Miriam Brandon reflects on how God’s grace helps deal with paralysing perfectionist traits
When you have scribbled down the start of a blog entry five times you know you may have a problem with perfectionism. I recently spent a week on a silent retreat; expected God to talk to me about big life questions: my future vocation, who I should marry, where I should live, but God had other ideas. Instead he convicted me of my sin (yes SIN) of perfectionism.
I, along with twenty other young adults from the Community of St Anselm, made the long trip to Looe, on the south coast of Cornwall to spend seven days going through the Ignatian spiritual exercises. They were devised by Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. Today lots of non-Catholics use them. The retreat takes you through stages including recognising Gods’ unconditional love, reflecting on the person of Christ and identifying more closely with his suffering in light of our own sin.
I enjoyed the first few days looking at Gods’ love and reflecting on the person of Christ; this was not a problem. However, when it got to the fourth day, we were asked to look at our sin in the light of Gods’ grace and even weep over the sacrifice God had made, this was something I struggled with. I wanted to be overwhelmed with sorrow over my sin and the knowledge that God had given himself for me, but the tears would not flow. I had always gone to church, studied hard as a doctor, tried to be non-judgemental, never stolen anything, or robbed a bank. I prided myself in my thoughtfulness. So how was I meant to cry over my sin? After three hours of kneeling on a hard floor, my face was covered in dust rather than tears, and I was frustrated.
It was a welcome relief when midday arrived and it was time for my daily chore of setting the table. As I lay the table in silence, without the usual distraction of conversation, I became more aware of my thoughts and the flawed nature of them. ‘How could I make this table look beautiful? Shall I go and pick some flowers?’ ‘How can I arrange the spoons so they look perfect?’ I even noted the way others had set the table and made sure I adjusted things so I did it just as well.
How had I managed to turn a simple menial task into a competition and a mission to show everyone how perfect I was? It was at that point while laying the table that I felt God say, ‘Miriam if you are so perfect, what need do you have of me?’ And in that second I saw myself, I saw my striving to do things right, not because God had changed me, but because I wanted to create a Miriam to be admired and looked up to rather than the imperfect ME. God had convicted me of my pride. Although in that instance I felt vulnerable and exposed, I was overwhelmed with a sense of Gods’ love for me just as I am.
As a doctor, it is easy to find our worth in achievement. We have a prestigious degree and appreciate those impressed faces when we tell people our profession. We enjoy the respect. Our achievements can become so much part of our identity that without them, we are at a loss as to who we are. Our culture can often tell us that success is having a well-paid job, a large house with an attractive spouse, having the idyllic male/female physique and enough money to take that yearly exotic holiday. But the Cross tells us these things are meaningless; all we need to do is spend time with God; letting him change our hearts.
As a foundation year two doctor, I had found myself at near burnout on a few occasions throughout the year and a lot of this was due to my perfectionist traits. I had wanted to be the most knowledgeable, caring, organised doctor that could exist; an almost robotic version of myself. When I was put in positions where this was difficult due to low doctor to patient ratios and little senior support, I crumbled.
Although all of the traits listed above are good, it is when you place your value in only these attributes that it is detrimental to you. Are you being a doctor to glorify yourself or to glorify God? When you are in step with God’s plan and realise your need for him, it becomes less about you succeeding and more about you encouraging others and building others up.
Back to my retreat. On the next lunchtime, I lay the table with a deep joy and freedom. As a symbolic gesture I swapped the knife and fork on all 40 place settings. As people crowded in for lunch, I sat and watched their bemused faces as they swapped the knives and forks back round. I even watched one of my fellow perfectionists in the group swap every place setting on her table back to the ‘correct’ arrangement. I sat there watching with a smile on my face. Who decided these table rules anyways? It definitely wasn’t God and I had a funny feeling he wasn’t too concerned.
Perfectionism is anti-grace. Living life in grace rather than perfectionism requires us to be counter cultural. It requires us to sacrifice our reputation and sense of prestige in the knowledge that Jesus has made the ultimate sacrifice. It involves not striving to do the right things but rather accepting our inadequacies and our need for Gods’ grace.
This may not be the perfect blog entry on perfectionism. I have no text book definition and have done no in-depth study of the subject, but it is honest and true to myself. Instead of trying to be someone that you’re not, why not accept yourself with all of your flaws and inadequacies and let God’s grace do the rest? He sets the bar higher than you ever will, but his grace, and his grace alone, can lift you up.
‘The courage to be is the courage to accept oneself in spite of being unacceptable’
Posted by Miriam Brandon: a former Deep:ER Trainee and a GPST1 in London.