we’re getting by with the bare minimum. Somewhere along the line, we’ve attached our self-worth to all of it, to everything that has been left undone.  

I’ve learned to be gentle with myself. It is unfair to uphold the same standards I had before kids. I have to let go of the anxiety tied to leaving loose ends undone, my projects unfinished. It is unfair to compare myself to someone who has a completely different life than I have, with access to other means and more flexibility with time.

To put it simply, we miss out. Waiting for the perfect time to do something might mean that we never burn the fancy candle, we never eat the souvenir chocolate, or we never use the good towels. We never paint the room because we can’t decide on the perfect paint color. We put off stepping into our dreams because we don’t know what lies beyond the fog.

Perfectionism impacts those around us as well. It perpetuates an unrealistic impression that things come easily, which makes others compare, doubt themselves, or worse– give up entirely because they feel as if they can’t compete. It sets an unhealthy and unrealistic standard. Perfectionists might abandon a hobby or passion if someone else is already better at it. Maybe you are comparing yourself to an expert and abandon your “messy middle” of learning something new. What a tragedy to give up an interest or passion simply because you think you are not the best. Perfectionism creates an unspoken precedent that if you are not the best, it’s not worth doing. It causes us to abandon the hobbies that made us come alive. It not only robs us of those passions, but it robs others of experiencing our God-given gifts.

Setting an expectation of perfectionism imposes a fear on others that they will never measure up, they’ll never be good enough, and that if they aren’t the best, they shouldn’t even try. I was encouraged to take a safe path, to take the first job I was ever offered instead of holding out for my dream career, one highly sought-after by creatives. If that career was the gold standard, it was that or nothing. Two decades later, I know there were hundreds of opportunities to use those creative skills. It saddens me that I believed the untruth that if I couldn’t be selected by the best, I shouldn’t even try. I placed my creative outlet on the backburner, something once so life-giving, my passion diminished under a gold standard of perfection. 

I also consider the opportunities I missed simply because I was a beginner. I turned down ski trips with my youth group because I had never skied– I didn’t want to ask for help, slow anyone else down, or potentially make a fool of myself, as if my ability to ski was a reflection of me. It’s exhausting to maintain a facade that I can do it all myself, I have everything under control, I have it all together. That person is not real and is not approachable. It fosters an unhealthy expectation for other women and exacerbates a culture of comparison that is spawned largely by social media. Accepting others’ offers to help and allowing ourselves to be teachable lifts the invisible burden of perfection from our shoulders.

Is there something you’ve never pursued because you were afraid to ask for help and afraid to be the newbie, the one who didn’t know what to do and didn’t have the right tools to start? Was it a new hobby, a new sport, a new gym membership, or a new committee? Not allowing ourselves to try something new, to be teachable, to fail, or to be vulnerable limits our opportunities. What have we avoided simply because we don’t know how to start?

Allow room for slow growth. Winston Churchill continued, 

“Try it, then, before it is too late and before you mock at me. Try it while there is time to overcome the preliminary difficulties. Learn enough of the language in your prime to open this new literature to your age. Plant a garden in which you can sit when digging days are done. It may be only a small garden, but you will see it grow. Year by year it will bloom and ripen. Year by year it will be better cultivated.” (62, Painting as a Pastime).

We are raised in a competitive culture that values being the best. When I share with my students that I ran a marathon, they always ask if I won. They look perplexed if I laugh and say no, that there were thousands of other runners and I wasn’t even trying to win. 

“Well, did you at least come in second?”

These are the teachable moments, opportunities to share that there is more to running a marathon than coming in first, that you can set a goal and follow-through and be proud of yourself for finishing what you set out to do. Those months of marathon training shaped me in ways I wouldn’t have ever known unless I tried and finished.

When my boys see me appreciating simplicity, a slower pace, and learning from my mistakes, I am demonstrating God’s grace. On the last day of kindergarten, my five-year-old won the “Problem Solver” award. He wants to be an engineer someday, and I know that I need to give him the space to tinker and figure things out instead of fixing everything for him. Not a day goes by that I don’t tell my boys I love them and am proud of them not only for their achievements and accomplishments, but also for the things I want them to come to value– for being helpful, kind, a good friend, including others, and a good brother– qualities that matter to me.

Perfectionism creates a reliance on self, not on God. We need to allow ourselves to accept the grace and unconditional love that God gives us every day, in every season. We must allow ourselves to rest, as He did in Genesis 1:31, and call it good–call it good enough–and call it finished: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning–the sixth day” (NIV). Perfection left me trying to please others instead of God. 

Consider these verses:

“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9, NIV)

“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” (Philippians 3:12, NIV)

The way I love my boys doesn’t even begin to skim the surface of how much God loves me. As I carefully unpack these thoughts, considering God’s great love frees me from the things that don’t even really matter, and I pause in reverence. God placed unique desires on my heart. My boys adore me, so why am I trying to live up to someone else’s expectations? Why am I so caught up in the details when it is our relationship with Him that matters? Our sinful nature necessitates this relationship, and acknowledging our own sin draws us closer to Him. 

“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.” (1 Peter 4:8-11, NIV)

Letting go of perfection was a slow process, but it was freeing not only to me, but to my family and the people around me. It allowed me to be vulnerable and helped me to step back and define what truly matters. My boys did not need perfect birthday parties, they just wanted to share their day with people who love them and eat cake! Now I give myself permission to delegate, allowing others to use their God-given gifts. Letting go allowed me to step out of my comfort zone to finally pursue my God-given dreams.

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