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Van English | Shawn Alex Nemeth
Releasing Perfectionism

Releasing Perfectionism

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Do you have any idea how exhausting it is to be a perfectionist?

That’s right:  I’m a perfectionist.  Well, a recovering one.  I’ve been a perfectionist for 60 years. 

It all started when I was very young, told that I had perfect manners, a perfect physique, perfect clothes, a perfect haircut, perfect grades in school.  Every turn presented another opportunity to be perfect and to be rewarded for it.  I became addicted.

A mere ten years into my perfect life, I received a test paper back from my fifth-grade teacher with a grade of 87 on it.  I couldn’t believe my eyes!  That was a B.  I’d never made a B before.  I angrily stuffed the paper into my perfect tartan-plaid book satchel, flung my matching wool scarf around my neck, and boarded the school bus.  I seethed, considering whether to tell my parents or schedule a conference with my teacher, who certainly made plenty of mistakes herself.  How dare she give me a B! 

I exited the bus, headed to the barn, and cranked up the garden tractor.  I needed to drive.  I needed to control a piece of machinery.  I needed to unleash my anger on something.  At the edge of the thicket, I hit a walnut tree with the back tire.  I was thrown backward off the seat, my right leg caught between the spinning tire and the fender.  I was dragged a few feet on the cold winter ground until I was freed. I lay there paralyzed, staring at the sky.

Six hours of surgery later, I woke up in the hospital with my leg in traction.  It had not been severed, but it was close.  I spent most of those Christmas holidays in the hospital, followed by several weeks of excruciating physical therapy and the threat that I might always limp or that my right leg would be shorter than my left.  The 85 stitches in my inner thigh left a huge scar in the shape of a cross.   My body was no longer perfect.  And I still had that B.

Having told this story verbally many times, I was invited by my pastor to share it in church.  Immediately, I began writing it in my head, because, of course, it had to be perfect.  As I pondered the irony of that, I remembered this story as perhaps my first indication that insisting on perfectionism can lead to disaster.  It’s a futile and dangerous attempt. 

Perfectionism is, in fact, not perfect itself.  It’s one of the many –isms we see playing out in ourselves, a cheap representation of the real thing.  It’s pretentious.  So, I give up on pretending.  I’m giving up on being the best, and embracing being my best.   What is “the best”, anyway?  Who’s running the contest?  Who’s keeping score?  My only competitor is myself.  The world has ever seen only one example of perfection, and there’s no need for more.

I’m having a breakthrough with this, as I remember, once again, that I’m not perfect—that it is humanly impossible.  It’s very much like breaking open an egg and finding what’s inside the shell.  Although the shell is no longer perfect looking, we find that the contents are where the real value is—the bright, delicious, nourishing, versatile innards is what people really want.

Since that life-changing accident when I was ten years old, I assure you I have relapsed into perfectionism many times over.  Such is the nature of the addict, and I’m of the opinion that every person past a certain age is likely addicted to something, however innocent or harmful.  It’s part of being human.  The more living I do, the more aware I am, and the more facile I become with curtailing my addiction to being perfect, as well as my many other –isms.

Dear God, creator and giver of all life, thank you for making me in your image, not in your perfect exactness.  Please help me remember that I am whole, complete, and beautiful just as I am and as I am becoming, flaws and all, and grant me the compassion to keep breaking through and to see that same divine imperfection in everyone else.  Amen.