Sunday, October 28, 2012


I remember in my youth learning that the Amish deliberately put an imperfection in every quilt to keep from the sin of pride. Only God is perfect, they reason, and we should always be aware of our fallen state, our flaws and imperfections, and be humble before the Creator.

This story about Amish quilts is probably a myth, but like many myths, the lesson it imparts is important and true. We are not perfect, cannot be perfect no matter how hard we try. In fact, the race for perfection doesn't end at a victorious finish line but in a wallowing mess of despair and perceived failure somewhere along the way.

I know this for a fact.

I ran that pointless race for years, and still occasionally find myself unexpectedly wearing my running shoes for no good reason, hand pressing on a side cramp, lungs gasping for air, wondering, "What happened? What brought me to this point. What brings me to this point again? And again? And again?"

These days it's mostly little things. Seeing the mess on my desk and thinking, "You're such a slob. How did it get this bad?" Looking at last night's dishes still waiting to be washed and thinking, "Loser. You should have washed these last night. You're lazy." Finding a to-do list from last week and realizing I still haven't done three-quarters of the items on it. Getting back from the grocery store and realizing I forgot the sourdough bread. Walking past a furry dust bunny on the hardwood floors for the tenth time and thinking no one else in the world walks past dust bunnies that big without doing something...and I'm doing nothing for the tenth time.

You're lazy, Susan.

You're forgetful, Susan.

You're a mess, Susan.

You're a failure, Susan.

I want people to drop by my house and see how together I am, how on top of things, how competent, how tidy. In my pride, I cringe at the thought of someone entering my house in its current state and seeing the truth. I'm not together, or on top of things, or competent, or tidy.

I'm a mess, and so is my house.

About ten years ago, when I was a newly hatched stay-at-home mom of two and wondering why I couldn't keep my house clean, a guest on Oprah commented that women often seek to control their environments at times when their emotional lives are wildly out of control. Then, when their emotional lives calm down, the habit of controlling the environment continues, but instead of being therapeutic, it becomes a perfectionist burden.

During my teens, my emotional life was wildly out of my control, and my bedroom was neat as a pin. That's when the habit formed. I couldn't make my dad love me the way I needed him to love me, I couldn't make perfect grades, I couldn't feel pretty enough or popular enough or smart enough, but by golly, I could keep control and order in that eleven-foot square bedroom.

That episode of Oprah changed my thinking, even if it didn't change my feelings. I realized that the emotional chaos of my teens was gone, over, done with. I realized that controlling a bedroom in which only I lived was not the same as controlling a 2,400-square-foot house with four toilets, three floors, and a 0.7-acre lot all while living with a husband who's visual (things must be out in plain sight), two little-boy whirlwinds of chaos, and a big, furry dog.

I knew I wasn't going to win that race for perfection.


Each house since has been a little bigger than the one before, holds even more stuff, has more windows to wash and floors to sweep and vacuum. That race seems even more pointless today than it was ten years ago.

But knowing you're not going to win and accepting it are two different things. Thus, the surprise of side cramps again and again and again.

Enter Ann Voskamp with an answer. What she has to say isn't new. It's all over the Bible I've been studying so deeply for so long. God's been telling His people this for millenia, primarily through the words of St. Paul. But Ann reminded me of it and systematized it in a way that my mildly obsessive personality can understand...and feel.

"Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

In other words, take off your running shoes of perfection and pride, and put on your sunglasses of humility because your blessings are as bright as the sun.

Gratitude is the antidote to perfectionism. When you look at the world through a heart striving for perfection, you'll always fail. When you look at the world with a heart full of gratitude, you'll feel joy. I'm grateful for my new, big house, for my furry dog who's scratching the wood floors and shedding on everything, for my husband who goes to work and cooks great meals and loves me flaws and all, for my children who need to be asked to do just one thing at a time (sometimes repeatedly) to get their chores finished. I'm grateful our lives are so full that messes happen. I'm grateful we have an abundance of food, clothing, and shelter.

We want for nothing. We are blessed with mess.

I am blessed with mess.

I am blessed with mess.

My new mantra.

But just as I do, Ann backslides. She needs her husband to ask "You just fallen sick with perfectionism again?" She needs to be reminded that, as she puts it, "[T]he state of my space doesn't reflect the state of my soul." She's like an addict who never loses that potential to fall off the wagon, who daily must face that perfectionist demon in the mirror, whose habit of controlling her environment isn't therapeutic, who's running a race that she can't win. She can't ever even finish it.

Hello, my name is Susan, and I'm a perfectionist. It's been twelve hours since I last unconsciously strapped on my running shoes. It's been eleven hours, fifty-nine minutes since I very consciously took them off and put on my sunglasses of gratitude.

Go, me!

How are you dealing with perfectionism in your life? Are you trying to be a perfect parent or spouse? A perfect house-keeper? A perfect professional? A perfect hobbyist? A perfect chef? How can you reframe your perfectionist outlook with an attitude of gratitude? What's your mantra?


  1. The blessing of having children was being freed from all the unimportant perfectionism in my life. The difficulty was that my husband was not freed from it at the same rate or to the same extent, LOL. He likes a clean house but we are finally on the same page about what that is--17 years after the arrival of our first child.

    I like smaller living spaces because they force you to live with less and take less time to clean. I'm also someone who likes worn, distressed surfaces. Even my cards and art reflect that--I don't like straight lines, perfect edges, everything lined up just so. I have a loose sense of visual harmony.

    I tend to be hard on myself in other areas--feeling like I don't dream or live big. I live small. I *like* living small, but there is a persistent voice that always seeks to shame me into not Accomplishing More, Not Having a High-Powered Career, Not Having a Higher Profile, Not Being a Leader, Not Maximizing My Potential. That's the voice that's harder for me to silence, that gets under my skin and makes me feel stupid, ineffectual, and LESS.

    A perfectionism of a different kind...

  2. "I want people to drop by my house and see how together I am, how on top of things, how competent, how tidy. In my pride, I cringe at the thought of someone entering my house in its current state and seeing the truth. I'm not together, or on top of things, or competent, or tidy.

    I'm a mess, and so is my house."

    These words describe me to a "T". And as I have fallen further and further behind in the chaos that is my life right now, I find myself berating "me" for my lack of control, energy and "JUST GET IT DONE ALREADY".

    Then I try and remind myself that my husband doesn't expect the house to be perfect, with a fresh cooked meal on the table each night. Nor, does he expect me to be a trophy wife with the perfect hair, figure and entertaining skills.

    My children have NEVER stated "So and so's mother goes to work, keeps their house perfectly clean AND NEVER puts out cereal boxes for supper".

    So, why do I keep trying to put that unreachable burden of perfection on my To Do List?!

    I really liked your Words, Words, Words on a To-Do list post....I think I may need to make a (perfect! haha) home decor project with that as my mantra.

    Or maybe, I could just copy, past and print out a copy and tape it to the wall.

  3. Not a perfectionist. I have very lazy days. I also have days completely filled with rental issues. Love a tidy house but it's a rare happening around here anymore.

  4. V, being married to the military cured me of that bigger level of perfectionism. Moving every few years meant no chance to develop the career I wanted, a sacrifice to my love and my country that I can't regret. But how well I remember dealing with the loss of that dream of being a tenured professor of medieval literature!

    Starla, stay strong and know I'm right there with you in spirit!

    Sue, we need to be more like you!!!

  5. Gosh, Susan. Thank you for your moving blog today. Guess my chant will be, not "I'll try, but "I can" turn off some of the perfectionism tendancies. It is a daily battle for me and a time waster trying to get those layers just right. Sigh...

  6. Getting the job done is better than being perfect. That has become my mantra of late. To look at my home, one would not think I had a perfectionist bone in my body. Since I retired, it's been buried under places to go, things to do and people to help. Now that that has even slowed down, I find myself wanting to do great things but accepting whatever I get done. Gone are the days of teaching when I was laughed at for having a level in my desk drawer to help with bulletin board creation. I miss those days, but I am good. Good enough for me anyway.


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!