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Silencing perfectionism

It happened for the first time almost exactly to the minute, 28 years from the moment my first baby was born. That morning, I didn’t have to silence the voice. For the entire span of a childhood and then some, the voice has been telling me the same lie over and over again. But the morning of my eldest boy’s birthday, I couldn’t hear the voice. I didn’t have to argue with it.

Like nearly every day, I was the first person in the kitchen that morning. I flipped on the lights at 6 a.m. and noted the piles — mountains of assorted books, art projects, dance forms, folded laundry, posters from last weekend’s soccer game and clean plates stacked by the sink.

“Dang,” I thought to myself. “We sure are getting a lot done around here these days.”

And then I made myself a cup of coffee without feeling even so much as a hint of adrenaline prompting me to hurry and clean up all the piles.

It wasn’t until I was deep into the morning’s Bible study that it dawned on me that I hadn’t heard the voice. No one had admonished me for the mess. No one had told me the neighbors would raise their eyebrows at my less than model home. No one had called me a failure for not maintaining a household of nine with perfect order. No one had compared me unfavorably to every other woman who seemingly could do it all and more.

The voice was gone.

In its place was the voice of encouragement. I had just told myself something affirmative and positive from the outset, despite the obvious imperfections of my environment. All grace. So much grace.

This journey to silence the voice has been an arduous uphill climb. Through the perfect storm of nature and nurture, perfectionism and self-recrimination are hardwired into my psyche. I’ve been one to try too hard, move too fast, produce too much and reach too high for as long as I can remember. All my life, I have lived with the exhaustion and utter despair of never measuring up to my own perfectionistic standards. The first response in my brain, until that morning, was always the critical one.

The voice was back around lunchtime, as I hustled to get everyone out of the house in time to celebrate the neighborhood opening of Chick-fil-A. We had to move quickly and efficiently, because I knew the lines would be long and we barely had time for lunch before I’d have to hurry a child to a physical therapy appointment. Someone couldn’t find her shoes.

“Why is it I’m so incompetent that we can’t even do something fun because we can never find what we need when we need it?” I stormed aloud to no one in particular.

“I’m sorry, Mommy,” came a small voice. “I was so tired when I got home yesterday that I forget where I left my shoes. “

Now I remembered. She really, really was that tired. She’d had an allergic reaction and been fully dosed on an antihistamine. She’d tumbled into bed a weepy, wilted mess. Frankly, I couldn’t remember where we’d taken off her shoes, either.

This lost shoe thing wasn’t inefficiency. It was the honest result of choosing to meet the moment with compassion and letting something slide in the process.

I apologized to myself — and my kids — for the ugly chastisement, blowing away the voice of shame with a breath of honest grace for all of us.

Begin again, I told myself. Invite again the peace of the morning, the knowing deep down that I was not created to prove myself the latest model of perfection. I was created to rest in the knowledge that we’re doing the best we can and keeping step with our Savior. His voice is the only one that matters.

Foss, whose website is elizabethfoss.com, is a freelance writer from Northern Virginia.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016