“Who did God create me to be?” That’s a question that has accompanied me since my childhood. Perhaps I was a rather odd child to be asking such a philosophical question, but there has always been a part of me with an unshakeable conviction that God created me for some purpose, and I yearned to find the answer. But unbeknownst to me, I had a huge handicap that made it extremely difficult for me to make a successful discernment of personal vocation – for I had come to believe that I must win God’s (and other people’s) approval in order to be who I was created to be.
So I strove to excel in everything I did, and from appearances I was quite successful. Even then, it never felt that I was good enough. I remember my principal asking my mother, “Are you disappointed?” when I received my PSLE score of 268. My mother answered that she was content with my score, but all I could think was there must be a reason to be disappointed in me for otherwise the question would not have been asked. Four years later, I remember a teacher whom I was close to telling me good-naturedly that “the school” had expected I would do better than the 7A1s and 3A2s I received for my GCE “O” Levels. This was after two years of winning the “All Round Excellence Award” in my school, being Head Prefect, and representing my school in various competitions. They had thought that I was capable of scoring 10A1s.
In JC, after my first written assignment, the tutor told me that he had expected more. When in year 2 of JC I told my tutors that I was considering applying to a Catholic university to study philosophy and theology instead of pursuing Politics, Philosophy & Economics at Oxford as they had proposed, I received endless ribbing. When I received a D along with my 3 As for my GCE “A” Levels, I was asked “what happened?” with regards to the D and if I was OK.
I went to Canada for university and graduate studies, and over there the environment was much more affirming (after all, it’s Canada!). However it did nothing for my insecurity and need to win approval. The more awards I won, the more As I scored, the more I felt I could not slip up. I lived for the pat on the back and the praise of my professors, for these were the tangible affirmations I relied on to feel that I was doing well enough and that I was worth something.
I carried the striving to be a “straight A student” into my spiritual life. Whenever I had a conversion experience, I would go all out to get a “perfect report card”. There was genuine love of course, but over-riding it was a desperate compulsion not to screw up so that I would get that nod of approval and pat on the back from God. The more I came to love God the more I feared the loss of His love, and in my own very distorted image of God, I thought I needed to be the perfect girl for him to love me more.
So in every area of my life I strove for perfection, yet I was increasingly unhappy. In secret I had my addictions – binge watching TV, binge reading romance novels, and binge eating chocolates and potato chips. Somehow I was able to separate my shadow self from my super achiever self. I presented the “good self” to God and others and locked my shadow self up, even barely acknowledging its existence myself. The lightest of criticisms would trigger deep shame and defensiveness in me and I clung on to every praise and affirmation as if they were life buoys. I was always Little Miss Need-to-be-Perfect and Miss Not-Good-Enough, and I had an irrational but convincing fear that I would be abandoned if ever anyone knew how flawed I really was.
In the first few years of my relationship with my boyfriend (now husband), I kept waiting for the moment that he would realise I wasn’t good enough for him and dump me. I strove to be the perfect girlfriend and in the first year of our marriage tried so hard to be the perfect wife, cooking and cleaning every day and attempting to make our home as beautiful as possible. When we had guests I strove to be the perfect hostess and got angry whenever my husband tried to tell me that they would all prefer my presence instead of having specially-prepared and perfectly presented refreshments. What I heard was that I was still not good enough in spite of all my efforts.
Going into full-time parish ministry eight years ago threw me into a milieu where all my wounds were forced into the open. I was trying to be everything to everyone, trying to do a good job of all the tasks that were thrown at me, and I was trying to make everyone feel accepted and loved while still challenging them to grow in discipleship. It was impossible, and yet I could not stop myself, for the patterns of behaviour have been too ingrained. Thankfully, I was slowly growing in my ability to be held and loved by God without striving. And one day, after many days of desperate pleas to Him to give me grace to be a better boss to my interns, I heard a surprising response – “Stop trying to be a good boss – you don’t know how to be one. I never asked you to be a good boss, Ann. I am asking you to be true to who you are and to love them.” I laughed through my tears at God’s ego-bruising bluntness, stunned and uplifted to hear that I was NOT expected to be a good boss. That was the beginning of something new – I learned to accept failure without shame.
“For I am certain of this: neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nothing already in existence and nothing still to come, nor any power, nor the heights nor the depths, nor any created thing whatever, will be able to come between us and the love of God, known to us in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
– Rom 8:38-39
I am still a perfectionist in recovery, but I have come a long way in the last few years. I used to have to keep reminding myself that God loves me in spite of my imperfections, but these days I hardly do that anymore. Instead, my actions reveal to me that I know that I am loved: I don’t stop talking to God out of shame when I feel I have failed Him – instead, I let Him hold me while I cry out my own disappointment and let Him make me laugh at my own unrealistic and un-godly expectations of myself. The more secure I am in God’s love, the more refreshingly blunt God becomes when he reveals my flaws to me. We can talk openly now about where I am instead of me always hoping to hear affirmation from Him about how well I have done. I have found that God is even more pleased when I bring Him my scars and sins, and when I can honestly tell Him “no,” than when I say “yes” only because I think I am supposed to always say “yes” to Him.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux has been my beloved companion, cheer-leader and guide on the recovery from perfectionism
A wonderful fruit of this journey is that I have become much more confident in knowing who I am, what I feel, and what I am called to do. When I am discerning, there is far less interference from the subconscious need to win people’s approval or have them think that I am “good”. I am now able to acknowledge frankly that when I am operating in the areas God has gifted me in, I can be very effective, and that I can downright “suck” in other areas no matter how hard I try. I no longer feel the constant compulsion to explain or justify my failures because I accept that I am imperfect and cannot do all things well. I am able to say “no” to requests with deep inner-peace when I have discerned I am not called, even if I think the “no” makes me look bad.
In letting go of perfectionism, I have become more self-aware of my flaws. Yet far from having lower self-esteem, I am now bolder, more confident, and much, much happier. And it is all because I have become secure and confident in God’s love for me as I am now. He does not ask me to do all things well – it is He who does all things well. I seek only the grace to hear him and do what He asks without expectation, so that my joys and my sorrows, my successes and my humiliations might all give praise and glory to Him.
May today there be peace within.
May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.
May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith.
May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you.
May you be content knowing you are a child of God.
Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love.
It is there for each and every one of us.
– Author Unknown