When you get right down to it, most perfectionists are searching for peace. Basically, we want to be able to look around at the world we’ve created and proclaim, like our Creator, “Everything is very good” and so enter into our rest.
I derived my peace from sources external to myself, and I suspect most of my fellows do the same. As a highly visual person, peace to me looked like a tidy house, clear benches in the kitchen, sparkling taps and mirrors, aesthetically pleasing arrangements of furniture, pictures and knick-knacks, obedient kids quietly occupied, a neatly made bed, and jobs ticked off a To-Do list (which was then re-written so it looked less messy J). In short, everything was in its place – including my children and my husband!
The peace we are looking for can be visual or auditory, or something else entirely, but the point is, we are always seeking it. Always. And that means that we are never content, for there is always something that could be improved. This is what I call a state of perpetual discontent. We can live this way for many years but it requires a tight control of our environment (and the people in it) and eventually it wears us down until something happens that breaks us.
On my own, perfectionism worked quite well for me for the most part. I never had to share a room with anyone growing up so my personal space was easy to control. I had high expectations for myself and I got great marks at school and uni because I put in 100% effort. I was always a “good girl”, well liked and trusted by those in authority and I usually felt the satisfaction of “doing the right thing” while many around me, um, well, didn’t. Yes, I was a bit of a Pharisee and as a result peer relationships were often a struggle.
When I got married, I received the initial shock that comes with sharing space and life with another person for the first time. Eventually though, I learnt how to control the house and intimidate my husband enough to keep him in line too. I was “lucky” that he is a peacemaker and the devastating effect on our relationship was masked.
I thought I had reached the summit of bliss with the birth of our first child – that is, until she hit 18 months. Her will and temper were a match for my own and for the first time, I really had to make an effort to adapt to someone else to find peace. However, I still used a lot of manipulation and found ways around her, to conform her will to mine.
The first big fractures appeared with the birth of my second child. The more people that entered my life, the more difficult it was to control them all – and the mess they made. Somehow I managed to work out how to make it look like I had everything in hand, but it was mostly appearance.
It was the birth of our third child that broke me. The pressure got too great, and I could no longer keep a lid on the mess of life. I lost the delicate hold I had on the order I had carefully manufactured over the years. Poor diet habits meant that my once clear mind was almost always shrouded in fogginess. Rage bubbled just under the surface and I would explode like Mount Vesuvius at disobedience, mess, thoughtlessness, and any increase in my already enormous workload. My ‘perfect’ life was revealed for the thin façade it was.
Break and Re-Make
They might have been the hammers that broke me, but my children were also the surgical instruments that re-made me. Their very presence in my life was the source of my motivation – I desperately did not want to fail at motherhood, the very thing I felt God calling me to do! The terrible cycle of anger, remorse and despair simply had to be broken or I really would be a failure – my deepest fear would become reality.
Thankfully, for us perfectionists, our malady is also our medicine. Perfectionism is a poison and a prison, but it can also push us to persevere once we know what we need to do. Perfectionism helps us to get up and keep going one more time when we are tempted to give up. That fear of failure that looms to engulf us can be held at bay so long as we keep doing what we have been doing our whole lives – avoiding failure and seeking perfection – but this time in a healthy way.
I have broken free of the prison of perpetual discontent (most of the time anyway!) and I can be the mum I always wanted to be at last! (I’m still working on the wife bit however J) The articles that will follow share how that happened so that you, too, may unlock your prison and find the peace you’ve only ever dreamed of.
Even though it was my third child that finally ‘broke’ me, the healing journey had already begun well before she was even conceived…