Anyone who’s ever waded through my ‘About’ page will have gathered that I am something of a perfectionist. In fact it would be pretty hard to find an area of my life that is unaffected by my perfectionism.
Take something as seemingly simple as food. As a parent I want my kids to eat well and to grow up with a healthy attitude to food and to their bodies. So far, so good. However, it is my perfectionism which drives me to move beyond making simple decisions to buy or grow food that will be nutritious. Instead I sit down and look through all of my cookbooks, writing down lists of recipes that would be good to try, whilst battling the nagging fear that there’s no way my son will attempt to eat this particular dish because it’s got a pepper in it or that one because it contains tomato (guilt: why didn’t I train him properly to enjoy and appreciate healthy food?). I am then seized by the desire to organise all the food in the house. I go through all the cupboards, the fridge and the freezer and write down all the food items I have (despair: these six tins of red kidney beans expired last June and I never used them the last time I had the major urge to help us all eat healthily). I can’t put the food back into the cupboards because they need a good clean, so I do that, then put all the jars and packets back in with the labels facing the front so that I feel organised (omg: I am becoming that scary bloke out of the Julia Roberts film Sleeping with the Enemy). Cupboards sorted, I go back through the recipe books again, trying to look for recipes that are not only nutritious, quick to cook and potentially appealing to my son, but that will also use up some of the ingredients in the house I always pass over when I’m deciding what to cook (guilt: there are millions of people in the world who would feel like they had died and gone to heaven to have access to all this food and they’d have known what to do with the kidney beans). I realise I must never get to this stage again of having to throw out food that was originally perfectly good (guilt: we could have taken the kids on holiday if only I’d been more organised over the years and restricted myself to buying food we were actually going to eat). I vow to be a proper mother from now on who has a monthly meal plan, carefully writes a shopping list based on it and then actually sticks to the list when she is in the supermarket (argghhh: I bought four boxes of jam tarts yesterday just because they were such a bargain and they’ve all gone… soon the children won’t have any teeth left and I will be the size of a small house… what kind of a role model am I?).
All that effort, all that emotional energy, all that guilt and despair, and I still haven’t got round to cooking tea…
Just in case you’re thinking that I happen to be a person with a ‘thing’ about food so my perfectionism naturally clings on to that, let me stress with a few briefer illustrations that this has an impact on every area of my life. Here are a few of the things I have been perfectionistic about over the years:
- Cleaning. Not satisfied with trying to follow the Flylady house cleaning routines, I once wrote down every single job that ever needed to be done in every single room in our house. I then decided how often they should be done (every day / once a week / once every six months), bought a diary and wrote down a list of jobs to be done every single day for the next year. Bloody hell – I even did those jobs for a few months (didn’t get much else done, mind).
- Clothes. Struck by how wrong it is that we buy so many clothes which we then never use and that so many of the world’s resources are wasted because we have so much unnecessary stuff, I resolve to spend a year without buying a single item of clothing. Stupidly I make this decision in August, forgetting that I haven’t got much in the way of winter clothes. I don’t buy any clothes for a year and am extremely cold for a large chunk of it. A glutton for punishment, I then do the same thing for a second year (although this time round I allow myself to buy clothes from charity shops).
- Time management. I have been addicted to various time management strategies over the years and have rigidly organised my time in a variety of excruciatingly joyless ways (currently trying bullet journalling which I am finding helpful so far, probably because I’m allowing myself to be a bit more flexible with it).
- Self improvement. I will read any book which promises to help me become a better person. I will study for ridiculous qualifications for no good reason (I even got an A level in Critical Thinking which is so diametrically opposed to my natural way of thinking that it is laughable). I will sit down for the twentieth time and try yet again to plough through Wuthering Heights because I believe on some level that it will improve me.
There’s much more I could mention, but believe me when I say that in my experience perfectionism (whilst promising peace, order, calm and success) more often than not leads to guilt, depression and a desperate activity – inactivity – activity – inactivity cycle.
It is perhaps unsurprising that a person like me – with such a highly perfectionistic character – should have been drawn into evangelical christianity: straight off there is so much that appeals. I know that I have fallen short, that I am imperfect. I know that despite all my efforts, I can do nothing on my own. It is such a relief to be devoted to a perfect god. It is so therapeutic to have strict rules that I can follow in the certainty that everything will be alright in the end. It feels so good to be in a group that loves and accepts me and where I know exactly what I am meant to believe, how I should speak, how I should dress and what I should aspire to.
And I earnestly and whole-heartedly tried my absolute best to be a good – perfect – evangelical christian. I prayed every day, getting up early so that I could fit in two or three hours prayer before going to work. I prayed that I would be a better person, I prayed for all the people I knew, I prayed for people I didn’t know in countries I had never been to. I prayed that ill people would get better and I prayed desperately that other people would believe what I believed.
That’s just the praying bit. There was also the going to church bit, the trying to convert people bit, the desperate hope to catch a nice evangelical husband bit…
Are you feeling tired yet? The whole thing was absolutely exhausting.
In Part II I will talk about moving on to a more contemplative christian practice and my continual challenge to try and walk a path that is both whole-hearted and non-driven. But before I go, I thought it might be helpful to offer a few things for you to think about:
What is your relationship with perfectionism?
- In which areas of your life is perfectionism an issue?
- For you, what are the benefits of being perfectionistic? (e.g. ‘I get stuff done’)
- What are the disadvantages for you? (e.g. ‘I never get around to doing anything because I know it will never be perfect’)
- How does perfectionism creep into your spiritual life?
- How do you feel and respond when other people become aware of your imperfections?
- What have you striven towards today?
- What would a day without striving feel like for you?
- How would it feel to accept who you are right now and to happily accept that you’ll still be that person tomorrow?
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