By James Henderson
I’m a part of a group of Mexico soul group leaders and good friends that we call a “one thing group”. Each person chooses one thing that we want to work on from a deep place, asking ourselves the central question, “How do we continue to press into the most important issues and places that need change in our lives?”
So we spend six months to a year together identifying our “one thing” and pursuing the necessary disciplines, experiences, knowledge or relationships that catalyze spiritual growth in that area.
The one thing that I have chosen to work on is my drivenness - evidenced in my strong hunger to achieve more, my constant full-court press, my full calendar. I’ve never found a disciplined balance between work and rest. I’m aware of the toll this takes on my family and our joy.
Working through my one thing, I’ve noticed some deeper issues in my life. Like a trapdoor, I’m dropped to a lower level as I notice my unsatisfied need to be loved more. I’ve seen more clearly my thirty-year addiction to approval; especially family approval and the approval of people I respect.
Most recently, I’ve noticed that my drivenness is linked to perfectionism. When I make a mistake, I’ll often beat myself up for days. If it’s a big enough mistake, like lying to a friend, I’ve kicked myself for months over an offense like that. I can hold myself under the water for a long time.
• Perfectionism hinders spiritual growth. Anne Lamont says that “perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life.” It is one of the main obstacles between you and what you are wanting to do with your life.
• “Perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you’ll be ok...”. The truth is that you will stumble anyway and a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.
• Perfectionism blocks the joyful chapters were able to write lives about with God. It blocks our attentiveness.
• It blocks the “playfulness and life force” of the kingdom of God.
• “Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. Even though the clutter and mess show us that life is being lived.
The following metaphor may help us understand how perfectionism can often be associated with our wounds. When Anne Lamont was twenty-one, she had her tonsils removed. For the entire week afterward, swallowing hurt that she could barely open her mouth for a straw. She had a prescription for painkillers that ran out before the pain did. When she called her doctor for another prescription for pain, the doctor recommended that she chew some gum, of all things, and to chew it vigorously. The thought of which made her clutch her throat.
Her doctor explained that when we have a wound in our body, the nearby muscles cramp around it to protect it from any more violation and from infection and that we need to use these muscles if we want them to relax again.
As she began to chew the gum (with great hostility and skepticism), the first bites caused a ripping sensation in the back of her throat, but within minutes all the pain was gone, permanently.
Something similar happens with our soul's muscles. They cramp around our wounds - pain from childhood, he loses and disappointments of adulthood, the many humiliations suffered in both - to keep us from getting hurt in the same place again, to keep foreign substances out. So these wounds never have a chance to heal. Perfectionism is one way our muscles cramp. In some cases, we don’t even know that the wounds and the cramping are there, but both limit us. They keep us moving and working in tight, worried ways. They keep us standing back or backing away from life, keep us from experiencing life in a naked and immediate way.
So how do we break with perfectionism?
Do we see that our sloppy, imperfect messes have value?
Does our image of God have it that God is uptight, judgmental...is he a perfectionist? Do I see God as a high school principal in a gray suit who never remembered my name but is always leafing unhappily through my files? We must be very careful that we are not projecting our perfectionism onto God, thinking that he is judgmental and angry about us. Maybe we need to blend in the influence of thinking about God as someone who is ever so slightly more amused by us...someone less anal.
Geneen Roth says that awareness is learning to keep yourself company. And then learn to be more compassionate company, as if you were somebody you were fond of and wish to encourage.
In my spiritual growth, at least now, I’m not going to get very far until I start getting over my perfectionism. I need to stretch toward a quiet doggedness of compassion for myself and others. And if I don’t, perfectionism will only drive me mad. Again quoting Lamont, “Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend.”
My day’s work might turn out to have been a mess. So what? I botched it on that conversation...so what? In our one thing group, I think we need to take risks and make stretches that help us try on what living differently feels like. We go ahead and make mistakes; accept them. We call out our shadows. We make the mistakes, learn from them, pick ourselves off the mat with a gracious look and an open hand.
Adapted from Bird by Bird by Anne Lamont