An Imperfectionist in a Perfectionist World

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.

13 Responses to An Imperfectionist in a Perfectionist World

  1. Sandi March 6, 2011 at 4:36 pm #

    I can so identify with no room for mistakes. I don't really have a category for that myself…so therefore I tend to not have one for my kids. Working on that with more and more grace.

    I also have a child on the spectrum and I have had to develop a thick skin in that area…because until the meltdown hits he looks like every other 7 year old boy excpet he is probably bouncing more then average :o)

    Love how you atriculate yourself.

  2. Eliz. K March 6, 2011 at 7:33 pm #

    I should let you know that I often send links from your posts to my friends. Your words are always encouraging to me… thank you!!!

  3. Jill March 6, 2011 at 9:58 pm #

    Hi, I'm Jill. You are on my blog roll. You could not have described ME better. This post is phenomenally prophetic of me. You have struggled through this and given the grace to “even expose” this lie of self-abuse, perhaps, to encourage others with the same tendency.

    How wonderful is the mind of God. How great is His love – His understanding and compassionate are infinite!

    Thank you so much. So much.

  4. Anne Shealy March 7, 2011 at 2:16 am #

    This post really hit home with me. It's so amazing to me that we think so much alike. I struggle, struggle, struggle with all that you mentioned. Keeping my house clean, straightening my desk, not over eating, keeping my classroom under control. I'm so thankful that Melanie has brought me into our Sunday school class and has helped me to open my heart. I'm able to see the grace that God has given me. I've got a lot of things going well in my life and I know exactly Whom to thank.

  5. Wendy March 7, 2011 at 2:50 am #

    Oh, Anne, thanks for commenting! And I've always thought you had it so together. 🙂 Your Sunday school class sounds really great.

  6. Wendy March 7, 2011 at 5:31 am #

    Sandi, Elizabeth, and Jill, thanks for commenting and being vulnerable about your own struggles. Grace!

  7. Lucinda Porter March 7, 2011 at 2:52 pm #

    Wendy this is the struggle of my life. In my upbringing we had both no room for mistakes, and a mother who made nothing but mistakes for her failings. I swore in a very Scarlett O Hara moment,( As God as my witness….) I wouldnt make excuses…so of course, I too point out my large rear end first, or the crappy cooking, or the messy house….I so heard myself in this writing. Accepting God'sgrace is so hard. Accepting being good enough for HIm does not come naturally yet, and I am 46. I really do want to rest there…thank you for your simple approach…it was so comforting.

  8. Margaret Days March 7, 2011 at 4:59 pm #

    Wendy, You are just awesome! Reading this post is just what I needed today. Thanks

  9. Anonymous March 8, 2011 at 1:04 pm #

    Enjoying your heart. How valuable we each are to God just as is and what hope awaits! “Now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known but we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. (1 John 3:2) And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into His image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.( 2 Cor 3:18).” Today though, if feeling weaker, we are indispensable-the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it….that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. (1 Cor 12:22-26)

  10. Donna March 8, 2011 at 1:10 pm #

    Describes my constant struggle with weight until the Gospel liberated me. I was just talking to Bob and Jennie about this last night. I ALWAYS felt guilty for eating ANYTHING. Always felt guilty for feeling hungry…b/c of my weight…Fat people don't get hungry, right? And why it took so long for the Gospel to penetrate that part of my life, I have no idea. But I am so thankful that He did; I am liberated; and I am eating (with joy) and yet losing weight. God is good. Self-deprecation has been the story of my life until recently. I am so thankful that I am liberated to rejoice.

    I loved this: “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.”

    And you can rejoice in those successes knowing full-well it was through his Grace. This just excites me! AWESOME! (And Congrats on the exercise routine!)

  11. allie. March 8, 2011 at 7:14 pm #

    So good to know I am not alone!
    It takes time to realise that self deprecation does not do away with the guilt.
    Neither does rationalising.
    Only rescue is, as ever, Christ and HIs grace.

  12. Jen March 10, 2011 at 3:28 pm #

    Wow. I really need to think about this…how many times have I apologized for my sons, for my shortcomings, for my lack before anyone else can say something about it…? A ton!

  13. Unknown September 5, 2011 at 8:28 am #

    Bone spurs are very painful to walk with. A podiatrists will recommend surgery all the time.