Sometimes, as we get older, we realize that the advice we were given when we were young isn’t good advice anymore. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t at the time. But sometimes I think our brains don’t realize that some advice was given in a conditional sort of way and we decided instead that it’s a universal truth that will serve us all the way through life. And oftentimes that will get us in trouble.
When you’re an awkward junior high student who likes “nerdy” things like school and reading or when you wear clothes that are different from everyone else’s, it’s great advice to not let someone else define you. Countless parents tell their clumsy daughters and gangly sons not to let other people’s words change how they think about themselves. And thank God that they do; kids can be terrible. If children listened only to what their peers said about them to figure out who they are, the outcome would be bleak. But I realized that sometime in my life, defining myself became more unhealthy than letting someone else do it.
I don’t think many people who have met me can miss the fact that I’m a perfectionist. It runs in my family and, in many ways, has served me well in the past. Being a fulltime student meant that the more energy I could put into my schoolwork, the better. (Or something like the better, because eventually that led to me driving myself nuts, but that’s another story about lemons.) But being a perfectionist in all areas doesn’t really serve anyone well in the long run.
Here are just a few of the things I do as a perfectionist:
- I am constantly trying to “fix” or improve my relationships. Things can’t ever be okay; there is always something that I can sit and worry about and try to solve, even when there isn’t.
- I can be completely happy with something I do or make right after I finish, but within a half hour, I’ll loathe it and only be able to see the things I could have done better.
- I will put off starting a project that needs to be done because the possibility of failure is crippling. I will always over-prepare and many of my projects fail without ever getting started because they might fail down the road.
- I have to be so thorough in everything that if I don’t have time to do it flawlessly and completely, I won’t do it at all. My the floor of my bedroom often disappears before I can bring myself to put away the laundry and pick up because I may not have time to also organize my junk drawer and get rid of clothes I don’t want anymore.
Clearly, it’s dysfunctional. And I know that. But I also get stuck in it. And because I expect perfection of myself, I always—ALWAYS—fall short. I stumble over my words when I’m meeting someone for the first time. I use the wrong your/you’re in a text message late at night. I splatter chocolate pudding across the room when trying to get it off the spatula and into the bowl (true story). I fail. I’m a failure. That’s who I am. Because, after all, I’m supposed to be the only one to define myself, right?
And yet I have a mentor who has invested countless hours into my life and he says I’m one of the most amazing people he’s ever met. I have a father who says he’s never been disappointed in me. I have a mother who has never stopped being my cheerleader no matter what I’m doing. I have a best friend who misses me every day. I have a boyfriend who says I am brilliant and kind and genuine and thoughtful. I have a brother who thinks I can do anything to which I put my mind. I have a friend who sends me cards just to say that she’s glad I’m alive. I have a friend who gave me a job at his company doing something I’ve never done before because he trusts that I can and will do it. And all of these people are great people. The best. People I respect and love and value because they are quality human beings.
But I haven’t believed a word they’ve said for the past 20-some years. I don’t know when I started thinking I was a crummy person, but that’s been my reality for a long time. I’ve gotten in my own way so many times I could scream. I’ve failed because I didn’t let myself try. I put on the person I thought I needed to be to be loved, and she didn’t measure up to what I expected of her. Meanwhile, when people caught genuine glimpses of who I am, they stuck around and—dare I say it—the real Amy made their lives better.
Yesterday, something snapped. I realized that I was sabotaging my own relationships and success and impact on the world because of my low self-esteem. And somewhere inside, the real Amy said, “No. We’re not doing this anymore. It’s time to tell that nasty voice in your head to shut the #$%& up and listen to what others have been telling you all along.”
So maybe if you’re in junior high and your friends are petty and mean, don’t listen to what they say about you. If you’re surrounded by dysfunctional people, don’t let them define you. But if you have good friends and family and mentors and loved ones, and, like me, you don’t think you’re a very good person or you feel like you’re a failure, then don’t define yourself. You’re doing a crappy job of it. Don’t get in your own way. Let others define you. After all, in my experience, God uses the people in our lives to speak to us more often than we realize.