Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Advent for a Perfectionist

Growing up, I was not a very organized person. Forgetful is one way to put it, but that's a bit of an understatement. For example, leaving my keys in my car was a tame mishap for me. I came back to my car on more than one occasion-- after hours in school-- to find it still running, radio still playing. But it gets worse. One time, I made dinner with the girl I nannied and we planned to take it to her mom's house as a surprise. That required a bit of foresight and organization, and I was proud of myself. But after running inside my own house to grab something, I came back to find my car gone. Gone halfway to the street because I had left it in reverse, door still open. Luckily my sixteen year old legs carried me fast enough down the gravel driveway to dive in and save it, get the point.

Naturally, as I aged I realized I needed to work-- hard-- on getting organized. Not locking my keys in my car. Not forgetting to pack a meal or turn off the stove. Not forgetting to show up for work, not losing assignments. Being one of six children belonging to a widow, I had to take on responsibility for life earlier than I felt prepared for, and that motivated me. Eventually-- out of sheer necessity for survival-- I morphed into someone who could pass for Type A any day. Good grades, well-managed finances, a dent free car, a good track record at work, etc. Lately I've noticed how "ahead" on things I am and have scratched my head thinking, "When did I figure out how to be ahead on anything?" 

But, whether you're cheering for me or rolling your eyes at this point, let me finish the story. A few months ago at the counseling conference I went to, I heard a man speak on perfectionism and was cut to the heart. He talked about different "kinds" of perfectionists-- namely, successful and unsuccessful. Unsuccessful ones procrastinate and don't even try because their expectations for themselves are so high they they think they'll never measure up. So they protect themselves by giving up before they start. Successful ones are those who do measure up to their own expectations and get an adrenaline rush from being "on top of things"-- checking off their to-do lists every day and sighing at the rest of the population who just can't seem to get it together. (Yes, getting things done is a drug of choice. If you're a successful perfectionist, you know exactly what I'm talking about!)

I realized that I go back and forth between these two extremes. My younger self was so insecure and felt unequipped to "measure up," so she didn't even try. Time was a commodity to be, in a sense, ignored out of fear of failure. Now, I've figured out a few things (like how to keep track of my driver's license, for starters) and the rush I get from it keeps me feeling "in control." Time is a commodity to be managed out of the need for a sense of success. So, while these two manifestations are very different-- I've definitely gained important skills since high school-- the fear underneath them is strikingly similar. Either check out and blow off my expectations out of fear of failure, or become a slave to them out of fear of failure. 

Yesterday, I had one such day. With big plans to get a lot done, I threw out my back early on. Aggravation #1-- not feeling in control of my own body enough to clean out the dang closet. Then, the medicine my doctor gave me made me loopy enough to need to lie still for a while. Aggravation #2-- not being in control enough of my own mind to focus on studying. After the meds wore off, Michael and I began planning the grocery list for an event we're planning. Sounds simple enough-- to a "successful" perfectionist, that is!-- but by this point in the day, I was feeling quite unsuccessful, so I started panicking. Suddenly, whether to cater muffins or bake them seemed like the weightiest, most painful decision of my life. And how much ham would we need? How could I possibly know? Thus, the downward spiral accelerated to the point that cooking dinner got put off, to the point that then being "behind" on our dinner schedule sent me into deeper depression, which put off dinner even longer...see the pattern? 

It's really quite funny-- and sad-- to see in writing. But this is a real and reoccurring experience for me. How it all gets back to Advent might seem random to you, but to me, it's incredibly healing. Throughout this month-- this season of waiting-- I'm being called to remember God's in-breaking presence (He came!) and how that changed everything. And as someone who has put her trust in God, I'm being challenged to expect His ongoing arrival in my own life in a way that changes everything. In other words, I'm being challenged to change my expectations.  

My expectations, which have been an uncaring master. My expectations, which have sent me either hiding in procrastination or working overtime on an arbitrary to-do list. My expectations, which leave me depressed when I'm behind on dinner or get less than a 100% on a Hebrew quiz. My expectations, which often have nothing to do with God's. In Advent, I'm invited to simply let them go and instead, embrace whatever God has for me-- whether it's lying on the couch with a hurt back or making dinner on time; whether it's figuring out a grocery list in no time or learning to work with my husband on a confusing decision; whether it's getting a 100% on my final tomorrow or simply thanking Him for making it through the semester. 

God's in-breaking presence is disruptive to a perfectionist like me, but it is healing. His wrestling time from my grasp and teaching me to see it not as a commodity to be managed, but as something to be experienced-- even enjoyed!-- in dependence on Him and His control, is painful, but freeing. His exposing my expectations for the false master they are and replacing them with only the expectation for Him to show up is difficult to fit into a to-do list. But it is changing everything.  It's helping me realize that time is actually not about me and my potential failure, but about Him and His sure rescue. And that is a much better way to experience time.

What kinds of expectations do you put on yourself that may or may not come from God? What would His in-breaking presence look like in your life? How would it change things? 



Anonymous said...

Hannah - thanks for sharing these refreshing thoughts. Christmas 2012 will be different for me as I apply these truths.

Megan Gardner said...

I like this a lot! I definitely get the 'rush' of checking things off...