I feel the anxiety coming before it takes hold. There is always a moment when I choose to banish the feeling or surrender to it. Anxiety grips my stomach first. The familiar knot begins to form as soon as something is amiss. It could be a simple as a dust bunny under the dining room table or as complex as a child services investigation. The knot spreads and my heart begins pounding. Anxiety travels from my chest to my limbs and my hands begin to shake. I have a few moments to regulate my breathing, turn my mind and get a grip. Sometimes I do and sometimes I’m too late.
I’ve always been an anxious person. I can remember as a child feeling the full blown panic of a missing hairbrush or an incomplete homework assignment. As an adult our journey through the foster care system only furthered my need for control in situations that are beyond anyone’s control. My mind goes from dust bunny to total destruction in less than 10 seconds. I first noticed that my need for perfection was taking control when my 3 middle children were babies. We had just found out that an aunt that had never met the children had petitioned the court for custody. We had been their parents for 2 years and the thought of losing them filled me with a rampant fear. I began to clean and organize like a maniac. This became my go to whenever stressful situations arose. Perfectionism became a means to control the uncontrollable. If court was continued, I cleaned each and every tile on the bathroom floor. If my child got an upsetting diagnosis at the doctor, I frantically organized every cabinet in the kitchen. If the neighbor complained about my barking dog, I braided my daughter’s corn-rows tighter. I knew my attempt to control the little things was not gaining me the peace of mind I had hoped it would, but I just couldn’t stop.
Not only was my need for perfection causing me stress it was rubbing off on my children as well. One of my younger sons has had a perfectionist personality from the beginning. He likes everything just so. Each morning he makes his bed perfectly. He organizes his desk, folds his laundry neatly and puts on his backpack long before the bus arrives. All of this would be good except that it comes with the insatiable need for perfection. If he can’t get his sheets perfectly straight he begins to panic. If his pants touch his shoes, his voice gets high and his fists clench tightly. He can tell if anyone has touched his stuff just by looking at it. I understand him and I’ve always been a little proud of his little neat freak character. Yesterday, as I was making dinner, I caught him pacing in the kitchen with his hands over his ears. “I can’t take it, this house is trashed, we’re never going to get it clean and I will feel so bad for you mom. I just don’t want you to cry.” I knelt beside him and tried to give his ridged little body a hug. “It’s going to be just fine,” I said. “We always get it clean. I’m so sorry for crying over the house. I was being silly for getting upset about those things.” His distressed look frightened me. That’s what I must look like when I begin to panic about the small stuff. In my need to attain perfect control over my home, I’ve taught my son that life is truly out of control and that mess is something to be feared.
My daughter was a born perfectionist as well. She was speaking full sentences before she could walk, taught herself to read in pre-school and has wowed us with her ability to memorize details of complicated passages of literature. A few years ago, she opened her mouth as if on a whim, and belted out the most powerful, beautiful song I’ve ever heard a 9 year old sing. She has a giftedness that most of us could only dream of, but she is a prisoner to her need for perfection. If skill does not come automatically to her she freezes. She struggles with math and would rather turn in a paper with no answers than face the red marks of failure from a teacher. The other day she sang a beautiful song in her theater showcase. She has a breathtakingly dynamic voice. That night I noticed she was missing. I went to find her and she was sitting on the edge of the bathtub with her head in her hands, tears streaming. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “I ruined the whole thing. My voice cracked on that one high note and I ruined it for everyone.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, it had been a nearly flawless performance and one she should be proud of. In my need to attain perfect control over my self, I had mistakenly taught my daughter that mistakes are disastrous and unforgivable.
Perfection is a goal we will always fall short of.
I’m committed to turning this perfectionist personality around. I am committed to setting a better example for my children starting today. I’ve realized a few things about the disease of perfectionism.
Perfection is false control.
Perfection is fraudulent power.
Perfection is prison.
Perfection is a lie.
Perfection is a goal we will always fall short of. We live in an imperfect world filled with imperfect people. Our only perfection is found in the perfect grace of our Lord. He has taught us the grace of forgiveness and the abundance of His provision. Today, I challenge you to let go of one thing that plagues you and embrace the grace of a God who makes all things perfect in his time.
What is one thing you need to let go of today? Share it in the comment section below.