Why Do I Feel I Must Be Perfect?
I am currently working toward getting a master’s degree in Counseling Ministries. As part of that degree, I have to do a semester interning as a chaplain in a hospital. I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I began the semester.
I guess I was naive, but I did not think through how emotionally difficult working in a hospital would be. And to be honest, I am a bit miffed with my school supervisor and my on-site supervisor for not giving me a heads-up. I could have used some warning!
On my second day there, I was put in the very unpleasant position of having to comfort parents and 10 friends of a woman who died suddenly at work. I was astonished that my supervisor left me there to try to comfort them and talk to the family about tissue donation. I had NO IDEA WHAT I WAS DOING! Absolutely awful.
Being thrown in that situation was painful because I felt so much sympathy for that family, and was awed by the intensity of their grief. What does one say or do in the face of that much emotional pain?
But, the worst part for me was my feeling that I was unequal to the task. No, I had not been properly trained. But, some folks would have said to themselves, “I don’t know what to do, but I will just do the best I can. Whatever I do will be helpful to the family.” My internal dialogue went more like this, “What ON EARTH can I say to these poor people? I feel like an IDIOT! Should I say something? If so, WHAT?!? I am sure they are wondering why I am just sitting here, completely tongue-tied. I want to be a help, but I don’t know how. This is awful!!”
As part of the internship, we are required to have group supervision at school. When I shared my feelings about this experience, my school supervisor asked me if I feel I need to do everything perfectly. I had never thought of that before. She asked me if I ever gave myself grace. Um….I guess not. This thought was mind-blowing for me. I never realized how hard I am on myself. She kept digging. “WHY do you need to be perfect at everything you do?” I answered, “I guess that is how I was raised.” She kept digging and kept digging. Finally, I blurted out, “If I do everything perfectly, maybe my birth father won’t abandon me, my first husband won’t abuse me, and my teenage daughter won’t become pregnant.”
I then realized the irony of that statement, because all these things HAVE happened – no matter how “perfectly” I’ve tried to live my life. Yes, I tried to be the perfect daughter, perfect wife, perfect mom. Where did that get me? When these things happened, I felt bad about myself, tried even harder to be more perfect, and often sunk into depression.
Having just read the book With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God, (see my blog from two weeks ago), I realized how much I have lived in the under God position. For me, this looks like trying to do everything “right,” in hopes that in return, God will give me a pain-free life. Sadly, this obviously doesn’t work. As Skye Jethani, (author of With) says, we don’t want to believe that the tragedy comes to all of us is sometimes completely random. We try to avoid this pain by doing what we think is “right.” I do believe some pain comes to us because we don’t follow God’s plan for our lives (God did not force me to marry an abuser). But, often, the pain we experience is because of other people’s sin, or is just completely random (like getting hit head-on by a drunk driver – which has also happened to me).
What are the negative outcomes of feeling I must always be perfect? One big one is depression.
When I fail to be perfect (which is a given), I begin to internally beat myself up. “Why did you say THAT?! What were you thinking? You must be a terrible ________ (daughter, wife, mother, friend, chaplain). If you weren’t, this terrible thing would not have happened.” Or, “I must not be lovable if those I care about can’t treat me with love.” Once these toxic thoughts begin circling in my brain, I begin a downward spiral into depression – which can be very difficult to pull out of.
Another negative outcome of my feeling I need to be perfect is expecting perfection in the people around me. When they don’t meet my expectations, I get angry and have a hard time showing them grace. Since I also do not show myself grace, this is not surprising. I don’t often openly share the disappointment I feel with those I love. Often, I will withdraw from them so that they cannot hurt me as much in the future. Sometimes, I hide my disappointment even from myself, and that can also lead me to depression.
Now that I am aware of my need for perfection in myself and others, what do I do with this? This is obviously not serving me well. This brings me to another great book I’ve read this semester, Recalling Our Own Stories: Spiritual Renewal for Religions Caregivers by Edward P. Wimberly. In this book, he describes the things we believe about ourselves as the “myths” that we believe. The book includes exercises to help us identify the myths we believe. One of the exercises is to recount your earliest memories. In one of my first memories, I was four and was teaching my 2-year-old brother to talk. In another, my parents vehemently argued over something that I did, leaving my mother crying. From these two memories, I realized that at a very young age, I began holding myself responsible for the happiness and growth of others. Needless to say, this was not a healthy role for such a young child to take on. From there, it was an easy leap to believing I should always be perfect. If I am not perfect, others become upset, and I don’t want others to be upset! Therefore, I need to be perfect!
I know that I am not alone in this feeling. Wimberly says that many of us believe the myth of “overfuctioning”. An overfunctioner is a person who takes on the role of making others happy, and does the majority of the work in their relationships. Sound like anyone you know? For an overfunctioner to work, they must be in relationship with an underfunctioner – the perfect description of an abuser. This is the type of person who lets others do all the heavy lifting in a relationship.
Wimberly encourages us to try a process he calls “reauthoring” our myths. To do this, we must first become aware of the myths we believe (like, I am responsible for other’s happiness and I need to be perfect). Next, over time, begin assessing if the myths we believe are growth-facilitating or growth-inhibiting. Do the myths we believe serve us well? Thirdly, allow God into the process of changing our mythical beliefs. We can allow God into this process through prayer and reading spiritual books, including the Bible. Finally, we can make plans to change our myths by seeking out ways to modify them. We can do this by seeking out others who will allow us to safely explore what we are learning about ourselves. A safe person is someone who doesn’t tell you what you “should” think or feel, but accepts what you actually think and feel, while gently encouraging you to give up your mythical beliefs. Safe persons might be personal counselors, mentors, life coaches, spiritual directors, or support groups. We can also change our myths by taking classes, or returning to our family of origin to learn where our myths might have come from.
For me, I am in stage three and four simultaneously. I have discerned what are (at least some of my erroneous) beliefs and have decided these myths are not serving me well. Now, I am doing a lot of reading and journaling and praying, asking God to reveal ways that my myths do not serve me, and how I can move past them. I am also processing what I am learning in my internship supervision group and with my husband and a few close friends.
As with most life changes, this is a slow process. I can’t expect to learn these things “perfectly” or quickly. I need to give myself grace even while I am learning how to give myself grace!
Question: What myths do you believe? I would love to hear what you think your personal myths are.
Recently, one of my favorite Bible verses has become Romans 8:1-2:
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.
I’m praying I can learn not to condemn myself when I am not the perfect person I wish I could be. I don’t have to be perfect, because Jesus has set me free.
Bless you all,