I’m a perfectionist. There, I admitted it.
My husband is probably in the next room saying, “It’s about time.” He should know. He’s been on the receiving end of my impossible expectations often, such as the numerous times I’ve coached him on how to load the dishwasher most efficiently. Or the few times he’s attempted to make our bed on his own and heard a snide remark about how rumpled the sheets were. Now that we’ve been married for seven years, a tinge of his relaxed approach to life has filtered into my habits. But I still relapse now and then.
I come by it honest. My family is full of entrepreneurs and accountants, so perfectionism was a natural part of my upbringing. For instance, my dad was known to call family meetings to demonstrate how to properly turn off the faucet without splashing water all over the bathroom. Perfectionism manifested itself in different ways for each family member, but we were all subject to its grasp.
I took to cleanly habits like a kindergartner to recess. Although there were moments when I cringed at the expectations placed on me growing up, they seeped into my life after I left home. My conflict-averse nature held me from confronting future roommates, but I would inwardly flinch when pools of water made a trail through the bathroom floor, evidence that someone stepped out of the shower before toweling off. Or I’d grit my teeth when someone put a butter knife in the dishwasher blade side up. I’m ashamed to admit I began to see the petty faults of my friends in the forefront of my mind rather than looking at their beautiful strengths, such as their ability to make me laugh or to listen unconditionally when I faced a crisis.
After I got married, my ignorance continued. Instead of thanking my husband for his help in cooking supper, I nagged him about the boil-over that caused a mound of crustiness to form on the stovetop. As a result, he felt like none of his contributions to our household could meet my standards.
Now that I’m a mother, I have to be extra vigilant to watch my expectations. With a toddler in the home, it’s easy to nitpick each action, wanting to teach my son the “right way” to do things. But what if, in the midst of teaching the “right way,” I’m making him feel like he can’t do anything good enough for Mommy?
One of the biggest tests for me is at the dinner table. We’re trying to teach my son how to use his own fork and spoon. I’ll place a cup of yogurt on the table, show him how to scoop the spoon into the cup then bring the food up to his mouth. Inevitably, some of the creamy substance settles between his fingers, on his cheek, or behind his ear. But in those moments when he manages to get most of it into his mouth, I can either choose to praise him for the accomplishment or scold him for the peripheral mess. Trust me, I’ve tested both approaches.
A toddler doesn’t have a filter system on their facial expressions like an adult does. A scolding usually results in the disappointed downturn of his features, but praise makes his eyes radiate with pride. When I see a yogurt-smudged face alight with the thrill of a new learned skill, I have no reason to quell the excitement of the moment with my perfectionism. To do so would crush the spirit of my child.
I recently came face to face with my misguided intentions and realized that far too many times I view my Christianity as an exercise in perfection, as if God won’t be pleased with me unless I follow all his commands with absolute precision. The problem with my theory is that I’m human, and as much as I loathe mistakes, I’m bound to make them.
One particular weekend, I felt burdened by some unrealistic expectations placed on me by a loved one and consequently myself. That Sunday, I was reluctant to go to church and struggled to focus on the worship or the words of the sermon. My mind was numb from the mental gymnastics I had engaged in all weekend.
I can’t tell you the overarching theme of the sermon, but one part grabbed my full attention. Our pastor shared an analogy of watching parents while they observe their children on stage or at the ball park. He said, “If you were to ask them, ‘Which one is yours,’ their face will beam. They’ll point and say, ‘That’s my boy’ or ‘That’s my girl.’ It won’t even matter if they’re performing well; that parent’s pride will radiate because the child is theirs.”
Then Pastor Steve raised a question that thrust my heart into a new understanding. “How do you see God when you enter this place? Do you picture Him elbowing the angels and whispering, ‘Psst, that’s my boy; that’s my girl,’ with a look of unadulterated pride? He’s your Father, and He’s proud of you, not because of what you’ve done but because you’re you, and you’re trying. You belong to Him.”
My eyes flooded with tears. Every inadequacy I’d felt trying to measure up to my idealistic standards, every method I’d tried to enforce in my own home, meant nothing to God. He only cares about my efforts for Him, and His eyes beam with pride every time He watches me from heaven.
A poignant passage of scripture comes to mind. “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:4-5).
I’m thankful that He gives no care to what I’ve accomplished in life, or how many times I’ve erred. Rather, He loves me because of His mercy. It’s that same mercy that nailed His Son to a cross, so I might experience freedom from the chains of my perfectionism.