The Heart of Perfection
AN ANCIENT LIE
For the law brought nothing to perfection; on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God.
I never considered myself a perfectionist before I had children. Perfectionism was someone else’s problem.
It was the affliction of those pasty-faced library moles that haunted the campus stacks on Saturday nights, still cramming after everyone else had left to grab a beer. It was the curse of the hulking workout kings who passed entire spring days pumping and groaning in the mirror-lined mausoleum of the campus gym. Perfectionism was what made frazzled mothers stay up all night hand-sewing Halloween costumes and what turned fathers into red-faced sideline screamers or workaholics who missed the game altogether.
A perfectionist was that tortured soul who always seems to
land in front of me in the salad bar line, the one who inspects each lettuce leaf as if sifting for gold and complains to the waiter about the radish shaving someone dropped in the fat-free ranch.
That’s a perfectionist, I thought. And that’s not me.
Now it’s true that I’ve been called an overachiever. In elementary school, I considered a B-plus an abject failure, and I was updating my résumé before most kids could spell the word. I used to return my high school boyfriend’s love letters to him spell-checked—in red ink. A journalism colleague once predicted that given where I was at twenty-five, my next career move would be a midlife crisis.
I laughed off such comments, but secretly, I relished them. When interviewers asked my greatest weakness, I proudly offered the stock response I knew no one actually deemed a flaw. “Me? Oh, I guess I work too hard. I’m a bit of a perfectionist.”
I always thought of myself as too fun-loving and balanced to be a true perfectionist, of course. I was a little hard on myself, maybe. A little hard on others, too. It was a family trait, just like setting—and meeting—high standards. Who would I be without my achievements?
If you had asked me to square that statement with my belief that we should stake our identity on Christ’s merits rather than our own, I would have spouted something about God wanting me to live up to my potential. Maybe I would have quoted that line from the parable of the talents that my teachers liked to quote to me. “To whom much has been given,” they’d say, in a solemn, grown-up voice that always sounded vaguely threatening, “much will be expected.”
I went through times when my self-confidence was shaken and my achievements could not console me. I wrote about some of
those in my memoir, My Sisters the Saints. As I chronicled there, my journey through infertility and my father’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease, along with the saints I befriended in the process, helped me understand my dependence on God in a new way.
Still, my perfectionism—and its central role in my lifelong struggle to trust God—remained hidden from me. Until I became a mother.
• • •
I still remember that surreal September afternoon when my husband, John, and I brought our twins home from the hospital. As we clicked our little bundles of pink and blue into their new car seats, we laughed at how crazy it was that we were responsible for these two human beings. It seemed like we should need a license or something.
We’d read the books. We’d taken the classes. We’d received the advice—ad nauseam, as new parents do. Really, though, what did we know about parenting? We knew we’d make mistakes. But which ones, and when? Would we know while we were making them? Or only decades later, when our twins dropped by our nursing home, therapists and parole officers and ex-spouses in tow, to detail each way we’d scarred them?
I had joked to friends about the mistakes I’d make as a mother. Inside, though, it was no joke. I was scared.
I knew from my reporter days about the research on brain development and how much those early years—even those first nine months in the womb—matter. I knew from my own childhood how vulnerable children are, how something that looks like no big deal to an adult can be traumatic and searing to a child. I’d sustained some deep wounds as a girl that no one noticed at the
time—wounds, I would later realize, that fed my perfectionism. I wanted to spare my children the same.
How could I do that, given all my blind spots and flaws? And how could I do it while performing all those mundane tasks that had always made motherhood a daunting prospect for me, even as I longed for children: the round-the-clock feedings and diaper changes, the all-night vigils with sick children, the endless repetitions of itsy-bitsy spider and pat-a-cake and peek-a-boo? I’d spent the past two decades interacting almost exclusively with adults. My last babysitting gig was in seventh grade. I desperately wanted these babies, but was I ready for them?
I had figured I would just have to do my best—my very best. I’d love them. I’d pray for wisdom. Then I’d put on my journalist hat and do what I always did when I wanted to succeed at something: research every possible angle, interview every reliable source, test my assumptions, evaluate my progress, and compare my results. I’d work, work, work. And I’d succeed—or at least, sleep peacefully knowing I’d done all I could.
As it turned out, sleep was the first thing to go when my babies arrived. Peace of mind—along with peace of body, and peace in my marriage—soon followed.
After twenty-two hours of labor with my daughter and an emergency C-section with my son, I found myself recovering from two deliveries rather than one. I never slept more than an hour at a stretch in the hospital and spent most of my waking moments trying to get someone to wheel me down to the neonatal intensive care unit nursery where my son was spending his first day and a half of life without me. When we finally came home from the hospital, my terror of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome had me bolting upright in fifteen-minute intervals the entire first night to
make sure my babies were still breathing. As soon as I’d lie back down, one would need to be nursed or changed. Then the other.
On it went, all night, every night—and daytime, too—for weeks. John was soon back at work and exhausted. I was delirious with fatigue, still bleeding and in pain. The babies were preemies, so they needed to be awakened every two hours to nurse even on nights that they—or I—could have slept longer. They spent a week on BiliBeds for jaundice. We had to log their every wet or dirty diaper and tote the babies—wrapped like mummies for fear of germs—to the pediatrician’s office every few days. There were moments of breathtaking joy, but most of the time, John and I were too tired to see straight. We were fighting and overwhelmed and desperate. “It’s like a war,” I heard one ex-military father later say, when someone asked him about life with newborn twins. “Except in a war, you sometimes get some sleep.”
After six weeks, I finally roused myself to go to my women’s book club, which I hadn’t attended since before the birth. I felt like hell but needed a few hours away from the babies. A glass of Chardonnay and some chocolate wouldn’t hurt, either.
As we stood around my girlfriend’s kitchen that night, someone asked how I was enjoying motherhood. I tried to crack a joke, but tears came out instead. I confessed that it had been rough, even rougher than I’d expected, and I felt guilty for not enjoying it more because I had wanted these babies so badly. I felt guilty about something else, too: my twins’ early arrival at thirty-six weeks, which made them preemies, and my son’s NICU stay, which deprived him of the mother-infant bonding time that I’d always heard was so crucial right after birth.
My son was fine; the doctors said he had a clean bill of health. And thirty-six weeks is actually term for twins. Still, I was sure
that the long walk I had taken the day before the birth was the reason I went into labor. And my early labor must have been the reason for my son’s prolapsed umbilical cord, which had prompted his NICU stay. And his NICU stay would be the cause of countless unseen problems sure to follow in years to come, all thanks to his stupid, selfish mother and her Sunday stroll. My babies weren’t even two months old, and already, I had blown it.
I remember how one of my friends stood watching me from across the kitchen counter, nodding as I talked. I could see something that looked like tears glistening in her eyes. She was a fifty-something mother of five, including a set of twins. Her children had all taken turns in the NICU. Now they were all healthy and grown—all but one, a little baby girl who had died a few days after birth.
“Colleen,” my friend said, in a steady, clear voice I’ll never forget, “I don’t know if there’s a place for perfectionism in any other part of life. I don’t know about that. But I know this: There’s no room for it in motherhood.”
Her words hit me like a floodlight. I felt shocked, exposed—and oddly relieved.
Maybe the traumatic birth I had been forcing myself to relive every day of the past six weeks wasn’t the calamity I had imagined. Maybe the case I had been prosecuting against myself wasn’t as airtight as I had assumed. And maybe the real threat I posed to my children’s future had nothing to do with my prenatal exercise or their premature birth.
The real threat might just be that insatiable demand for flawlessness that I had carried like a leaden backpack since childhood. Now I was transferring it to my children. Loaded onto shoulders so small, it was sure to crush them. It was already crushing me.
I knew in that moment that my friend was right. There’s no place for perfectionism in motherhood.
I knew something else, too: Perfectionism wasn’t just a problem for other people. It was a problem for me.
• • •
You don’t have to be a congenital perfectionist like me to have a problem with perfectionism. Nor must you demand flawlessness in every part of your life. Perfectionism is simply an addiction to control and a refusal to accept imperfection in some human endeavor. Looking at our culture today, I’d say a whole lot of folks suffer from that.
What other common thread links today’s Tiger Moms and Helicopter Coaches, work martyrs who won’t take their vacation days and exercise addicts who anguish over missed workouts? What connects our soaring rates of pharmaceutical addictions and eating disorders, our escalating levels of anxiety and depression, our epidemic of credit card debt and the explosive popularity of cosmetic surgery? Many factors contribute to these trends, yes, but a key driver is our demand for perfection.
That demand falls heavy and hard on women. From the time we are girls, we are told that we must have the perfect figure, perfect wardrobe, perfect career, perfect marriage, perfect children, and perfect house. And we must do whatever it takes to achieve that perfection. So we see women starving themselves by the millions, women self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, women trying to prove their worth by giving their bodies to men who don’t care about them—men who may not even know their names—then punishing themselves afterward with more starving or cutting or even, sometimes, suicide attempts.
The age-old comparison game that women have always played with each other is now high-tech emotional blood sport. We no longer compare ourselves only to friends and family. Now we must compete against supermodels with computer-enhanced curves and social media pals whose real lives bear little resemblance to the shiny, happy images they post online. In our desperation to keep up, we do violence to our relationships, our consciences, even our own bodies.
Men don’t get a pass from the Perfection Stakes. Consider the “social perfectionism” that researchers such as psychologist Rory O’Connor have linked to rising rates of male depression and suicide. It seems that a growing number of men today feel shamed by their inability to live up to our complicated and often conflicting social standards. It’s no longer enough for a man to be a good protector and provider, loving to his wife and attentive to his children. Now he must also be a metrosexual in fashion, a testosterone junkie in sports and sex, a tireless tycoon at work, and a sensitive listener and firm-but-positive disciplinarian at home. All without being late for carpool duty or taking offense at a pop culture and legal system that treat dads as dunces and expendable, second-class moms.
Men who fail to make the cut find few places to turn for peer support. The same society that sets such a high bar for men mocks as sexist or sinister nearly any form of male fellowship other than the stereotypical beer-swilling, obscenity-hollering camaraderie of Monday Night Football.
Perhaps this all sounds a bit exaggerated. Not everyone is obsessed with looks or résumés or bank balances. Maybe you laugh in the face of today’s helicopter parenting fads and you wouldn’t dream of going under the knife or going into debt to impress others.
I’d venture a guess, though, that if you look within your heart
and your life, you can find at least one area where your concern for success or control consumes more attention than it should. Maybe it’s something trivial, like your never-ending battle to lose those last five pounds or improve your kid’s batting average. Maybe it’s something painfully serious, like your lifelong quest to win the approval of a critical parent.
Or maybe it’s something even trickier to spot, an obsession with being the best that’s disguised by piety. In devout Christian circles, most of us know better than to compete openly over money or jobs or clothes. We compete in other ways, though: comparing to see who has the most faithful children, or the most children, or who has given up the most for their children. We may compete over who gives the most time or money to the church or whose family behaves the best at church or who is on a first-name basis with the pastor.
Sometimes perfectionism takes even subtler forms. Have you ever thought that all that talk of God’s mercy isn’t about you? That if you didn’t do all the things you’re doing now—your daily prayer routine, your service to family and community, your tithing and public witness to the faith—God might love you less? That He might even punish you? Have you ever told someone about God’s limitless love and forgiveness and secretly thought, That doesn’t apply to me? Have you ever said that you’re one of the good ones—the people God expects to know better—so there’s no excuse when you fail?
In other words, you may not be a perfectionist by worldly standards. But are you a spiritual
It’s a real problem, one of the most pervasive and insidious of the spiritual life. And it’s dangerous precisely because so many of us mistake it for a virtue.
Spiritual perfectionism is that same obsession with control and flawlessness transposed into our relationship with God. It’s rooted in the lie that we can earn God’s love and work our way to heaven.
Most of us know better than to think that out loud. Yet we often live like we believe it. We spend our days striving to improve ourselves, to acquire virtues and purge vices as if will-power rather than grace drives our spiritual progress. We devour books and shows and spiritual fads that promise to help us mold ourselves into the perfect disciples, the perfect spouses or parents or culture-transformers. We track our fellow believers like competitors on God’s bell curve, feeling guilty pride when others fall in ways we don’t and crippling shame when we fall in the same ways we have since grade school. We brood over our sins—little or big, already confessed or not—and feel shock at our weakness. In our darker moments, we feel discouragement bordering on despair, and a creeping bitterness toward this God who demands so much that we cannot deliver.
Spiritual perfectionism is the least recognized and most toxic form of perfectionism. Its cycle of pride, sin, shame, blame, and despair infects every aspect of our lives, fueling and exacerbating every other form of perfectionism. Spiritual perfectionism distorts our vision, leading us to view others through the same hypercritical lens we think God is using to view us. It turns our spiritual journey into a slog or convinces us to abandon that journey altogether. And it distances us from our one true hope for healing: God’s grace.
In a culture that urges us to follow our bliss and boost our self-esteem, spiritual perfectionism may seem like a marginal concern, a problem only for that shrinking share of the population that still worries about sin. Don’t let today’s feel-good slogans fool you, though. While talk of sin and guilt is rare, our collective mania for self-improvement is at fever pitch. Millions of seekers flit from trend to trend in a frantic quest for peace and enlightenment. We all know something is wrong, something beyond the reach of our mindfulness techniques and self-help manuals. We just can’t figure out how to fix it—because we can’t fix it, not by ourselves.
Christians know this. Or at least we’re supposed to know it. Yet faithful, highly committed Christians often fall hardest into the trap of spiritual perfectionism. We drink the same perfectionist Kool-Aid as everyone else but in a double dose. We’re not satisfied with meeting only the world’s standards of perfection; abs of steel and a kid at Harvard won’t cut it. We also must attain perfect charity and glow-in-the-dark holiness. So we do all the right things, pray all the right prayers, read all the right books, and befriend all the right people. And somewhere along the way, we burn out. The faith that once consoled us becomes a source of shame. All because we’ve forgotten its central truth: that Jesus came to save us because we cannot save ourselves.
What, then, am I advocating? That we throw in the prayer towel and resign ourselves to spiritual mediocrity? That we join today’s swelling ranks of spiritual drifters, rejecting doctrines that make demands on us and treating mercy as a pass to do whatever we want? That’s how some in our culture—and even the Church—seem to understand God’s mercy: as canceling out or contradicting His justice and requiring no repentance or conversion on our part. Following this logic, the solution to our perfectionism is to lower our standards or accept that the universal call to holiness is not universal after all.
That won’t wash. No matter how many people smile at our sins or commit the same ones, something deep within us—the whisper of the Holy Spirit—tells us that God deserves better. That’s His justice. The same voice tells us that we can’t do better on our own and we don’t have to. That’s His mercy. Scripture and tradition tell us the two of them—God’s justice and God’s mercy—always go together. So the cure for perfectionism must respect both. We must trust in God’s grace yet also cooperate with that grace. We must reject spiritual perfectionism without lapsing into spiritual laziness.
That’s no simple task. It’s easier to fall into despair or presumption than to hit the sweet spot between them. And a problem you spend decades denying isn’t fixed overnight. That’s especially true when the traits you’ve always depended on for solutions—your self-reliance and willpower, your illusions of control and motivating fear of failure—are, themselves, the problem. For all the havoc perfectionism wreaks, it’s tempting to cling to it because you know no other way.
Then one day, the pain of perfectionism grows so unbearable you can’t ignore it anymore. That day came for me in the middle of an ordinary week, years after the initial wake-up call in my friend’s kitchen. I can still see its climatic moment in my mind’s eye, like a video clip captured by someone else.
It’s dusk. I’m nine months pregnant, wearing a thin pink maternity top that barely covers my bulging belly. I should be wearing a coat; I misjudged the weather. Now an icy wind howls across the hospital parking lot to reproach me for yet another mistake.
I’m rushing a bleeding toddler to the emergency room. I want to run to its warmth and safety but I can’t. The varicose vein that always flares up during my pregnancies is especially inflamed now; it shoots fire up my left thigh with each alternate step. My lower back throbs from the weight of the unborn baby that feels ready to emerge. Now comes a contraction—a huge one, even stronger than the others I’ve been getting all day—and I double over, gripping my child’s hand as I gasp for air. Salty tears mingled with sweat pour into my parched mouth. I’m going to go into labor right here on this blacktop, I think. Good. I deserve that. I deserve everything bad, because it’s all my fault.
It was a freak accident, the kind that could happen to any kid. But it happened on my watch, right before my eyes, and I could have prevented it. I could have slowed down. I could have checked again. I could have decided not to play Supermom, to stop trying to do so much that I wound up too frazzled to protect my child.
I replay the afternoon in my head. Every scene reveals mistakes. Should have skipped that last errand. Should have asked for an extension on that deadline. Should have settled for a good-enough gift, instead of hauling the kids all over town for the perfect one. I should have served dinner late or ordered pizza, not worried about having the house cleaned and the laundry put away and the car unloaded before John came home from work.
Instead, I did it all. Again. And at the end of another frantic day, just as my hunger and fatigue and contractions had escalated to a point I knew was risky, the accident happened. Now here I am, barely able to stand as I clasp the tiny hand of the child whose body must bear the stain of my perfectionism.
I steady myself with my hands on my knees and a hundred thoughts rush over me. I think of another night I spent at this hospital, when I first became a mother and saw my son rushed to the NICU. I feel the same overwhelming fear and guilt. Only this time, it’s worse. The hurt is not imaginary or potential. It’s as real as the blood that splattered on my shirtsleeves when I tried, with shaking hands, to bandage my child’s wound.
My child will be all right; the injury is not crippling or life-threatening. But what if it doesn’t heal the right way? What if every time I look into those sweet, trusting eyes, all I see staring back is my own shame and regret? I have punished myself mercilessly for lesser offenses. I’ll never forgive myself for this one.
I think of how angry John will be, how angry God must be. I don’t deserve their forgiveness. Or my own.
Then, for the first time in my life, I think this:
Someone should give that woman a break.
I’m taken aback. The thought feels foreign, as if it came from someone else.
I swing my head up and resume my breathless charge toward the ER. A strange calm envelops me as I move through the descending darkness. The familiar chant of condemnation resumes in my head—it’s all my fault, it’s all my fault
—but it’s quieter now, as if coming from a distance. Another sequence erupts, unbidden: I have to forgive myself. I screwed up, but I’m the only mother this child has. Have to take care of myself so I can take care of these kids—including this unborn baby inside me.
I wonder, as I take the last few steps toward the light of the hospital entrance: Could it be that the perfectionist voice that got me into this mess is the same one now telling me there’s no way out? And that the voice telling me otherwise is the voice of Truth?
I don’t have time to decide. We dash into the ER and the rest of the night is a blur.