P is for Perfectionist: Naming the inner critic

Last week, I shared a piece of my journey in discovering grace. If I’m honest, I was more than a little terrified to post something so vulnerable, but I was overwhelmed by how many people reached out to me and told me they were struggling to give themselves grace, too. With that, I want to keep sharing my story in hopes that someone with a similar struggle might find freedom.

It’s been a journey. Not an overnight transformation. Not a couple months of therapy and a few really good self-help articles. It’s been a journey that started over a year ago.

I think my struggle with perfectionism has been around for longer than I ever realized. I’ve battled with anxiety and depression off and on for more than two years now, and I’ve everything to try and deal with it– in depth counseling, books, Bible studies. But I didn’t actually identify the root problem as perfectionism until this time last year. Awareness was the first step to healing.

The word “perfectionist” had been used to label me for the majority of my life, and I don’t argue with that label. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a “perfectionist” in the sense that most of us commonly think of that word: I like things to be neat and organized, I strive for my best in my work, and I like to be in control.

But, perfectionism is so much deeper than a typical type A personality. It’s very much an “all-or-nothing” mindset. If I can’t do something absolutely perfectly, I might as well not even try. If failure is more than a 3% possibility (which, let’s be real, is true for most things in life), perfectionism tells me that I shouldn’t risk it– just stick with the things I can control the outcome of. Unless I’m completely perfect, it’s not good enough, so to save myself from the shame of not being good enough, I eventually just stop trying to do anything at all.

Do you see where the cycle comes in? I set expectations of perfection on myself. I become anxious because I want to act and fulfill those expectations, but I feel like I’m not good enough. I’m afraid of failure. Eventually I shut up the voice of anxiety long enough to convince myself to act.

And when I do act, I fall short of perfect. Why? Because I’m human.

In my “less than perfect” state, I become depressed, and I beat myself up for not being good enough. I hate myself for a few days/weeks/months, depending on how resilient I am in the situation, and then I set my sights on a new goal. “Maybe I’ll be perfect at this. I learned last time that I’m not perfect at that, but maybe this is the place I can ace absolutely everything.” I get fired up and excited about this new chance to prove to myself that I’m good enough, and before I know it, those expectations of perfection for my performance are filling my head, and the ensnaring cycle begins again.

The quote at the top of this post is one of the truest things I’ve read throughout my journey. A few months ago, I saw a shortened version of it printed in a book as:

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.”

Now, I don’t know enough about Anne Lamott to know if she wrote this in the context of Christianity, but when I read it, I immediately knew that “the opressor” for me was quite literally Satan.

For a long time, I imagined Satan as the blue-haired character Hades in the Disney version of Hercules (shout out to all my 90s kids who know exactly what I’m talking about). In my mind, he was just a ridiculous character that I could choose not to listen to. I could use my Herculean strength to tell him to shut up any time I wanted. I was totally fine to just make Satan get back in his box and fume with his animated blue hair, right?

No. Wrong. Very, very wrong.

In my childish, sheltered view of Satan, I didn’t realize that he was (and is) a living force, and he was working on me every single day. For me, Satan’s voice was the one in my head telling me I could be happy if I could only achieve perfection. “YOU can do it, pick yourself up and prove to the world that YOU are amazing. YOU can be perfect.”

But what I failed to remember, is, who’s the only being that is truly perfect? Spoiler alert. It’s not me.

It’s God. Satan hasn’t changed his trickery since the day of Adam and Eve. In Genesis 3, the serpent tells Eve that she “will be like God” if she eats fruit from the tree. She knows it’s disobedient to God if she eats from the tree, but she does it anyway.

My “forbidden fruit” is the idea of having it all together. You know, looking good all the time, being a rock star at my job, having a Pinterest-worthy home, and being the best fiancée/daughter/sister/cousin/grandkid/friend that I can be. Satan tells me I CAN be perfect if I just tell God, “hold on, I’ve got this,” and make my own way. I know it’s disobedient to intentionally live my life on my terms without seeking the Lord, but I do it anyway.

I’ve come to realize that doubting the power of Satan–and believing in your own ability to fight him off– is essentially the same thing as telling God, “I don’t need you.” And boy, is that a dangerous place to be. As I once heard it described, the wrath of God comes when He “takes his hand off” and allows us to live like the horrible sinners we are. And when we essentially tell Him we don’t need Him, I’m pretty sure that gives Him the right to take his hand off and let us wallow in our own brokenness.

Thankfully, though, our God is a gracious God, and though I’ve made plenty of mistakes because I ignored Him over the past several years, I can come back to Him. I can cry out to him and ask Him to put his hand back on. There is NO WAY I deserve His help after I’ve chased my forbidden fruit ruthlessly for years and years, but He is a God of mercy and unconditional, mind-blowing love.

As such, here I sit at my kitchen table staring out at the trees. And I’m reminded through His creation that His presence is still with me and my broken self. He gives me the gift of His presence even after I turned my back on him and listened to and believed “the oppressor” for so long.

He never left me, even in my wandering.

“No one will be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.” Joshua 1:5

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