Last week, at an extended family reunion, we paid tribute to my husband's grandmother.
She was, by all accounts, a towering personality. She ran a tight household of 12 children and woke before them all to prepare a massive breakfast, all while wearing high heels and lipstick. She worked the family dairy, worked the family newspaper and never missed a month of visiting teaching.
It's easy to paint someone in rose-colored hues, larger-than life. And truly, to hear about her life was inspiring.
But one comment resonated with me more than any other. One of her daughters said pointedly: "She was not perfect in the muck. But she was always working to be more perfect."
I've been thinking about that comment ever since. Life is messy. Families, even the most functional ones, are particularly messy. A family is a living laboratory, where we try, fail, ask for forgiveness, try again, fail again, and learn through experiment and experience.
We are none of us perfect in the muck.
However, that doesn't stop us from trying to achieve this unreachable goal. Perfectionism can be crippling, yet according to an article by Kristen Lee in Psychology Today, it is steeply on the rise.
"We're expected to look like the Kardashians, be goal-setting machines, answer every ding within milliseconds and not let anyone see us sweat — unless it's to show off the insanely hard hot yoga class you managed to sneak in between all the deadlines, meetings and time spent triaging the latest disaster," Lee writes.
This is a losing battle. We will never come out on top. What's more, as Lee points out, "The relentless messaging tricks us into thinking what we do defines who we are. It leads us to constant self-criticism and incessant worry we're not measuring up."
A few years ago, I came up with a personal mantra. It was, "Be Gentle with Yourself." If I slept in, lost my temper, ate too much pie, missed an appointment, passed on serving someone or went to bed with dishes in the sink, I would tell myself, "It's OK. I know you're trying." I knew I had inherent self-worth. My brain just needed to be reminded.
That simple self-messaging became a powerful catalyst for how I handled a personal cycle of toxic perfectionism. I still have to keep the negative internal messaging in check, but that too is a process in which we must be gentle with ourselves.
In her article, Lee offers additional suggestions for breaking the cycle of perfectionist thinking. For one, we need to find the lessons learned in making mistakes. Those experiences can be powerful teaching moments. She points out that perfectionism leads to mindlessness, a constant scurrying from one goal to the next. When we pause in gratitude, when we use reflection and mindfulness, we combat the need to ruminate and self-criticize.
In addition, we can't let perfectionism consume us. Lee writes, "Perfectionism ramps up our tendency to impulsively consume. It tricks us into thinking we will find satisfaction through status, money, letters after our names and stuff that we can afford when we become 'successful.'"
We need to allow grace to work the miracle that it is. We must learn to be more gracious with ourselves. In doing so, we will be more gracious with others and allow for deeper human connection.
Finally, we need to remember that life is a continuum of growth, where we learn line upon line.
Case in point: My husband's grandmother was not particularly fun or funny while she was running a household with a dozen children. She was a strict taskmaster. But later in life she determined to develop her sense of humor, so she checked out joke books and memorized funny quips. When her granddaughters were bedridden in pregnancy, she would send them packages filled with jokes and funny stories. Her laughter and one-liners became one of her trademarks, and she kept her quick wit to the very end.
Life's experience is a great teacher, if we open ourselves to the lessons. There is only one who went through it all perfectly. Because of his grace, Christ accepts us, muck and all, and makes us clean.