I have a problem with perfectionism. That does not mean that I think I can be perfect. It means that I’m so convinced I can’t, I don’t even try. Even when I do try to do or start something, as soon as it gets difficult I stop trying, because I think that the hard part means that I’m not doing it perfectly.
This wreaks havoc with all areas of my life:
- I lose my motivation to lose weight because I know I won’t lose it quickly.
- I can’t stop smoking because I know I’ll still crave it even after I quit.
- I get discouraged when I go to the gym because I’m obviously so much less fit than others.
- I’m convinced that I’m unattractive because I don’t have a perfect body/I’m not stunning/I’m getting old.
- I get completely anxious about prayer because I don’t do it perfectly.
- I stopped trying to learn Arabic because it was so hard.
- My house is a wreck because I think everything has to be done at one time.
- I feel guilty all the time because I’m not improving.
- It doesn’t matter if I’m improving in one thing if I’m not improving in all things.
You don’t know how many times I’ve wished for a magic spell to make me perfect. I used to envy Samantha on “Bewitched.” She could achieve perfection with one twitch of her nose. I completely missed the message that humans aren’t perfect.
Part of my problem with perfectionism is that I get very anxious when I know someone is expecting something from me. I was married for years to someone who expected me to keep the house, the kids, and our schedules perfectly. And I was anxious all the time, to the point where I would cry when I knew my husband was coming home. I can’t tell you what a relief it was when we divorced and I only had to please myself and live up to my own standards.
The problem was, I found out quickly enough that my own standards were impossible. Now I’m married to a man who accepts me as I am. He doesn’t demand that I do anything I don’t want to do. That’s great for my anxiety level, but it means that all my motivation to do better has to come from myself. And I’m a worse taskmaster than my previous husband ever was.
One thing I don’t like about religion is that it feeds into my fears of not being perfect. I never bought the Christian concept that you can achieve perfection by allowing the Spirit of God to dwell within you. Because I still failed in so many ways, I thought that I was either not believing strongly enough, not submitting myself totally or just plain bad. I would pray that God would make me more faithful, but what I really meant is that I wanted to be perfect. I thought that was what God wanted and expected.
I do a little better with Islam because it’s very clear in the Qur’an that Allah knows what we are and is ready to forgive all our shortcomings anyway. He will always honor our efforts not by making us perfect, but by forgiving us. If He had wanted us to be perfect, He would have made us that way to begin with. What He wanted was for us to be human and He doesn’t hold it against us that we are. He knows we will fail, but He does expect us to keep trying.
I can do that. What I can’t do is finish.
That’s not entirely true: I can finish when I have a clear assignment or goal. But it has to come from somewhere outside of me. I can clean the house if I know I’m going to have company (although I always put it off until the last minute). I can keep from smoking when I’m somewhere where it’s not allowed. But that only works for the short term. As soon as things return to “normal,” I flounder in a sea of indecision and self-recrimination.
I need to remember that Allah alone is perfect. Whenever I think that I should be perfect, what I’m really thinking is that I should be able to be like God. There’s a word for that: idolatry (or shirk).
The truth is, Allah has a more positive view of humans than we do of ourselves. He created us the way we are on purpose. He wasn’t content with beings who had no choice but to worship Him. He wanted beings who have the ability to choose. He knew that would mean that some of us would choose wrongly, but He was willing to run that risk in order to give us free will.
Allah created us with the ability, not to be perfect, but to be better. I need to remember that. My striving is not supposed to be for perfection, but for improvement. And even then, when I fail to improve, or when I make the same mistakes over and over, He is Merciful. He will forgive me and set me back on my feet.
Allah calls me to be patient, not to be perfect. I need to get over myself and start trusting Him.