I think I just made up the term imperfectionist. I do not fit into the perfectionist world in which I live. I am messy. I have tried Fly Lady and every suggestion Real Simple magazine has made, yet I am unable to change my genetic propensity toward messiness. My clothes are wrinkled. My sons have bed head most days. I don’t follow cooking instructions well. I eat too much. My workout routines fall short of my expectations. And so forth.
It’s only recently that I’ve come to recognize my coping mechanism. I anticipate that you are going to perceive me as messy, overweight, or irresponsible. So I compensate by saying it myself first.
Self-deprecation– belittling or undervaluing oneself; excessively modest.
The guests coming over for dinner are going to notice that my corn pie is runny. “Hey. Here’s some corn pie. Sorry it’s runny. I didn’t let it cook long enough.” You probably think my son is undisciplined. “Yeah, I know he’s doesn’t play well with others. I know I’ve made these mistakes with him (list mistakes), and here’s what I’m doing to fix it.”
I grew up in Christian fundamentalism, and sin and laziness were projected onto me with pretty much every mistake I ever made. I dropped my tray and made a mess because I wasn’t being careful. I am sick because I didn’t take care of my health, exercise regularly, or eat carefully. I made a bad grade because I didn’t study hard enough. And so forth. It’s been a long road unpacking all that baggage. I don’t have a category for things that are simply mistakes.
A friend pointed my coping mechanism out to me this week. I wrote down the wrong date for volunteering at my son’s preschool. I showed up Wednesday and was about to leave when the teacher reminded me I was scheduled to work. Horrified, I double-checked, and sure enough, I was supposed to work Wednesday, not Thursday as I had written on my calendar. I felt irresponsible. Surely she thought badly of me too. My immediate response was along the lines, “That’s totally my fault. Totally irresponsible on my part.” She interrupted me and said, “You don’t have to take that on yourself. It’s OK.” It was just a mistake. And we worked through it to fix it. She believed the best of me, and it was unexpected.
My self deprecating coping mechanisms have also been highlighted to me over the years with my health. In 1995, I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. It was actually a good moment for me. I had felt like such a loser. “Why am I tired all the time? I guess I’m just lazy. Why am I hungry all the time? I guess I’m just a glutton.” When the doctor told me I had diabetes, it was a relief to know that there was something truly wrong with me, and it wasn’t my fault. I had a similar response earlier this year when the podiatrist showed me x-rays of my feet with very pronounced bone spurs in each one. And again when the ENT showed me the CAT scan of my sinuses and pointed out the chronic infection and deviated septum. “Oh, I’m NOT a hypochondriac!” I almost cried in relief. I had believed it of myself. I felt so tired, but I kept trying to power through because asking for a break from my responsibilities or taking a nap when I needed to clean my kitchen seemed lazy.
The truth is that some people WILL think that my corn pie is runny, my son is undisciplined, and that I’m irresponsible for writing the wrong date on my calendar for preschool. Some people will think I’m a hypochondriac if I refuse to take on new responsibilities though I don’t have a physically obvious ailment. But why am I constrained by my fears of what they will think of me?
We live in a world of high expectations. People are easily offended and easily let down, within and without Christianity. And if we don’t constantly meditate on God’s words of affirmation said over us in eternity, we will be constrained and handicapped by the expectations of others, many of which are simply unattainable. I’m praying that God would give me an honest assessment of myself. I want to face my sins head on. But I also don’t want to over spiritualize things on which God has given me freedom and grace.
I have learned a lot from my friends who parent autistic children or other children with learning disabilities that are not physically obvious. How many of them get repeated looks from other parents like they are complete losers for not disciplining and controlling their kids? The answer for them/me is the same answer for everything. The first place I have to flee is the gospel—God’s words of affirmation over me and the lavish grace that fills my spiritual bank account. When it’s a mistake as opposed to sin, the gospel equips me there too. When I did my best and it still wasn’t good enough, there is something in the resurrection power at work on my behalf that allows me to deal with it without condemnation or self flagellation. And a great side benefit of my inadequacies is that, when I do succeed at something like my exercise routine, instead of applauding myself for my self-discipline, I look up to God in awe and praise Him for the gift of His grace (as I just did when I got off my rowing machine, marveling over the last 2 months of consistent exercise on it). I know good and well my imperfections, and I am free to receive success on an issue that has thwarted be for a lifetime as purely His love gift to me as He transforms me. My experience thus far with the gospel applied to my mistakes is that facing them without self flagellation and with confidence in who I am in Christ gives great testimony of the gospel, particularly to myself. And I’m not going to project the gospel to others very well until I get it for myself.
See also Theology of a Mistake.