Owlish Contemplations

The Parasite of Perfectionism

I am what some people might call a productive person. You know – the kind with a to-do list always on their counter top, an orderly schedule and routine, and commitments galore penciled into my calendar. My mind has always thought in neat charts and check-marks and standard Times New Roman font.

I was the kid in school who, when handed a syllabus, immediately read through the whole thing, highlighted deadlines, then re-read it to make sure I wasn’t overlooking any requirements. I figured it wasn’t really that hard to get an A in the class – if you just read the book, studied for the test, turned in every assignment, and were always in your seat taking notes, you would pass the class. And I was right. Turns out there are benefits to being a rule-follower.

However – there are also serious downfalls to being a rule-follower. Besides the massive amounts of pride I’ve battled all my life for doing “the right thing,” I’ve had this parasite of perfectionism gnawing a guilty hole into my brain for not living up to my own standards.

And it takes someone who knows me well – like my mom and my sister – to tell me to stop. Laughingly this weekend, I said, “Yeah, who’s going to put me in jail if I don’t do all these things?” And then my mom said, “You need to stop putting YOURSELF in jail for not doing all these things!”

Wow. How right she is. I think about not checking in homework for one weekend and my heart starts to panic as I think of how I wouldn’t be a “very good teacher” if I didn’t – and how I’d feel like a failure if I laid on the couch and just maybe watched two episodes of “The Office” instead. The parasite will whisper in my ear how I’m being lazy and wasting my time, even though this is clearly not an every-day occurrence.

The problem with perfectionism is that you are on two sides of a wide spectrum. You’re either on the far right, crowing with pride over all that you accomplished in one day and how you met all your little expectations. Or you’re on the far left under the crushing weight of guilt that you just can’t do everything that you’re “supposed” to do, and what will they say when they see your perfect little self is cracked and flawed?

They will say, “Thank goodness she’s human!” That’s what they’ll say.

So why can’t I say it to myself?

Why can’t I just allow one little thing to slide and choose to let my brain rest instead? Why can’t I enjoy a TV episode on Netflix instead of worrying about when I’ll get all the grading done? Why can’t I embrace a weekend with my family celebrating my sister’s graduation instead of fretting about when I’ll get my grocery shopping done and the house cleaned?

It will all get done. When it needs to get done.

Silly girl, you have been given a gift of productivity. Which means that all those things left undone – you will get them done eventually. You won’t be skipping church every Sunday because you suddenly like it. You won’t be living in complete filth or leave the papers ungraded forever.

You aren’t running away from your responsibilities. You’re learning to re-arrange them so you don’t feel like you have to do them all right now.

Perfectionism demands an impossible standard. The very word “perfect” is something we cannot attain. So why in the world am I pushing myself to feel “perfect” in every way? Always at church, always meeting people for coffee, always with assignments promptly graded, always with the right answer and happy smile on her lips, always juggling 500 things at one time with seeming ease?

Give yourself permission to let go – because God has promised to make everything beautiful in His time.

When I cling to my nasty parasite of perfectionism, I’m clinging to self-sufficiency and pride that I can make all of this happen. When I come to the end of my rope and I’m physically exhausted, I’m forced to realize my infinite humanity and His infinite divinity.

His infinite divinity CAN handle everything at the same time, because He is outside of time. And right now He wants me to learn to submit my schedule to Him and allow Him to re-arrange it how He wants it to be.

That means pausing to enjoy live theater. That means soaking in a few more minutes of my book. That means laughing with my family on the couch – or snuggling with my nephew while we finish a movie and ice cream. That means enjoying the chance to sing hymns while I wash dishes … or maybe just ignoring the layer of dust on my dresser for tonight … or not pressuring myself to have to fit in ten more assessments this week.

Life is beautifully enjoyed when it is managed with the grace of one not in a hurry to get it all done.

Because when “it’s all done,” won’t you just have a new list? Embrace the never-ending list, but while you’re moving from one thing to the next, allow yourself to throw in a few things you didn’t expect. Trust that every interruption to your carefully-laid plans is a reminder from God that you are not ultimately in control – He is.

Life can either be a chore-list or a praise-list. Personally I need to start re-training my mind to look at every day as an adventure in which I’m hunting for things to praise God for … instead of as an overwhelming task list that loudly buzzes when I don’t do something right.

It’s time to throw away the annoying buzzer and the jail-cell key and uproot the parasite once and for all. It’s time to embrace messy and imperfect and a little bit of crazy and remember this –

God never meant for us to be perfect. He meant for us to faithfully trust in His perfection and His unending grace – which daily covers all of our imperfections.

Be faithful to your tasks. Learn to rest. Throw some glitter in the air once in a while and don’t worry about who will clean it up or the birds that it might kill if they eat it.

There is beauty in store for the imperfect perfectionists who are learning to let go of their unending expectations. And we’ll see it if we just put down our number 2 pencils and stare at the sky for a little bit.

I promise no one will come and put us in jail. We might even feel a deep feeling of freedom come washing over us instead.

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