Today's blog post is a guest feature from Saralyn of The Duke Project.
Growing up in a similar background of thriving off of praise and accomplishments, Saralyn couldn't have explained the struggle of perfectionism any better. Life is about the journey. Savor the moments. Not everything has to be viewed as a "big picture"...enjoy the unknown.
I used to view life as a huge checklist, with the goal in mind to perfectly accomplish one thing after another just to cross it off my list. It started way back in the day, like in elementary school, when I would get all A report cards with notes that said, “Saralyn is such a delight to have in class; she is a smart student!” I began to understand that my highest praises and personal value came from being a good girl and accomplishing things with excellence. It’s not like my parents or teachers explicitly taught me this way of thinking; I just loved making them happy by doing the right things. This is not an altogether bad way to grow up. But my desire and need for perfection were deeply rooted in that way of thinking.
One of the major problems with a perfectionist mindset is the way it leads so quickly to unhealthy criticism and comparison. Couple this with the mindset of reaching one goal after another and it’s a pretty bad combo. You are constantly critiquing everyone around you, and most of the time it’s in your head where no one can see your dark thoughts, and you judge yourself in comparison to others. You think you’re good if you’re not doing that one sinful thing and you think you’re terrible if you’re not giving enough of yourself to serve others. It’s such a toxic cycle of thoughts and can be very dangerous and damaging to your true self.
Another problem with this way of living and thinking is that you are living for the opinions of others. You become very worried about what “they” think of you and hope that you’re pleasing everyone all the time. It is exhausting and impossible to keep up this pace, especially when you have very little insight into who you are and you’re discovering your identity along the way.
I continued to believe this way well into my adult life. I graduated from college early with all As, married my high school sweetheart, and got a great job as a teacher. I had thus far checked off a lot of the “essentials” from my life list, based on the perceived success I understood from the world around me. We moved for new jobs 6 months after our wedding, and we bought a new house, got a new car, got a dog, and I was ready to have kids. [My checklist mindset continued] After a few years, we moved for new jobs again and decided to downsize considerably in order to embrace a new season. Josh and I started talking more about our family values rather than the checklist of the American dream that is so prevalent and invasive in our culture. During that season, we decided it was time to start building our family and I got pregnant.
Even during my first pregnancy, I still believed and adhered to my thoughts of perfection and achieving things with excellence. It was rough to say the least, because my body was betraying me as it was growing this little life inside who would ultimately be a huge factor in changing me forever! I continued teaching throughout my pregnancy and it was very difficult; I cried a lot and needed a TON of grace. I didn’t give much grace to myself during those 9 months, because I had a picture in my mind that women just get pregnant and go on about their lives as usual until the baby comes, and then you go back to life as usual except with a new baby. I was TERRIBLY misled.
I didn’t start becoming deeply introspective until my life finally slowed down. 6 weeks after our son was born, we made the decision that I would not go back to my teaching job and would stay home to raise our son. This had always been my dream, but because of finances I honestly never thought it would be possible. It was a very difficult decision, but Josh and I were again discussing our values and realized that extra money in the bank account was not worth the trade of all my time and energy being spent on our family. [This is what worked for us; I understand that this is a personal choice for every family, based on many factors.] Life with a newborn is wild and unpredictable at times, but I finally began the process of learning to sit still, be contemplative, and stop striving. I became way more present with Josh, our son, and even myself. I remember feeling like I was seeing the world in a brand new way.
I am extremely thankful for that first step in my journey when I chose to stay home and I began to really understand that slow and steady wins the race. [This does not mean that staying home with a baby is the only way to become contemplative (which is funny to even consider because babies change everything and make ya crazy in the best way); it’s just the path that has led me there.] Making decisions based on your values is extremely important, but can also be very difficult and most of the time counter-cultural. This goes against the checklist, perfectionist mindset and actually leaves room for errors and growth and grace upon grace.
Although sometimes I still tend to be a perfectionist, there is soooo much of my true self, my inner thoughts and beliefs about myself and the world, that has stopped living that way because I realized it’s impossible and honestly miserable. Don’t get me wrong, I still think it’s important to do things with excellence and to be a good steward of all I’ve been given, but I no longer beat myself up when I make mistakes or don’t have it all together. It has been a long, good, painful, enlightening journey over the last 3 years, and I am becoming a new person daily. I have finally realized that life is a journey through ups and downs, not a race to some arbitrary finish line that I thought for so long. I have learned that rigid rules and regulations cannot hold life and all its many exceptions. It’s way more enjoyable if you stop striving, accept your flaws, and just embrace the process.
An excerpt from a recent journal entry:
This life... It’s a journey.
It’s not about reaching moments and levels of peace and harmony.
It’s about the process of getting there,
to a place where we realize that conflict and difficulties and things that ruffle us
are all sure parts of life.
It’s about what we do in the middle of our peaceful moments,
how we conduct ourselves when we’re ruffled or plans change or things just fall apart.
The appearance of peace and put-togetherness is the greatest enemy to actual peace
that comes after the struggle, after the fight.
We don’t have to be put-together all the time.
We certainly don’t have even an inkling of room to cast judgment on other people.
If we are always in a hurry to rush through the tension,
we miss the valuable transformation awaiting us in the valley.
If we want to rush through the tension,
we can continue building a house of sand around ourselves and feel somewhat secure,
definitely hidden in the moment,
but it’s all going to crumble.
So face the tension.
See the value in standing in the midst of uncomfortable tension,
of sitting in the middle of your crap or the hard circumstance or the ruin of your false security.
Sit in it.
Make friends with the tension.
We all live in it.
All of us who are real, anyway.
Stop trying to look perfect and put-together.
Lead from truth and confidence in who you are becoming.
Life is beautiful and messy and such a journey.
Don’t miss it.