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.

Navigating the Messy Middle

this tension -- wanting to pursue my calling, but having to surrender something else in order to do so.

Do you ever feel restless to move?

Is it to a new home? A new job? A new city or town? Do you need a mindset shift? A new perspective? A new workout routine?

Who is moving? Is it you who needs to move, or is time to finally acknowledge that God is moving in your life, making big changes and offering to shoulder your insecurities and self-doubts?

Perhaps my word “move” for the year is drawing me from my own sense of security and allowing Him to move within me.

God,

You filled me with awe in worship this week. I want to surrender to your call, but I fear losing the security I’ve worked for. Some people earn degrees and never fully use them in the field they intended; I fear stopping too early. I know I can use my education moving forward, regardless of what I do, my knowledge and experiences will alway be a part of me. God, why am I put in this tension — wanting to pursue my calling, but having to surrender something else in order to do so. It feels like I have to let go of one thing to switch to another, letting go of one trapeze and trusting that I’ll catch the next — and I’m afraid of flying. I want to serve more fully with the gifts you’ve laid upon me. I am in the mess of this tension every day and I do feel anxious and restless about it. I don’t have time to myself to devote long stretches to what I love doing. I can’t even schedule time and guard it — I have three small boys and a full-time job! I have to accept time where it comes organically, and that unpredictability is stressful for me. I can’t be creative on a schedule, anyway. When the mood strikes, I might be nursing a tiny human on my lap or teaching a class at school. I may wake up early, and my kids wake up minutes later. I know you will make a way because it is your will for me, I’ve seen you do it over the past year as you’ve opened many doors for me (and closed even more), and I am so thankful for all of it. Amen.

Right now I feel like I’ve found a “partial solution,” as Tsh Oxenreider calls it, but I also feel like I can only commit partially, even though I want to give my all–thus the tension I’m constantly mulling over in the back of my mind. My pastor recently encouraged us to ask ourselves how we can lean on our church to pursue God’s call.

This is probably one of the hardest parts for me. It isn’t that I intentionally put walls up. It’s just my personality makes it difficult for me to process things out loud with others — I process quietly –internally– and usually through writing. Inviting someone into my mess means attempting to sort through jumbled thoughts before I’ve had a chance to make any sort sense of them. As my uncle says, I’ve always held my cards very close to my chest, and I’ll admit to this. It has always made it harder for me to ask for help and it makes people assume things come easily for me, which drives me crazy because it couldn’t be further from the truth. Usually by the time I share something, I’ve had quite a bit of time to pray over it and wrestle with it, and I’d rather just share things with a few close friends, anyway.

Jennie Allen writes, “Because he didn’t call us to something alone. He carries the yoke for us, so we can run with power” (Restless, p. 147). When I am not ready to invite others in to the mess (even though I know I need to, that vulnerability fosters connections and relationships), I know that I can count on God to meet me, already knowing the details of my mess, reassuring me that He also knows how it will all unfold.

So for now, I’ll continue to pray through this messy middle and try to encourage others to join me in this tension.

For more reflections on my one word for 2019, “move,” check out my two previous posts:

My One Word for 2019: Move

Knowing How to Step Out in Faith

To receive updates on new posts, don’t forget to join me over on Instagram @TendingWild.

Knowing How to Step Out in Faith

2-17-19 blog cover

When my husband and I were first interested in getting a Prius for our new family vehicle, suddenly, they were everywhere.

Every time I was pregnant, or wanted to be, or had just miscarried a precious life, it seemed like there were pregnant women everywhere.

With blinders on, with intense focus on something, we tend to notice it more.

Only two months into 2019, I see and hear the word “move” everywhere– in books, music, scripture, sermons, and podcasts. I know in part, it’s because it’s the word I’ve chosen to pray over and reflect upon this year. But I also know God placed this word on my heart in the same way that He has placed a calling in my heart and His Spirit in my soul to tend it, and He is continuing to encourage me by revealing a deeper study of what it means to really move toward Him.

My journal lately is starting to sound like a broken record as I continue to revisit the same tensions in my quiet time. I may not have my own expectations for exactly what “move” will mean for me this year, but I also know that my wonder and unknowing is what will stir me to lean on Him for direction.

In Restless: Because you were made for more, Jennie Allen writes about God moving to meet us, willing to meet us as far as we jump, multiplying what we give Him as He did with the loaves and fishes. (This also reminded me of a beautiful essay written by my dear friend Christina, “He Makes Much Out of Little.”)

How can I serve the community where I am right now? How can I stop trying to guard the security I’ve come to know in order to step out in faith?

Lord,

Thank you for the gift of time You provide for me to listen. Thank you for where I am right now and being willing to move to meet me, whether I stay or go, whether I give a little or give much. I know you will take what I can offer. Help me to see where I can serve right now. Help me to share my gifts in the places where you’ve intentionally placed me right now, instead of always questioning whether I’m in the right place. I can serve my community right here. Thank you for this renewed perspective and mindset shift. I can look at where I am though the lens of gratitude and service. Amen. 

If you ever feel guilty for just craving alone time to indulge in self-care and uninterrupted reflection on pursuing the next steps God is calling you toward, I’d be honored if you’d head over to Kindred Mom to read my essay published on Kindred Mom this week, Seeking Solitude in the Midst of Motherhood.

For more thoughts on my one word for 2019, “move,” you can find my recent essay one post back.

 

 

How Do I Know What Is Next?

How do I Know What is next_

“Here,” I navigated from the passenger seat, gesturing to the off-ramp for a scenic overlook along the Blue Ridge Mountains. Rain continued to pelt the glassy interstate roads as my husband guided our Toyota into the parking lot, every spot available on this chilly, rainy evening.

It was early November before the time change. Fall’s colors had peaked later than expected after unprecedented months of rain. I was determined to see the leaves before the season’s finale and the onslaught of winter. I composed a few pictures, drenched by the downpour and racing the setting light.

The five of us were the only souls at the overlook, as a heavy fog whited-out any chance at a view and rain threatened anyone else away.

The next morning, the view would be clear, and this same scenic overlook would buzz with activity. But this evening, I stood, ankle-deep in a puddle, bracing my camera beneath my umbrella even as the rain gushed sideways against me.

I showed up hoping to see even a fleeting view of autumn color–and for the unique beauty that only fog can create. My family, waiting a few yards away inside our warm, dry car, might not have understood. Other folks driving by must have wondered why a lone car was stopped at a foggy overlook. But I saw past their dismissal of the scene before me.

Fog has a way of isolating the closest object. Honing in on the lone tree before me, I noticed its stand-alone beauty against the backdrop of fog, its edges a silhouette of color against the otherwise blurry sky. Hours later, visitors–my family included–would flock to this very spot, looking beyond that tree to the bigger picture. But when I returned, I still appreciated the detail of that tree, and I remembered the journey I took to see it, the puddles I waded though and the feel of the cold rain against my fingers.

I tend to pray for the big picture. I’m a detail-oriented person, and left to my own, I’d jump in to piece them together if I only knew the big picture. But God doesn’t want me to work like that. He needs me to need Him in this journey. He needs me to do the work of showing up, opening my heart to the one thing He is choosing to spotlight this time, the very next thing along my path.

What if, instead of waiting for the grand view, we could listen and be obedient to the next clear directive? With one piece of clarity, He gives us the gift of direction and affirms our continued need for His presence.

In my current season, I’m standing before a great fog, and God is waiting for my obedience. My obedience comes in accepting this one beautiful detail before me as enough. While God has the ability to put on a spectacular autumn show, the one fiery tree is enough to warrant my undivided attention. With the promise He brings through a single detail, He reveals my next step. It is up to me to listen and notice.

“But everything exposed by the light becomes visible – and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.” (Ephesians 5:13, NIV). 

When God Restores Weakness with Renewed Purpose: Living with Spondylolisthesis

image1

Time is often conveniently and unofficially measured by milestones. If we want to be technical, we can sometimes quantify those milestones.

  • Seventy: My grandparents just kicked off the start of their 70th year of marriage together, the official milestone only a year away.
  • Ten: the number of years I have been a School Counselor. Also the wedding anniversary we just celebrated on a hot air balloon ride!
  • Seven: My body has been pregnant, miscarrying, or nursing for over seven years with no break. The end of this streak will be an emotional one, simultaneously bittersweet and freeing. It will be marked not only by the passage of time but by all the memories and moments in between. 
  • Six: The number of years we have been cloth diapering! (And parenting!)

Oftentimes, we mark time with “before and after” a major event, a critical turning point in our stories. Schooling, births, accidents, losses, jobs, moves. Befores and afters. Achievements. Milestones. 

Today would otherwise pass by, a normal day, unacknowledged for what it is to anyone but me. But July 16, 2018 delivers its own silent milestone. Today marks the day I have lived exactly half my life with a cadaver bone in my body. Someone’s priceless donation holds my spine in place, downgrading my Grade 4 spondylolisthesis diagnosis to a Grade 2 so that I could live a stronger life. Seventeen years ago. 6,209 days ago. July 16, 2001 separated all things “pre-op” from “post-op.” The day I had to quit 13 years of ballet, give up a minor role in my recital, and quit my Cross Country team for good.

That morning, just after being prayed over by my pastor, I received both an allograft and an autograft. An allograft is formed from donated bone, and an autograft is harvested from the patient–in my case, grafted from my hip through the same large incision, a once-seering-red scar now the silvery pink prime meridian of my back. As a teenager undergoing a surgery typically performed on an octogenarian, the bone in my hip was still thick enough to scoop from the iliac crest and form around the new fusion, which would later facilitate and support new growth.

My own bone was repurposed, engineered by God for its first 17 years as an unassuming but important piece of my hip, yet all the while He knew it would later help anchor the weakest crux in my body.

Unbeknownst to my 17-year-old self, this new anchor would grow and strengthen my spine to support some of the most life-giving work my body would ever do. Dancing with my husband at our wedding. Carrying and birthing babies. Running marathons. Nursing babies. Sitting with students at school during their most vulnerable emotional breakdowns. And all my life yet to come.

It would also allow me freedom. I can continue things I used to love and have new adventures with my family. My “after” includes long-distance running and even a semester of ballet in college. It’s a handstand on the Four Corners, a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon. Hiking Glacier National Park and walking the streets of Dublin, Ireland. Exploring Arches National Park and climbing the steps to the top of the Griffin roller coaster at Busch Gardens. And just this week, climbing into the wicker gondola of a hot air balloon just before its launch and climbing back out after a safe landing.

As Christians, we are each a “before and after” story. Christ rescued us from the sins of our former lives, building us and refining our gifts to serve His kingdom purposes. Our gifts were dormant, but it took the element of renewed purpose to draw them out. He gives us freedom from our past sins, even as we continue to fall short.

The “Ortho Info” website describes an allograft for a spinal fusion as acting “as a bridge that allows the natural bone to grow through its surface.” God breathed new life into that cadaverous bone, designating it to strengthen all the other working parts of my body, each serving a specific and unique purpose but working in tandem. It fostered new growth and restoration while continuing to strengthen and refine itself with newfound life and purpose.

“For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” (NIV, Romans 12:4-5)

Before we can minister to others, we have to care for our own spiritual well-being. That restoration comes through time in the Word and time spent in prayer with God, through fellowship with others, through acts of worship. It is necessary and restorative in times of both weakness and strength, in times of both confidence and of insecurity.

I don’t know whose life my cadaver bone supported before mine. I don’t even know whether it was in a girl or boy, man or woman, or how long it lived. I don’t know the circumstances that ended its first purpose, or what led the person to commit to part with it. I don’t know where it traveled or what adventures it’s been on. But I met it with gratefulness and a sense of renewal that it would restore a failing part of me.

@tendingwild
ashleybartley.com.png

Invisible to the naked eye, I can feel it. I can still see its eerie glow on my x-rays, my own bones dull in comparison, a strong new stake fusing my lumbar to my sacrum. That very spot on a good day is a dull ache, on a bad day creates a pain radiating down my left leg and stiffening my entire body. Lately, it has been the latter.

Spondylolisthesis is an invisible, painful disability I carry every day, accompanied by its cousins, scoliosis and painful sciatica. But just because it’s invisible to others doesn’t mean I need to ignore it. My routine maintenance fell to the back-burner right after I had my third baby a year ago. Driving 56 miles to and from the doctor with three little ones in tow on a regular basis just wasn’t a priority, although it should have been. Careful maintenance had usually kept the pain at bay. Specific, low-impact exercises during pregnancy stretched my piriformis enough to take pressure off my sciatic nerve, but since then, the pain is back with debilitating vengeance.

Healing this time will require frequent trips to the doctor, slow and careful stretching, and frequent ice. It will necessitate pulling out my orthotics to use not only for running, but all the time. I have flat feet, which push my pelvis forward, putting all the weight I carry on my lower back. Orthotics correct that misalignment by creating an artificial arch.

I also shudder, remembering the dreadful white plastic body brace I wore in high school. Anytime I had to bend or sit, I had to unlock a hinge that connected the brace around my torso to the brace down my leg. When the brace finally got to come off for good, I instinctively walked for months with one arm behind my back, protecting the vulnerable scarred area. My muscles would spasm against any slightest touch. I went to physical therapy after school every day to build back up the muscles of my left leg, encased in plastic so long, to match those of my right leg, which had to overcompensate. The massages at PT left me in tears. It was work, and I pushed through. Because of the brace, I learned to breathe differently and sit perfectly straight, which are ingrained habits even 17 years later. 

Our faith needs routine maintenance to remain a constant dialog with our Creator. We can’t take our faith for granted, because when we do, it becomes strained and weak. We become thirsty and forget to reach for a drink from our Healer. But when we get off-course, we can ask for help. We can bow in prayer, asking God to lead us back to Him. We can pull our Bibles off the shelf and allow His Word to lead us, and He will restore us again. He will support us at our weakest points and breathe new life into what feels bereft.

In what areas do you need His leadership now? Take a moment to pray over it. Allow God to point out your weak points, and listen for what He might be asking you to repurpose or restore so that you can continue to build His Kingdom.
____________________________________________________________________________________________

If you would like to know more about my journey in spite of spondylolisthesis, you can read herehereand here.