You can read Part 1 here.
If you were like me and were blessed enough to have a childhood that celebrated birthdays, you can probably vividly recall the exact feelings of excitement and anticipation as the fated day approached.
Marking the days off on your calendar.
Anticipating surrounding yourself with people who loved you.
Lying awake for hours the night before, giddy with overwhelming joy over your special day.
To my tender, childlike soul, birthdays felt like the entire world was celebrating my existence and acknowledging that I was an important human in the universe. As a little girl, somehow I instinctively knew that despite anything I did or would do, my existence on the planet mattered.
Then I turned 18, and something strange began to occur – I started wanting to pretend my birthday didn’t exist. Every year without fail, as soon as June began to give way to July, I began to actively avoid thinking about my birthday.
Not in a “Oh, I’m too old to celebrate birthdays now” way.
Not in a “Oh, birthdays aren’t important to me and I usually forget.”
Not even in a “I’m too depressed to celebrate this year.”
The birthday itself depressed me and made me feel anxious, rather than any other emotion ranging from fulfilled to ambivalent.
For awhile, I wrote these increasingly negative emotions off as symptoms of shedding my childhood and stepping into the cynicism and realism of adulthood. “I’m not supposed to care about celebrating my life,” I would tell myself and shrug it off. “After all, most people don’t enjoy a birthday like they would as a child. We’re adults now.”
But despite telling myself to ignore these newfound feelings and deem them as an unfortunate part of reaching maturity, I couldn’t help but notice my glaringly negative self-talk.
“I don’t deserve to be celebrated. I’ve done nothing for others.”
“Another year of becoming an increasingly worse person.”
“24 years old? I’ve accomplished nothing. I wonder if my family is ashamed of me.”
“What’s the point in being happy about my existence?”
For a long time, I thought it was normal, even healthy to casually have these thoughts about myself. I believed they kept any arrogance I had inside me in check and made me a more humble, virtuous person. I even figured God would rather me feel this way if it endeavored me to serve Him more arduously and faithfully. I didn’t understand that these toxic affirmations were the very last thing He would ever want me to feel.
If you are struggling with depression and anxiety revolving around self-esteem and are exhausted with pouring over self-help articles, don’t lose me here. I know how debilitating these thoughts can be and I’ve been learning to power through and reaffirm the truth. What I discovered was this: The pure, innocent way we viewed ourselves as children is more right than how we view ourselves as adults.
Let Me Entertain You With My Performance
“Miranda, you always look perfect.”
I still remember those words and the buried emotions they immediately unearthed. I was a junior in college and probably at the peak of my depression, attempting to manage a scary new chapter in my life and oftentimes lacking the support I needed to navigate myself through uncharted waters. I often felt like an utter mess and was too afraid to reach out honestly to anyone. So every day, I would drag myself out of bed, attempt to make myself appear as if everything was Mary-Poppins-practically perfect, and set out to accomplish my long to-do list.
You can imagine my complete surprise when a fellow peer complimented me with those words.
You look perfect.
Back then, that sentence meant everything to me and I practically lived for it. Hearing that beautiful word – perfect – meant that I was accomplishing everything I was striving so hard to be. Present-day Miranda would laugh and immediately correct my friend, telling her that I’m a mess, but quite a beautiful mess. But past Miranda simply smiled and shyly said, “Thanks.”
Being perfect was just too important for me to blow my cover. I even sometimes took pride in my perfectionism, never crying, never losing my temper, never showing any weakness.
Don’t fail, always perform. That was the mantra I didn’t even know I had.
Life was my stage, but I wasn’t the star. I was the stagehand, rushing around and laboring behind the scenes, pulling out all the stops to ensure that the show continued on for a person onstage I barely recognized. If the show was a success, the audience would give me their approval and perhaps I would be able to give them something of myself to better their own lives. I just wanted to be okay so that others would be okay too.
It turned out okay wasn’t good enough.
It was only a matter of time before I began to unravel with exhaustion. My first wakeup-call occurred when I stood outside of my music theory class and felt like I would explode just simply sitting down and concentrating.
I was too exhausted to enjoy learning anymore. I was too exhausted to do almost anything and I was too exhausted to care that I was exhausted.
As long as I kept putting one foot in front of the other and doing the next thing, I knew I would get through the day. I didn’t realize that wasn’t a normal way to feel for my living situation.
The truth was that me disliking my birthday was only just one, small symptom of a larger disease I was hoping would somehow cure itself. It was also the withdrawing from potential friendships, the laying awake at night paralyzed with anxiety, the procrastinating to the point of sleep deprivation because I felt I would never be able to complete a task well enough.
It was the weight loss that occured not because of healthy exercise and eating habits, but because I felt too sad to be hungry, the recurring thoughts that I would never be good enough to find a romantic relationship, the constant people-pleasing because I was afraid to let anyone down.
It was the striving to always please my family and friends, and to please a God who I thought demanded something of me that I would never be able to give.
The truth? I’d let a frenemy creep into my life. You know frenemies – friends who appear to have your best interests at heart and are always around, but in reality are slowly sucking the life out of you in subtle and deviously insidious ways.
What many people don’t realize is you can be a frenemy to yourself. My frenemy was my perfection.
I thought I truly needed my perfection frenemy. I thought I’d be totally lost without it. After all, I believed this frenemy kept me motivated and determined, always pushing towards a better version of myself.
Believing that lie worked for a little while, until I finally found myself disinterested in everything and losing my vibrance for life. My perfection – my closest companion – had become a bitter enemy and had not given me the shiny rewards I desired. I discovered that the coveted jewels of perfectionism were all false gold. I didn’t want the fakes anymore. I wanted the real deal.
It’s Okay to Desire Perfectionism
As I finally began to truly address my issues with depression, anxiety, and self-esteem, I felt embarrassed and frustrated that I couldn’t grasp the simple concept that it is obviously impossible for a human to achieve perfection. Humans are imperfect creatures and everyone is subject to making mistakes. So why couldn’t I just let go and accept that fact?
If you feel this way and the popular self-help mantra of “Love yourself” isn’t cutting it for you, take a deep breath and know you’re not alone. It is a good thing, dear friend, to wish everything was perfect. There is something broken in our world that should not have shattered in the first place. There is something in our souls that cries out for everything to be put back together again. There is something inside us that yearns for all things to be beautiful, with no dark ink blotches ruining a perfect painting.
C.S. Lewis once said, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”
We were not made for the state of ourselves and this world, filled with hurtful mistakes, tragedy, disorder, chaos, inconsistency, falsehoods, and disappointment. We were created for so much more, something quite unfathomably beautiful and perfect.
If you desire perfection and feel ashamed of yourself for doing so, you are not broken. You are quite whole and you are experiencing a brokenness that will one day be made whole again.
It will take diligence and hard work to accept that perfectionism will never be possible until we encounter God. But guess what? Sanctification is possible and the entire process is ultimately more beautiful.
Striving to be perfect will suffocate you sooner or later. Let me help you take the ugly hands of perfectionism off your throat and allow you to begin to breathe freely again. To do that, we must take back our ability to think clearly and boldly call out the 5 Perfectionist Lies we tell ourselves.
1. “You better not fail or you’ll be a hypocrite.”
No one likes a Pharisee. You know the type – always judging, always criticizing, and yet committing the same misdeeds they tauntingly and self-righteously accuse others of.
As a sensitive person with a touchy conscience, I’ve often felt an overwhelming pressure to hold myself to my own standard.
If lying bothers me, I shouldn’t lie.
If gossip bothers me, then I shouldn’t gossip.
If I feel incredibly hurt when others lose their temper with me, then I shouldn’t lose my temper.
If I know the right thing to do, then there is no excuse for mistakes.
Every time I went against my own morals, I felt devastated. Why couldn’t I simply just do the right thing if I knew in my heart what I should do? I felt so upset and ashamed of myself, constantly worried that if I kept letting my friends and family down, they would only see me as a complete hypocrite.
Guess what? I am a hypocrite. I’m a very open hypocrite now and I’m not afraid to hide anymore. No amount of striving towards perfectionism will ever change my hypocrisy. And strangely, I found that being open about my hypocrisy is exactly what everyone needed from me, not perfectionism.
We need each other to be real and to share our struggles, our mistakes, and our failures. It’s how we grow as human beings and conquer our battles. We need each other to be human for each other, to be brutally, deeply honest about our failures and how they’re transforming us into better people. Yes, it’s true we are indeed hypocrites. But our hypocrisy doesn’t alienate us from others – it pulls us closer to others as we cheer each other on, gently correct each other, and encourage each other to blossom inspite of our hypocrisy. Being human means being a hypocrite – and despite that fact, it’s still all going to be okay.
When I let go of my perfectionism, I was afraid that doing so would cause me to excuse my mistakes and halt my growth of developing into a better person. I was worried that I would give up my efforts towards self-improvement and chasing towards light. I found myself surprised that I discovered exactly the opposite. Since I ditched my perfectionist attitude, I’ve grown more in a few months than I did in years when I labored under the heavy weight of being perfect.
Don’t be afraid to cast off that weight. I promise you won’t lose your drive to continue working towards goodness, kindness, and wisdom.
2. “People are counting on you – don’t let them down.”
Give, never take. I lived by this mantra for too long. I felt compelled to cover up my trials in fear that I would let others down. I didn’t want to have problems because I was afraid no one would trust me to help them with their own issues. I felt embarrassed to express any emotion other than empathy and felt mortified if I ever cried in front of anyone. As you can imagine, this emotionally drained me to a point where eventually I struggled to make authentic connections.
You may not like to hear it, but there is a limit to what you can give. In order to serve others effectively, it’s vital to reach out for help for yourself. If you refuse help from others due to preserving your perfectionistic image, you miss creating valuable relationships that are built off empathy and trust. Additionally, you are sabotaging your desire to aid others by burning yourself out to the point of becoming ineffective.
I used to believe that it would be conceited for me to share my feelings with others, preferring to focus only on solving other people’s issues. Now I realize it was conceited for me to value my perfectionism so much that I refused to share life experiences that could connect and comfort others.
It is a beautiful thing to give. It is also a beautiful thing to receive. Let go of your perfectionism and let yourself receive support. I promise your relationships will blossom so much more.
3. “You have one shot – don’t you dare waste it.”
Aiming for perfectionism gave me some false semblance of tight control over my life. I thought if I perfectly prepared to reach my goals, then life would go well for me. I told myself that in order to reach my aspirations, I had to always be driven towards perfectionism, to always be ready in case I finally got my “one shot.” More often than not, I was left reeling and disappointed when I took a risk, performed perfectly, and still did not achieve my desired outcome.
The truth is, we may take a risky shot and miss wildly on our goal. But does that mean we missed our only shot? Repeat after me: I only have one shot if I decide that I have only one shot.
Every missed shot moves us closer. Think of a novice archer – she may miss the bullseye 1,000 times, but eventually she begins to inch closer and closer to the target. You may feel you are constantly missing, but you’re making progress. That is the healthy way to approach goals, and not fall for the false security that living in perfectionism lends you. You never have just one shot and if you fail, it’s all suddenly over. Life gives us chances and we have the ability to accept and take these chances with grace.
In fact, dwelling on perfectionism is a toxic mindset that will fail you eventually. Take it from me – I eventually began procrastinating on all my goals until the last possible second because I felt that I could never achieve perfection and my efforts would be a joke.
Firstly, this simply wasn’t true at all.
Secondly, so what if I failed?
Failure is an opportunity. It does not mean you’ve lost your way.
Failure means you learned.
Failure means you lived.
Failure is only temporary. Perfectionism is a mind-numbing constant.
When faced with the potential of failure, the best we can do is throw our hands up to God, admit that sometimes we can’t do everything perfectly, and then get to work. We do what we can with what we have, and learn to enjoy the growing process rather than rushing towards the end goal.
Maybe we’ll succeed. Maybe we’ll fail. But never will we be failures. How could we be failures when we have each been placed on this earth for a very specific and wonderful purpose?
4. “If it’s not perfect, you didn’t do your best.”
Did your parents ever tell you, “As long as you do your best in school, we don’t care what grade you get”? If you’re like me, this instantly raised a plethora of self-doubts that I only recognized was unhealthy in my adult years. “What really is my best?” I would wonder worriedly. “Can’t I always work harder? Is there a limit on what my best is? If I fail, does that mean I didn’t try hard enough? Am I lazy?”
For a recovering perfectionist, these can be troubling thoughts that at first seem to hold no simple answers. However, there is indeed a way out of this thought maze! Let’s first examine what “doing our best” is not.
Our best is not depleting ourselves of energy until we’re exhausted and burnt out.
Our best is not becoming a robot servant to others.
Our best is not becoming obsessed with improving a certain aspect of our lives.
Our best is not constantly questioning our efforts and comparing our work to others.
Balance is key. A sign of imbalance is experiencing high amounts of depression, anxiety, anger, irritation, loneliness, insecurity, apprehension, dread, and pessimism. Examine and reflect on your daily emotions and life outlook, asking yourself if there are signs of imbalance in your life. Yes, it is important to work diligently and not waste our gifts and talents. But it is equally important to nurture our delicate emotions and ensure that we are fostering a well-rounded emotional life. Taking care of yourself doesn’t make you a wimp. Taking care of yourself will help you to accomplish more than you thought you could in the end.
Yes, we have limitless possibilities and potential for our lives. But we have limits to what our best is on a daily basis. Our best is learning to acknowledge that some days, we just can’t do our best. I’ve had many days where my best is simply getting dressed and brushing my teeth. That was my best for the day, and that’s okay. We will have a different version for best during different seasons of our lives. Be gentle with yourself. Putting pressure on yourself to have a set standard for “doing your best” every single day will not automatically put you on the path of success.
Sometimes, we can’t do our best and that’s part of being human. Practice grace. Practice balance. Practice mindfulness.
And parents, if you suspect if you have an overachieving child, encourage them to dream big and teach them that hard work pays off. But also teach them that their works don’t define them and that they don’t have to drive themselves to exhaustion to be worthy of respect. Model healthy boundaries and explain to them that sometimes our best will fluctuate and that’s okay.
5. “You won’t be happy if you’re not perfect.”
Out of the 5 Lies, this one is perhaps the most insidious. It’s insidicous because it’s attractive. It’s sexy. It promises a solution to life’s problems.
I thought if I continually chased perfectionism, I’d be happy.
If I looked perfect and made the perfect guy fall in love with me, I could be happy.
If I aced all my exams and tackled the most challenging subjects, I’d be smart and happy.
If I created beautiful, unique music and became a master of my instrument and voice, I’d be happy.
If I was always there for my friends, they would love me and I’d be happy.
If I lived the perfect moral life, then God would approve of me and I’d be happy.
Chasing perfectionism not only gave me none of what I was desperately searching for, but it robbed me of experiencing these things. Unearthing this lie was the final straw of finally rejecting my idolization of perfectionism.
When I examined my life, I realized that trying to be perfect wasn’t making me happy – it was making me miserable, irritable, and depressed. I never saw progress with my perfection, only a tiring race towards an unattainable vapor that I fooled myself into thinking existed.
Now that I am learning to be free of perfection, I create art not to live up to a standard, but because it brings me joy and emotional release. I serve others not because I’m hoping they’ll think I’m perfect and love me, but because we mutually care about each other and I can be honest with them when I can’t always be there for them. My boyfriend loves me not because I’m his perfect dream girl, but because our beautiful flaws pull us closer together and help us grow into better people. I come to God not because I have my perfectionism to give him, but because I have empty hands that need to be filled by Him.
All of these revelations are game-changers and I still need to remind myself of them daily.
You Are Not Perfect and You Are Still Beautiful
I want you to get up right now, look in the mirror (smile at yourself!), and repeat this three times: “I am not perfect and I am still beautiful.” Yes, you have flaws. Yes, you are a mess. But it is so, so much more fantastic and wonderful than trying to achieve something that doesn’t exist – being perfect. Leave being perfect to the One Who Is Perfect. God will do His work in you. Let yourself be surprised by your brokenness being transformed into a priceless treasure.
Maybe, like me, you stopped enjoying your birthday. Or maybe you were always made to feel like your birthday was a waste. Maybe the family that raised you or the people you interacted with in your formative years demanded perfection before love. Maybe you thought the audience would never clap for you unless you performed perfectly and tirelessly.
Take a deep breath. Don’t be perfect. Be real. You are loved and you will get to where you need to go. Let’s celebrate our flaws right here, right now. Happy Birthday, friend!
In the final installment, I will be talking about the steps I took (and am still currently taking) to overcome my depression and anxiety.
“The law works fear and wrath; grace works hope and mercy.” – Martin Luther
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast.” – Eph 2:8-9, emphasis added