I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!Galatians 2:21
My journey with perfectionism and subsequent deeper discovery of grace goes back many years, as journeys tend to do.
I love Jesus. Truly, I do. I’ve been following Him since I was 6-years-old. But back in high school my perfectionist, people-pleasing, performance mindset, gotta-do-this-on-my-own tendencies were inclined to take over. Just beneath the surface, I tried to live for Jesus in my own strength. I tried so hard to live the right way, to be good enough, to be perfect. It was exhausting and lonely (because I couldn’t let on I was trying so hard). And I never quite measured up. I heard an inner voice whispering: “You’re not good enough. You’ll never measure up. You’re a failure.” If I kept busy performing, then the voice wasn’t so loud. I could drown it out with productiveness.
But if there was a moment of quiet, especially when I was in bed at night, the memories would begin replaying. My vivid imagination recorded in detail every time I “failed,” bringing the memories back to haunt me.
Haunted by memories.
A recording of the same list of failures played in my head, starting at the beginning with memories from as far back as kindergarten, through grade school, and then high school. Memories of bad decisions or embarrassing situations–ticking them off, one by one, same order every time, same sinking and spinning feeling. It was miserable, but I assumed it was normal: everyone fails and it is normal to keep remembering and replaying. I constantly carried a burden of memories and regrets.
I also carried a self-imposed heavy weight of expectation on myself to be good, to be right, to be appropriate. I obsessed over being perfect and doing everything the right way. I was afraid of failing. Therefore, I wasn’t very adventurous. Afraid to try something new, I wouldn’t branch out unless I knew I could be basically perfect at it. I wouldn’t go bowling or throw a frisbee or leave the house with sweatpants on, etc. Too potentially embarrassing! Life was all about reaching for perfection, avoiding failure, and sticking with where I performed best.
Still, I was sincerely committed to following Jesus all during that time. I was very involved at church and read my Bible faithfully. However, I didn’t realize there were aspects about Jesus and about the Christian life I had not yet learned or internalized. Spoiler alert: still more growth and maturity and freedom to come! After high school, I attended Bethel College, a small Christian school in northern Indiana. The haunting memories continued, now worsening because the newness at school brought on more opportunity for “failure.”
I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold.Psalm 62:2-3
I have come into the deep waters; the floods engulf me.
I am worn out calling for help; my throat is parched.
My eyes fail, looking for my God.
Fast forward to the summer after my freshman year. I worked as a receptionist for an engineering firm and sometimes they didn’t have enough work for me. On one such occasion, I was doing my devotions at the front desk when I was suddenly overwhelmed by memories. The recording in my head started playing in broad daylight! Usually that only happened under the cover of dark, so it genuinely scared me that now the memories would haunt me during the day. I felt like I was drowning, trapped in a never-ending downward spiral. I felt physically sick, short of breath, and mentally overwhelmed. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had a full-blown panic attack. One after another, the loop of memories flooded my mind, bringing deep feelings of failure and regret and shame.
Then I finally acknowledged to myself something was wrong.
Perhaps it should not be like this.
It wasn’t normal.
To be continued . . . did the panic attacks ever stop?
Jump to Part 2: Grace Surprise!