Perfectionism used to be my drug of choice.
The funny thing is, I didn’t even know it was a drug. I didn’t even know it was a choice. Perfectionism was so hard-wired into my core, mapped into my DNA before I was born, that I was blind to its effects, its grip, and its power over my life.
I was the kid who organized her friends’ toys during a playdate. I loved organizing my room on Saturdays. The books could be arranged by height, color, or size. My mom remarked that my room looked like a store display. I shrugged. How else should it look? To me, the options were perfect or nothing. I didn’t even know how to be anything else.
I worked really hard in school to get straight A’s. Music and writing were easy for me, but math and science was another language I didn’t care to learn. But the drive inside of me to get all A’s was overwhelming. At times, I chose to cheat on a test, just to pull up my grades. I did this over and over in elementary school, then vowed to quit in junior high. I slipped back into my cheating habits just a few times in high school, but hated the accompanying guilt. For all my effort, I only once achieved straight A’s. Every other report card had one lonely B staring at me. It would haunt me and punish me, standing out like it had been highlighted in bright yellow. For me, math and science were like whack-a-mole. I would grasp one, only to have the other one pop up. It was exhausting.
My teachers saw all my effort, and rewarded me, of course. They loved me. I was the “teacher’s pet” and the “star student.” My class notes were beautiful and classmates would ask if they could photocopy them. I became the school newspaper editor and loved correcting all of my classmate’s errors. I attended a private preparatory school, so my classes were very difficult. In college, I easily tested out of 12 credits to bypass the general Freshman level classes.
I had no idea there was any other way to live.
If you look in my yearbook my senior year, I’m pretty sure they labeled me the “perfectionist.” I shrugged. How else was there to be? Of course I had white-out in my purse. Why wouldn’t I? Of course my locker was always organized. Of course I had a planner and everything written down. Didn’t everyone? I was so focused on A’s and perfection that I truly hardly noticed anyone around me. I didn’t criticize them. I didn’t resent them. I just thought perfect was the only way to be.
In college, I pursued a music major and had to work extremely hard to survive the heavy class load. All the music majors around me took 5 years to graduate, but I had life plans and held myself to a standard of completing in 4 years. I also started a business teaching piano lessons, and got married. Stress was high, but it was every man for himself, so I just put my head down and worked. I mapped out 12 hours of my day, assigning a task for each 30 minute time block. I knew exactly when I was scheduled to be in class, when I was scheduled to practice, and when I should study. Dinner was often at 10:00pm when appetizers at Applebee’s were half price.
My senior year of college brought a black cloud of darkness over me. The depression that always lurked in the prereferral of my life came into full view. I could hardly get out of bed. I was numb. I was done. My mom urged me to slow down take one more year to graduate. I stared at her, aghast. It wasn’t even an option. My new husband got me through, lovingly, gently. The clouds broke and I could see hope again. I had no idea that my own unrealistic standards were suffocating me.
During chapel, the day before graduation, I was looking down at the program, half paying attention when my friend elbowed me.
“They just called your name,” she hissed.
“What?!” I replied.
“Go up there!” she whispered.
I had been acknowledged as “Music Graduate of the Year.”
I was shocked.
I had no expectation of winning an award that day. This would start a series of awards in my life that I never aimed to win. But when perfection is your goal, others notice.
My business went on to win numerous awards and press attention. I have a series of trophies in my office that feel fake to me. When I was awarded each one, they brought me shame and embarrassment. I didn’t feel I deserved them. I wasn’t living up to my own harsh standards. I was so far from where I wanted to be. In my heart, I couldn’t even accept the applause or praise.
They didn’t know what I knew: I was still falling so far behind.
The curse of perfectionism is that the finish line keeps moving. There’s always another goal, another standard, and of course there is, because what else am I supposed to do? Stop moving forward? Ridiculous. Stop and party? Not for me. Not who I am.
I love the thrill of the chase. I love learning and growing. I love creating.
I love throwing myself into a project from start to completion. I love making things happen.
I keep rejecting the standing ovations.
I’m not good enough. (Sit down, please!) This is only my warm-up. Wait until you see what I’m cooking up next!
No, seriously. This is nothing. The next thing will really be praise-worthy.
I’m just a simple girl. Nothing special. Why are you staring agape at me?
I feel God’s love pulling me, reaching for me, overlaying my life. I love him back, but I reject the acceptance that I’m enough just the way I am.
I must try harder. There’s always an area I’m falling short. I punish myself. I scold myself. My inner critic has a heyday. The shame floods over me, like a dark, warm blanket. My face burns and flushes. I have so far to go.
With others, I show grace. I give mercy. I’m only a slave master to myself. I show grace, but I cannot accept it.
What is grace? Grace feels to me like forgiveness for falling short.
Of course I fall short. Of course I’m not perfect (but, honestly, I want to be).
Growing up, my mom told me, “Life’s not fair.” My logic told me that, of course life isn’t fair, but as long as I can control something (like the schedule for unloading the dishwasher), we could sure try.
My mom told me, “You can’t be perfect.” My retort was that the Bible said Christ was perfect and my Sunday school teacher told me we should be like Christ. She sighed.
Only now, as a 40-year-old mom, my eyes being opened to the impossible standard I have held myself to.
I cannot blame anyone else. It’s in my DNA. It’s my drug of choice, my sin of choice, my cross to bear.
But now that my eyes are open? Grace.
Now that I see clearly the glasses that I have worn all these years? Grace.
My heart was broken when I researched the Enneagram and discovered that my type was a 1. Naturally, I thought I was a 3, the Achiever. Look at all I had accomplished! Look at all the awards I had won! But what didn’t line up is that awards don’t motivate me. They don’t drive me. They aren’t what pushes me forward.
Perfectionism, or improvement, does. The awards are simply a man-made construct that others have awarded me. I didn’t ask for most of them. I just did my best and happened to win. You can take them all away and I won’t care. They don’t define me.
But ask me if my heart beats for improving systems, life, procedures, myself, my world? Yes.
Beautiful grace whispers, like the cool breeze on a summer day. Like a mist coming in off the water. It’s ribbons rippling in the wind flood my soul and bring a balm to my lifelong wounds. There’s grace. There’s rest. There’s forgiveness.
I rest. I sigh. I breathe.
I’m still me, and I’ll keep being me. But now I know. Now I see.
I see the years of striving and punishing myself. I see why I rejected the words of praise and the applause from my audience. I see the root of who I am, and how I was made, and the road ahead.
I’ve always prayed, “Use me, Lord,” and that’s exactly what I pray now. Pick me up, like your instrument, and use me for your glory. I’ll be me, and you take over.
I’ll reach out and receive what you’ve always been trying to give me: grace
Hi, I'm Jen Hickle!