Hi, my name is Gary and I'm a recovering perfectionist! For years I lived under the thumb of self-imposed guilt, needless anxiety, unnecessary pressure, and lots of compulsions that drain the joy out of living.
I used to be like Karen...a chronic perfectionist---wife, mother, civic leader; an ideal role model for lots of women. Her house was spotless, her kids were spotless, and her leadership skills were superb. In every area of her life she was in charge...always out front...always successful. But Karen wasn't really close to anyone because a lot of people were afraid of her. Like many perfectionists she was quick tempered, impatient, and excessively judgmental. She was everyone's coach, and no one's friend.
One day, her husband decided he couldn't take anymore of her hypercritical behavior. He wanted an understanding wife, someone he could talk to and share with, not a self-driven perfectionist. Friends couldn't understand later why he chose to leave such a seemingly perfect woman.
Karen needed freedom, from perfectionism, and perhaps, you do too. Allow me to share some helpful pathways to a better life.
1. First, admit the problem. It IS a problem, you know. If you don't believe that, the rest of this article isn't worth your time. We can't learn unless we're willing to be taught, and self-awareness is the most important type of awareness. If you don't know where you're at, you can't get to where you need to go. We can only experience healing to the extent we know we need it. Be honest. Admit you need help. Admit you need to change.
2. In order to get a grip on perfectionism in your own life, stop demanding it from others. Maybe you're not even aware that you do that. I wasn't. The reality is: no one is perfect, regardless of how badly we want them to be. No spouse. No child. No one at work, none. Stop expecting them to be. That's an absolutely unrealistic way to live. God hasn't given us a contract guaranteeing that we'll always be surrounded by people who do nothing but right, good, faithful, true things. Perfect people don't exist, so quit expecting to encounter them.
3. If you'd overcome perfectionism, you'll need an awareness of God's unconditional love. Nothing matters more. He loves us, warts and all. He's for us, before we start our self-improvement program. The most contented people I know in life are people who have unwavering confidence in God's unconditional love. They know they matter to Him. Do you? Work on that first. I can help. Send me your questions. I'll provide some resources for you.
When my daughter was in first grade, I went to visit her one day to eat lunch together. Another little girl joined us. My daughter sat on my right, and this little sandy-haired girl with bright eyes and a wide smile sat on my left. I asked her name and she said, "Elizabeth, but my friends call me Beth."
I said, "Well, I'd like to be your friend and I'll be happy to call you Beth, but I think 'Elizabeth' is an awfully pretty name." So she said, "Okay, you can call me Elizabeth."
As I ate lunch with this new little friend, she began to tell me about her life, and I had no idea a little girl could've lived so much in six years. Out of the blue she said, "Mister, I've never seen my real daddy."
"I'm sorry," I said, thinking that her father had passed away...
She continued, "Yep, he left my momma and me when I was just a baby. I've never seen him at all. I don't even know what he looks like."
I said, "You know something? I'll bet he's handsome, because you sure are pretty."
She giggled, then continued, "I've got a stepdaddy, but he's mean.
"How's that?" I asked, almost hating to ask.
"Well, he hollers at me all the time, and he gets drunk, and he cusses real bad."
I started to bleed on the inside for this little girl, but before I could respond she said, "My momma drinks too, 'cept she drinks screwdrivers and stuff like that...not the kind you get from a toolbox, but the kind you drink," she informed me.
"I just had a birthday," she said. Kind of relieved the conversation was changing directions I said, "Neat, tell me about it!" She said, "Well, I got a cake with candles on top!" And I said, "Wow. what else did you get?" And she said, "Well, I got twelve dollars, 'cept I only got to keep ten. My stepdad made me give two of my dollars to him."
"I'm sorry," I found myself saying, yet again. "But I bet you'll have fun spending that ten!"
"Yeah, I guess," she said.
There was a long lull in the conversation, then she said, "You know something?" I said, "What?"
She said, "You sure are tall!"
I said, "Well, I guess I am, compared to a little girl like you!"
Another lull in the conversation.
"You know something else?" she said.
I said, "No, what?"
"I wish YOU were my daddy."
"You know something?"
"I wish I were, too."
I walked the girls back to their classroom holding my daughter's hand, but as we walked, I felt another hand slip into mine--it was Elizabeth's. When we got back to her class I gave my daughter a hug and said, "Honey, I've got to go, I'll see you after school."...but as I turned to walk away I felt a tap on my hand, and when I turned around, Elizabeth wrapped her arms around my leg and hugged me tightly. Then she smiled and giggled and scampered back to her desk.
I'll confess...when I got back to the car, I cried...but then I remembered this fundamental truth: You can take away my family, job, or possessions...you can place me in some of the most intolerable and unjust circumstances imaginable...but you can never, ever, take about my Heavenly Father's love...from me, or anyone else...and certainly not from a little girl named Elizabeth.
Here's what I've learned. It's difficult to embrace God's unconditional love...and lean toward perfectionism at the same time. Friend, the pressure's off.
4. Laugh more. Seriously! When's the last time you had a good, hearty laugh? If it's been more than a day or two, it's been too long.
Eileen Guder wrote:
"You can live on bland food, so as not to have an ulcer,
Drink no tea or coffee or other stimulants, in the name of health;
Go to bed early and stay away from the night life;
Avoid all controversial subjects so as never to offend people;
Mind your own business and avoid involvement in other people's problems;
Spend your money only on necessities and save all you can,
And you can still fall and break your neck in the bathtub and
it will serve you right!"
Ha! 'Nuff said. Stop being so serious. Life's too short. It's all Grace.
5. Give your life away. You'll discover in the process, that you'll think about others more and yourself less. You'll become more empathetic, and empathetic people eventually learn how to embrace others' weaknesses and overlook their flaws. Determine to give and receive the gifts of kindness and encouragement. Everyone needs someone who will clap and cheer for them. Become that person for others, and in the process, perfectionism will gradually lose it's grimy grip on your soul.
Someone once told me, "If you'll make up your mind to be kind until ten o'clock every morning, the rest of the day will take care of itself." I've found that to be very true. Try it and see for yourself.
"Yeah, but you don't know the kind of JERKS I have to work with!" some will say. No, admittedly I don't...but let me tell you a personal story. I used to look at people and all I could see were blemishes---blemishes, blemishes, blemishes from head to toe.
Then one day I decided to try to understand people a little better, and be more compassionate. You know what I discovered? I discovered that what I had thought were blemishes...were actually scars...and there's a big difference.
Here's the bottom line. We should all resign as General Manager of the Universe. Relax. Determine to free yourself of perfectionism.
Hugh Prather in his excellent book, "Notes To Myself" put it this way:
"If I had ONLY forgotten future greatness,
And looked at the green things,
And reached out to those around me,
And smelled the air.
And ignored all the forms
And self-styled obligations,
And heard the rain on my roof,
And put my arms around my wife.
Perhaps...it's not too late."
P.S. Start today. (And don't worry about the pencil. It's okay!)