I gave up perfectionism for Lent…here’s what happened

They say “Be careful what you wish for”, and boy, are they right! It was as late as Ash Wednesday and I didn’t know what to give up for Lent. I asked myself the question: would giving this thing up make me a better person at the end of the 40 days? Food was a no-go because I don’t really have something I can give up, I’d rather forgo coffee entirely than have it unsweetened and I am down to the minimum amount possible to avoid being a cranky zombie with a migraine. I thought about giving up entertainment, but I realised that the effect on my schedule would be marginal. I have so much time on my hands I should be able to keep the monastic schedule of prayer, tackle my to-do list and still waste a lot of time playing games and watching Asian dramas. A lot of that time used to be wasted scrolling on social media, but I was already tackling that because I can’t give them up entirely (I was already home alone all day before the lockdown started). So after a lot of prayer and thinking, I decided to give up perfectionism.
My battle with perfectionism started a long time ago, when I attended the launch of a book by a Christian author at a women’s ministry of which I forgot the name as it’s been that long ago (2016 to be exact, as I mentioned it in the post Behind the Veil) and realised how deep in it I was. 4 years later, I still haven’t read the book, although I probably should. Back then, I was left with very bitter feelings after I shared about the event on Facebook and someone pretty much criticised me saying that it’s clear in the Bible that Jesus said we should be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48). I knew that the verse couldn’t possibly mean that, but as a new revert I didn’t really have a way to coherently explained why I had that gut feeling. I had my own journey to go on, but I knew that to equate perfectionism to this call to perfection was equivalent to advocating salvation by works. 

Let’s take a step back. Perfectionism is defined, according to Psychology Today:

Perfectionism is a trait that makes life an endless report card on accomplishments or looks. A fast and enduring track to unhappiness, it is often accompanied by depression and eating disorders. What makes perfectionism so toxic is that while those in its grip desire success, they are most focused on avoiding failure, so theirs is a negative orientation. They expect others’ love and approval to be conditional on a flawless performance.

It’s not just the love of others, but also the love of God. It becomes a trap of anxiety over doing the right thing and ticking all the boxes. It turns the loving Father that Jesus was talking about in that verse into a judge whose standards are impossible to meet. And, to an extent it’s true: we are sinners and we all fall short of the standard that was intended for us at Creation. But what perfectionism hides is the truth that we don’t have to meet that standard. Grace will meet it for us if we empty ourselves and let it flow. Imagine a traditional scale with the two arms. On one side, there are all our sins, and on the others all the good we have done and if the sins are the heaviest we cannot enter Heaven.

Now, the perfectionist will spend their life trying to lighten the load of sin, both by obsessively trying to avoid sinning in the first place (which doesn’t work, because it’s a highway into despair which is itself a sin) and by accumulating things for the good side (which also doesn’t work, if it did would have Jesus had to be the perfect victim for our sakes?). The person who, instead, accepts that we cannot achieve our own perfection, would have Grace on the scale tilting the balance in their favour. 

The despair and feeling inadequate because we can never meet the standards is not the only way in which I’ve found perfectionism to be a hindrance to the spiritual life. Prayer becomes a checklist of devotions that we do to accumulate holy Brownie points, but it’s like we talk at God rather than with God because we never reach the level at which we feel good enough to move into a later stage of the spiritual life. It’s really hard to be child-like in approaching the Lord when you have such baggage holding you down. And so, I’ve started to work on letting it go, and the Lord provided me with ample opportunities to face my fears of being found wanting. At the same time, I kept finding things that reinforced the message of His love and how my identity rests not in what I do, but in who I am in Him. 

This is something I’ve known superficially for a long time, but the burden of perfectionism made it impossible to truly live in that freedom. Being restrained by fear doesn’t make for a life of radical love of others, a lesson that has become apparent in the first few months of married life. 40 days is a very short period of time compared to a lifetime of being put down and made to feel like love is something you need to earn by being perfect, so there is no story of dramatic Pauline conversion when I suddenly died to my old self and came out of the tomb with the Resurrected Christ loving myself and seeing myself the way God sees me. It’s going to be a long journey still, but at least I’m now on my way, and I can look back two months and see that something changed. I’m a little more compassionate towards myself nowadays, and feeling closer to God than ever even when the physical presence in the Blessed Sacrament is really far away.

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