I’ve rotated between the usual lenten abstinences for years. Dessert, alcohol, meat, soda, dessert, alcohol, dessert, dessert, etc. I’ll be honest, that usually there’s a ulterior motive of shedding a few pounds, or kickstarting a healthy habit.
A few years ago, I was introduced to proactive Lent, wherein you replace the thing you’ve given up with some discipline—Bible reading, service, prayer, Scripture memory.
This year, I decided to think really hard about what to give up for Lent, and what to replace it with. Thinking really hard these days, for me the working mom, usually happens when I’m woken up at 3am but a tiny elbow to the jaw, or on the way to pick my kids up from school.
Simultaneously, but not coincidentally, I’ve been getting very serious about the destructive perfectionism that has crippled me since having children. I was a perfectionist long before children, but I was functional. With baby one I became, shall we say, compromised in my abilities. Baby number two sent me into full fragility. But because it was perfectionist fragility, you may not have known.
I didn’t ever think about myself as a perfectionist, because I’m not super detail oriented, not obsessive about the condition of my house, appearance, or children. However, my perfectionism runs along a deeper, subterranean channel. The definition of perfect was set during my childhood from a mix of family and cultural expectations: perfection is effortless, universal, well-rounded admirability to which I must be totally oblivious and toward which I must be totally ambivalent.
“She doesn’t know how pretty she is.”
“It comes easily to her.”
“All that and a heart of gold.”
“With all she has going for her, she could be totally full of herself, but she’s super down to earth.”
When I wished on stars as a child, I wished that I could be skinny without trying. My worst nightmare was to get the “most improved” trophy in sports, because effortless mastery, not hard work was my goal. In 8th grade a girl who (probably with good reason) wanted to hurt me found the perfect insult, “She’s perfect, and she knows it.”
“She knows it.” That clause turned what would have been a sort of weak, gen-x-ish insult into total melt-down devastation.
The other way my perfectionism revealed itself by its shifting goal posts. Whatever I lacked, whatever superlative I could not effortlessly achieve, that became the one thing that mattered. If I deliver my children to school clean, fed, and rested, but didn’t volunteer to be a reading buddy—then I’d immediately remember that article I read about how “parental involvement” was the single greatest determiner in a child’s success. If I was invited to moderate a panel at a public event, but saw an unflattering photo of myself doing it, I heard a voice saying, “It’s so sad that someone who has to be in front of people is so unphotogenic.”
I couldn’t enjoy my professional success, my lovely children, my delightful marriage, or my totally functional body because I always lacked…something. And thus, lacked the perfection I really wanted.
The turn of screw there is that we live in a culture where experts vie for the final word on sleep, child rearing, diet, sex, budget, philanthropy, race relations, education, worship, and how to clean your mother f-ing house…you cannot win that game. It is intrinsically impossible to live according to the experts, because they contradict one another. And before my Bible-people say “just live by God’s rules” don’t even get me started on the contradictory things I’ve been taught from various pulpits in my life.
At the heart of perfectionism is a powerless subjectivity, a need to fit everyone’s description of perfect. It’s a world where you are your own worst enemy, because becoming aware of any strength nullifies that strength, so you have to focus in stead on your weaknesses. Non-perfectionists see this as a quest to “perfect” the weaknesses, and, yes, that is part of it. But deep deep down, dwelling on weakness is the safe zone. It’s the place where I will not come off as arrogant, where I won’t risk ruing the admiration I receive by becoming aware of it.
This perfectionism is crippling my parenting, stealing my joy, and hurting my family, so I’ve been on a multi-year journey, slowed by postpartum anxiety, to get free.
Which brings us back to Lent 2019.
I gave up dessert.
Allow me to explain.
In Amy Poehler’s (highly-recommended) autobiography, Yes, Please, she talks about “the pudding” as the accolades and awards that can crowd out an artist’s focus on her work. The subjective preferences and shifting tastes that can cause someone to compromise what they know is good for what will get them recognition. In her world, that’s the temptation to make “Oscar-bait” and the Emmy version thereof.
While she admits, “pudding is delicious,” Poehler also cautions against it’s seductive, distracting nature, and reminds us that, “The doing of the thing is the thing.”
She compares awards and all that to pudding because it’s totally superfluous and we don’t need it. Sugar burns fast, and you’re left wanting more and getting very little from it, except a fleeting high.
My perfectionism runs on the pudding. In my world, that is retweets, “some personal news,” fellowships, headlines, good stuff in the comment section, mentions, cover stories, “we are happy to announce,” hand-clap emojis, people recognizing me at the coffee shop, invitations to speak and moderate, and best-of lists. It runs on comments about my kids. It runs on compliments about everything from my appearance to my signature quinoa dish.
These are the subjective signs that tell me I’m getting it right, and when they aren’t there, I’m lost. And remember, I can’t give those things to myself…that doesn’t count in perfectionism.
Now, giving up the pudding itself would be impossible in my world because it would involve wearing a sign that says, “don’t compliment me or my children.” Getting off social media would help for about 10 minutes, but I use social media for work, so it would get me in the end. Plus, I was like this way before social media. (That being said, I do have parameters in place to help social media not run me into depression for a multitude of other reasons.)
Plus, I’ve been really hurt in the past by people who tried to send me into affirmation-detox. If you know someone who struggles like this, do not withhold praise “for their own good.” You’re not God and you have no idea what you’re doing.
Anywho, instead of giving up the pudding, I needed to change the way I thought about it. So I’m using a Lenten fast to remind me to think about my worth, where it comes from, who made me, why he made me. A natural physical reminder would be pudding, but I don’t eat pudding. At least not frequently enough to merit giving it up for Lent.
So I gave up dessert. Dessert in addition to being a reminder of “the pudding” is what I go to when I feel like I’ve earned a treat. What I go to when I feel like life is hard and I’m not getting enough of “the pudding” elsewhere.
Giving up dessert this year is my reminder that I don’t need “the pudding” to enjoy my work or my family. And that my worth is anchored in something that doesn’t burn up fast like sugar. Lent is part of a larger journey to free myself from perfectionism and find a constant, strong sticking place for my eyes, my confidence, and my peace.