Growing Up Perfect
I grew up in Oklahoma, in your quintessential small midwest town. My mom was raised Catholic, my dad was Protestant. He was the doctor in town and my mom stayed home to raise us girls; me, my twin sister and our younger sister. We were the perfect little family. We went to church every Sunday, came back again on Sunday night and then again on Wednesday evening. I loved it.
We were very religious, but we didn’t talk about our faith at home, ever. We prayed at dinner and we went to church because that’s what you do. My parents were doing the best they could, and this was what good people were supposed to do.
Naturally, I grew up hearing stories about Jesus and knew all the right answers. I could win any Bible trivia competition. I remember sitting in a Sunday school class in middle school and our teacher asked, “What does grace mean?” I remember panicking because I didn’t know the answer. I wanted to have the answer so badly and was so embarrassed that I didn’t know. I should have known. I couldn’t ask anybody for the answer because then they would know that I didn’t know and I would feel like a terrible Christian. After a few minutes the teacher got frustrated that nobody knew and answered it like this: “Grace is God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense.” Period. No explanation, that’s it. I remember thinking, “What the heck does that mean? Oh my gosh! I still don’t know what it means!” I was so lost and confused but told no one.
As I continued to grow up, I knew what was expected of me. My parents would say “If you can’t do it right, don’t do it at all.”
Our family prided ourselves on perfection.
Doing everything right is just the way we do it. There is a wrong and right way for everything, even the smallest tasks had to be done a certain way: loading the dishwasher, sitting at the dinner table, having proper manners, not hitting your fork against your teeth, the list went on. I was a good girl. I wanted approval, I wanted love and I knew that if my parents were going to be proud of me, it was going to be because I’d do everything the right way.
And so I became “perfect.” I had a list of all the ways that I tried to be perfect:
I’ve never said a cuss word out loud
I’ve never had a cavity
I’ve never gotten a speeding ticket
I’ve never gotten drunk
I’ve never smoked a cigarette
I always got straight A’s, not even one B.
I was valedictorian.
I never went to a high school party
I never kissed anyone, my first kiss was on my wedding day.
The Price of Perfection
This all totally affected the way I viewed God. Being a Christian was about being perfect and doing everything right, working my way to heaven. God wasn’t personal to me. My interaction with him was simple. I would pray, but I only asked him for stuff and I tried and tried to be good enough for God to love me. I never knew if I was doing enough for God to not lose my right standing with him. I was constantly afraid.
Fear ran rampant in my mind. Fears of letting someone down, not being accepted, not being approved, fear that God wouldn’t love me forever.
I didn’t know it was anxiety at the time, but I dealt with anxiety my whole life. Constantly striving to be perfect takes its toll on you. I was so ashamed of someone finding out who I really am, that I’m this insecure girl who doesn’t feel loved.
I thought that if I can fake it, then people will love me.
Out of Nowhere
It all came crashing down when my parents sat us down and told us they were getting a divorce. It was out of nowhere, they never argued, never fought. In actuality, they didn’t communicate at all. They were very practical, so they waited until I was 16 to tell us so that I could drive my little sister around town. For two years they had planned to get a divorce, but just carrying it around in them and never told anybody. When they told me, it was like a suckerpunch. It was so out of the blue.
It was crazy because I hadn’t done anything, but now this meant I wasn’t perfect anymore.
My parents told us to not tell anybody. My first thought was to call my best friend and tell her about it, but my dad said, “We are not going to tell anybody about this because I could lose my job.” So I had to pretend or “be strong.” It wasn’t okay to not be okay. Within 2 days everyone in our small town knew about it but we still couldn’t talk about it.
It felt like extra shame because we were exposed but still had to be perfect.
Experiencing the sincere emotions of disappointment and hurt was not okay in my family. We were told not to cry, crying was shameful. You need to be strong. Showing emotion was weak. I was more emotional about it than anyone in my family. I would yell at my Dad when he came to visit and get upset. Even then I knew I wasn’t supposed to do that. But I was destroyed inside.
That is when God started to get my attention and show me the reality that my life is far from perfect. I’m actually thankful for my parents’ divorce because it woke me up to the truth that striving to be perfect is not worth it.
A Better Option
Even when I think back to that Sunday school classroom in middle school I believe God was prompting my heart to seek Him about grace. He was giving me clues along the way, but my pride would stop me from telling anyone that I didn’t understand.
When I went to college I made friends with a lot of Christians because I was supposed to hang out with other Christians. I would notice that some of them had real relationships with God, they would talk about Him like they knew Him. I began to feel the freedom to ask questions, honest questions about what I didn’t know or understand.
I remember being a freshman and one night during a bible study I told the girls there the story of my parent’s divorce. I had never spoken about it with anybody before that evening. I was so embarrassed because I cried so hard in front of them. There were five girls that listened to me that night and it was the first time I let people comfort me. They hugged me and told me they were sorry, it felt so free. I was accepted in the midst of my weakness. I felt unconditionally loved. That was a big deal. I realize now that God was really pursuing me.
During the summer after my freshman year of college, I joined this discipleship camp. You know, that’s what good Christian college girls do during their summers, right? That summer is when I truly became a Christian. I was on the beach every morning that summer because I hadn’t ever seen the ocean before. One morning, I was studying the attributes of God, who He really was and reading Bible verses about His faithfulness and it felt like this weight lifted off of me. I began to understand the truth that He is faithful, He is not going to leave me. My dad left us and I was so afraid that God’s love was like that.
In that moment, God gave me what perfectionism could not.
For the first time I realized that God is perfect. Nobody else can be. But He is. Even when my faith wavers, He is faithful. It was such a beautiful moment of releasing my effort, I didn’t have to try anymore. It was such a contrast to how I had lived my whole life. My whole life I was a good religious girl, but I became a real Christian for the first time that morning on the beach.
A Real Way to Live
My life began to change. I became much more transparent, much more vulnerable. I began to learn how to share my heart. God gave me the humility to say what was wrong, to share my opinion. I was longing for that chance to be real, and I finally felt the freedom to be. I could ask questions, dumb questions. I could confess my sin of pride, anger, jealousy and comparison. People began to compliment me for being transparent and honest. It was those times that I knew I had really changed. I felt safe to be myself. I didn’t have to be perfect.
When I had kids, God broke me of that even more. When I had my first boy, after 3 days I was exhausted. Everyone kept telling me how children are such a blessing and because I was so frustrated, I felt guilty that I didn’t love my kid. I was very sleep deprived. I wasn’t ready to let go of perfectionism, but my strong willed first child who would never do anything I said, would never settle down and got multiple spankings a day, forced me to realize that tendency.
When we had our second son, I completely drowned. I had a full blown anxiety attack.
For so long I was stiff arming my pain and weakness trying to be the perfect real Christian, perfect mother and perfect wife. For the first time, I embraced my pain. I would always run towards comfort and whatever would make me look perfect to others. But this time, I just sat in my mess, just sat there and I finally stopped. I was an anxious mess and rested there. I was real with myself on a whole new level. It was my lowest breaking point, but God reminded me again that I cannot do it all perfectly. Only he can.
It wasn’t until I moved to Sandals Church that I truly realized that it is okay to not be okay. Even though I feel safe with Jesus now, I sometimes operate in my old habitual ways of striving. I am so thankful to be at Sandals Church because the vision to be real helped me understand how to be authentic in those moments. I had two or three years of intense anxiety when I became a mom. I had to work through it, pray through it, cling to God and sit in my mess but now I’m free. I’m free from anxiety.
Anxiety has become a gift from God because when I start to feel it, I know I’m depending on myself.
Now, for me, my struggle with anxiety is an indicator of grace. Now I see that God’s love and faithfulness is there for me, not because of what I do, not because I’m perfect, but just because I am. That’s grace. Grace is saying “I can’t, God can.” It’s so freeing.
I feel like there are so many people who try so hard and I want to tell them they don’t have to try anymore. Just accept God’s love and know He is perfection for you.
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