(Take a breath. Get a drink. This is a long one. But it’s worth it. I
When I think of the perfect business woman, a very specific picture comes to mind. Someone who lives in a city, in a perfect apartment overlooking the city in which she works. She has perfect hair, perfect nails, a perfect figure, a perfectly coordinated outfit. She can walk in high heels for hours, and commands attention immediately when she walks into a room. She walks into meetings and has all the right answers, she sells her clients on whatever she needs to, goes on business trips, and makes enough money that she never has to worry about bills or how much she spends when she goes out with her friends. She is intelligent, witty, and held in respect. And, most important of all, she is confident. She knows who she is, what she is doing, where she is going, and how she is getting there. She exercises every day, has relaxing evenings, and is always at work in tip top shape with all the energy for the day coursing through her. In essence, she is every white collar business woman displayed on every TV show and movie.
I have always wanted to be that woman. I have watched all those TV shows and movies and thought, someday – that will be me.
I am 32 years old. I live in a perfect apartment overlooking the city in which I work. I get up early to go to work, and make more money than even I ever thought I could. I have briefed and run meetings for hundreds of people throughout my career. I go to more meetings than I know what to do with. I travel all over the country to meet with clients. I go out to happy hours. I wear suits and heels. In a fleeting moment, one might think – I have arrived. And you know what? I struggle to exercise because I hate it. I struggle to keep my weight down because I like eating. I am exhausted in the mornings as I trudge into work wishing I could have slept in and trying to smile instead of glower at people. I spend most evenings either preparing food for dinner or cleaning up, trying to catch up on correspondence and social media, trying to catch up on errands, or playing on my phone and watching TV while feeling guilty for not being useful. I always watch the price when I’m out because I still have a budget, and we are saving for a house, and I have financial goals, unlike apparently that woman in the movie. I never make time to do my nails, my hair is rarely perfect, I can handle high heels for only about half an hour at a time, and most of all? I have incredibly low confidence. I never know what to say to people, am always confident I DON’T have the right answer, and have totally lost my vision for where I want to go.
Remember that fleeting moment that I looked like that woman? Well, I’m not. I am nothing like her.
But I’m always striving to be her. And you know why? Because she is perfect. And I so dearly, desperately, want to be perfect. I strive so hard for that and always, always fail, and therefore constantly feel like a failure, and constantly lower my confidence because I cannot seem to make myself disciplined enough to climb up to where that perfect woman is.
I know – well, my brain knows – that that perfect woman? She doesn’t actually exist. That actress is in perfect shape because she is an actress. She has money for drinks because the studio pays for it (and it’s probably water anyway). Her hair and nails and outfit are all perfect because an entire team of people came together to make them perfect and probably worked on it for hours. Every bit of that is fake and yet somehow, makes us still desire it.
I excuse my desperate drive for perfectionism as a good thing. Aren’t we told to strive to be perfect? Matthew 5:48: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
It was good to strive for perfectionism in all forms of my life. But I knew I was failing. A deep and utter failure. From not graduating with honors at college to not controlling my weight to not finishing writing that book, to not being confident at meetings or stumbling during my briefings. And I’m so rooted in the fact that I’m failing even as I strive desperately, that I am in constant turmoil if I ever pause to think about it. My husband has tried to talk to me about it. Tried to tell me it’s okay not to always succeed. That I have to fail to learn (a concept I’ve always panicked at). That it’s okay to just be who I am. And I know he’s making good points – but that doesn’t mean I can or will implement them. And then a friend said it in a way that turned my thinking completely upside down.
I think you’ve let perfectionism become an idol.
My entire world reeled at that statement. It’s taken me weeks to process it enough to even write this. Because at that instant, the absolute millisecond I read those words, I knew it was so. But Oh, I didn’t want it to be. No! I wanted, I NEEDED my perfectionism. It is WHO I AM. I am an ISTJ – I do things right. I am an Enneagram 1 – the perfectionist. I am a Green over Blue E-Color – I don’t just do things right – I do them right the first time.
To take away my drive to perfectionism would be like – not being me anymore. And everyone kept telling me to be me. So how would that work?
But. Striving to be perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect . . . is a far cry from striving to be perfect so I can meet my idea of the person I need to be in order for people to admire me and think of me as a success. Because I know that, deep down, my current pursuit of perfection stems from the need to be admired. To be praised. To be looked up to as the example. And above all, oh shudder, above all, so I am not laughed at or derided or looked down upon, or any of the other horrible things that all those who are afraid of what people think fear the most.
I pursue perfectionism like it is all there is in the world. Most of my thoughts revolve around what I could be doing better. I even criticize my handwriting WHILE I’m writing anything. It’s a constant voice while I’m writing those notes or that story, or a phone number: Why is your handwriting so sloppy? Why haven’t you finished that calligraphy course? People can see you writing, you know. You know what they are thinking right now. They are thinking about how awful your handwriting is. Oh gosh, what if someone sees that word you just wrote? Do even YOU know what you just wrote? What a failure.
Yesterday, I was part of a panel of presenters to a group of over 400 people on a webinar. I was in a room with two senior level people also giving a briefing. We all did our briefings, the webinar ended, and guess what happened? The other two people smiled at me, said goodbye, and went back to work. I sat there, almost stunned. You know why? Because they didn’t look at me and say, “Great job!”. My mind immediately went from Hey, I didn’t mess up! To Oh, man. The analysis I presented must have been awful. It should have been way deeper. It was definitely too short. Did you see the terminology the other panelists used? Why didn’t you use fancier words? You should have run this by someone – someone other than your manager and the other person who used to do this because they obviously didn’t know what they were talking about. Oh, gosh, I just did a HORRIBLE JOB. I was trembling, I messed up a couple words, no one asked me questions – that wasn’t what they wanted at all!
I could keep going, but I think you get the idea. It wasn’t until I mustered up the courage to actually ask one of the other senior people if I had done all right and they were like, “Oh, yeah – you were fine! You did a good job.” that I finally stopped the running dialogue (although the term fine came with its own dialogue, of course).
And I knew I had a problem. Technically I’ve sort of known this all along. And technically, I sort of knew it a lot more when I began to think of perfectionism as an idol. But this forced me to face it head on. I need to be perfect so I can be admired. I need to be perfect to elevate myself. And that is where the issue comes in. Because you and I, ladies and gents? You and I are supposed to be elevating God. We are supposed to be striving to do things better to send praises His way, not our way. We are supposed to be praising him, not ourselves.
I am trapped under a burden that will never release me until I allow God to take it from me. Perfectionism is going to choke the life out of me – every bit of joy I have – everything I do and think and strive for – it is waiting to grab that cup of joy I took a sip of and drink the rest. Always thirsty but never full, no matter how hard I try. But that isn’t my job. That’s God’s job. All I have to do is hand this joy-sucker over to him – because He is the only one who can actually fill that empty chasm. Nothing I do will ever fill it up . Only He is large enough to do that. All I am large enough to do is my best with who He has made me – and then let Him fill up everything that I thought perfectionism would take care of.
Oh, I’m not saying everything is fixed. I’m not even saying that I’m not sitting here alternately condemning what I wrote and then imagining someone publishing it worldwide and turning me into a star and then condemning it again. No, this is an ongoing struggle and one I am only just beginning to face. I have a feeling it is going to be a difficult time getting these clutches off of me. But I suppose recognizing it enough to write about it is the first step. And hopefully I won’t just bury it away again, thinking this was good enough.
Because – how would it feel, I wonder – to step outside, stretch out my arms, breathe the incredible air, look at the view – and NOT be wondering way deep down inside if people were watching me and what they were thinking and whether I should be better dressed and why I wasn’t skinnier?
It’s my goal to find out what that’s like.