Saturday, October 2, 2010

Perfectionism II: "You're Doing It Wrong!"

My life has been one long mad dash for perfection.  Even something as simple as prayer became infinitely complicated when I started “trying to do it right”: praying to the right deity (“Dear Jesus”, “Heavenly Father”, “Oh Lord”), closing prayers correctly (“in Jesus’ name, Amen”), praying in the right order (praise and adoration, gratitude and thanksgiving, supplication—never ever put yourself first!) Are the hands folded with fingers interlaced or palm-to-palm? Kneel? Hold hands with prayer partners? What language to use: late Renaissance English (complete with “thee, thou, and thine” in the right syntax), everyday vernacular (“f**k it, God, what the he** is going on here?”), or maybe some glossolalia while channeling the Spirit directly? Eyes open or closed? Aloud or silently?

Are you feeling the pressure yet? Even as I write this paragraph, I’m feeling the burning in my belly and the tightness in my back and chest that accompanies my dread of being judged.  Now expand that striving to include the “right” ways to dress, walk, speak, find humor, evangelize, or vote for president.  There is also a “best” diet, educational pedagogy, career path for women, and even a “right” or “wrong” way to be looked at by the opposite sex.

"You're doing it wrong!"

Every day, to every action, probably to every thought (if I could track put a meta-tracker on my mind, and don’t think I haven’t tried), this statement is the unspoken corollary.  No matter what I do, think, say, plan, someone will disapprove. I can never live up to the standards set out by all people.  Realists among us will read this last statement and respond “of course, no one can possibly meet the demands of all the contradictory voices out there; it is ridiculous even to try.” 

But I’m an overachieving first child of a preacher, a third generation Christian fundamentalist—I was bred for performance, raised to guard against “even the appearance of sin”, taught always to be concerned for my “witness”.  God wanted to save all people but they would only be drawn to Him through wanting to emulate my life. I learned to judge myself against the cumulative standards of whatever group I was with so that my witness might always be pure.  Yet, while I was “to be all things to all people” for the glory of God, I was also not supposed to be a hypocrite who only showed people what they wanted to see.  My integrity was supposed to be such that God showed through my every action and thought, even every facial expression.  And I took all of these conflicting messages from the myriad teachers, preachers, family members, very, very seriously—this was God’s plan for saving the world, after all, I didn’t want to be the one responsible for messing that up.  (Oh, how small is the fundy god, if a scared, shy, skinny teenaged girl can derail his work!)

I learned the lessons of performance-based self-worth so well that when I ditched Christianity, I never realized that I was bringing all the fundy black-and-white worldviews, magical thinking, and “salvation by works” paradigms along with me.  I took the surety of “one right way to happiness, health, and acceptance” right into the neo-hippie, crunchy-granola world.  I birthed my babies at home, doctored them myself with herbs and remedies, homeschooled them from very early ages, ate organic or local food, and made as much of my own food as was possible without actually growing it myself. Every book I read on natural healing, nutrition, or holistic education gave me new information to be assimilated and applied, new truth to demonstrate to the world with my very life.  Every educational cooperative, nutrition and community gardening group, and alternative medicine class had its experts to follow religiously, and its own set of holistic living rules by which to be judged. Sometimes I experienced actual judgment from people in each of these groups; more often, I assumed their judgment because I had so internalized the impossible standards worldview.

For forty-two years I pounded my square peg of a self into the round holes of performance-based value systems until my body and my mind quit working.  I tried so hard to do and think all the Right Stuff and now I’ve spent the last three years unable to function to anyone’s expectations, much less everyone’s.  When I attempt too much, my body gives out.  And should I not pay sufficient attention, my mind goes—the black holes in there take over more and more of my cognitive function. I extended myself no grace for failure all those years and now I lack grace of gait and thought, a lurching facility of deed and word.

In the black-and-white, action-reaction, fundamentalist way of looking at things, I could think that the judgmental god of my childhood is wreaking vengeance on me for failing to meet his standards.  Or for daring to call myself a Christian, while wresting my own interpretations of spiritual reality from Christian scriptures and traditions.  Or for… whatever.  Surely I have sinned greatly to deserve such punishment.

Instead, I choose (am choosing, it is a continual choice to deviate from my knee-jerk assumption that others are judging me) to consider this state not poetic justice from a cosmic judge but divine irony that is so much more characteristic of God’s grace. I am only a human Being since I can no longer be a human Doing much of anything.

Be still and know that I AM (Ps 46:10)


  1. Thank you so much for this. I still struggle with "doing it right" a lot more that I care to admit to.

    Of late, I quite often just pray, "OK, God, whoever you are, however it is that you hear me, please just hear my prayers." The whole, "I gotta get the prayer right for Him to hear me" idea gets tossed out and I just try and talk like a child to a Father.

    I am coming to the point where I realize that God knows me and knows what I do and don't know and understands anyway. I am trying to stop looking for that "magic formula" of the "right prayers" or "right worship" or "right study" that is going to finally "make me Holy" and simply trust Him more to lead me where He wants me to be.

    Those "You're doing it wrong" tapes still play sometimes however, and I find myself in that old doubt, but I then remember that this is from all of the legalistic, fundamentalist BS that I grew up with. The God that I am coming to know is a whole lot bigger than all of that.

    Again, thank're telling my story.

  2. Brilliant post. I can relate and really appreciate your honesty!

  3. M, thank you. Take care of yourself.

  4. Wow! Not only did I identify with this one, but I think it is one of best you’ve written.

    And, after all that self criticism and self condemnation and self flagellation you mention, you end with your choice: not to follow all that crap and allow others (even that god) to afflict you further, but to observe the irony (painfully as you have experienced it, however) in this way of living. And, you are on the path of being rather than doing, for all of what you wrote about of these fundagelical constrictions had to do with doing, not being.

    Yes, it is all based on the fact that God is not the I DO but the I AM: “Be still and know that I am.” Fundgelicalism misses the fact that the doing must be based on the being or it is falsehood, which is Anathema to Bible thumpers!

    Ah, that I could run faster along that path of being and not be weighted down with all the doing involved in trying even yet to keep from doing it wrong! But, to so run would be to do, just faster. Thankfully—and this gives me great comfort—I see progress along my path. I’m not running on a treadmill installed in the middle of this path. I’m walking forward. And so are you. Keep being.

    Terry Gray

  5. One of my all-time favorite songs is Just as I Am by Andrew Peterson. Here are the most profound of the lyrics. You can find the whole thing online if you want:


    All of my life I've held on to this fear
    These thistles and vines ensnare and entwine
    What flowers appeared
    It's the fear that I'll fall one too many times
    It's the fear that His love is no better than mine
    (but He tells me that)

    Just as I am and just as I was
    Just as I will be He loves me, He does
    He showed me the day that
    He shed His own blood
    He loves me, oh He loves me, He does
    He loves me, oh, He loves me, He does

    Copyright 2003 New Spring Publishing, Inc.

    Yes, in all this religious posturing and rules that main point of the ministy of Jesus is lost: God loves you! He really really loves you! He is forgiving and gracious and He loves you!

    The flip side of God's great love for us is that He loves all these other poor slobs too, so He would dearly love for us to treat one another with a mutual love and respect also. The epistles are the response of the apostles to the question, "How do we live out this love in our very messy lives in an unlovely culture?"

    Religion seems to always muck this up, and put the advice above the principle, so that today we have Christians insisting that first century social structures of the Roman Empire are "the will of God". Tragic.

    He loves you, oh He loves you He does! He loves us, oh how He loves us! (another song- this one by John Mark McMillan- check him out-


    The whole song here, but listen to the story in the above video first! =)


    lyrics are clearer here....=D Dang it, I am so fricking happy now, after listening to this song 3 times this morning! YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES....yes.

  8. This is me. Perfectionism is still my default and I struggle against it almost every day. I was convinced for so long that I really was capable if doing everything perfectly, and the only reason I wasn't was my own laziness and stupidity. My temptation is usually to give up trying since I can't do it "right". Now I try to do what I can, love life, and let it be good enough.

  9. For an interesting (and rather disturbing) first-person account from a young woman raised in hyper-Calvinism, don't miss "Jesus Land: A Memoir" by Julia Scheeres. She hasn't come back. Understandably.