On a perfect day, I would get up well before my family to get dressed and prepare a delicious hot breakfast. I would spend my free time putting the finishing touches on my living room that bears a striking similarity to the one in the latest Martha Stewart magazine, update my personal blog, and finish a sewing project or two. Lunch and dinner would be made entirely from scratch, and exactly as I had planned them out earlier in the week, along with a homemade peach pie for dessert. My “regular” daily routine would not be impeded by these lofty projects; I would still manage a 30-minute workout, a trip to the park, and an art project with the children that is both entertaining and educational. On the spiritual front, I would attend daily Mass (during which my children would sit quietly and be entertained by religious books), and pray the rosary with little to no distractions, internal or external. I would fall into bed at night, tired but fulfilled, with a perfectly clean house and joy in my heart at what the next day will bring.
A far cry from that idealism is a day that involves scrounging through the bare pantry for meals, spending half the morning in pajamas, piles of dirty clothes to wash and clean laundry to fold, dishes piled high in the kitchen, and a few distracted prayers tossed up. There may also be periodic check-ins to favorite home decorating blogs and wistful longings for the day my home will look like theirs.
To be fair, most of our days will end up somewhere in the middle of those two examples. But I still find myself feeling guilty if my day doesn’t more closely resemble the first – a mixture of June Cleaver and St. Therese. Why?
Perfectionism. Like many women, I have high expectations of myself, often unrealistic. And like many, I have subconsciously bought into the worldly idea of what a perfect mother looks like: always perfectly dressed and groomed, beautiful and organized home, excellent cooking, fantastically creative and crafty, ever-ready to volunteer.
But perfectionism is a GOOD thing, right!? After all, didn’t Jesus say “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”? (Matthew 5:48) It seems as though we SHOULD be striving for perfection. But what does Christ mean by “perfect”? From the Haydock Bible Commentary:
“Seeing then that we are thus blessed as to be called, and to be the children of so excellent a Father, we should endeavor, like Him, to excel in goodness, meekness, and charity; but above all in humility, which will secure to us the merit of good works, through the infinite merits of our divine Redeemer, Master, and model, Christ Jesus the Lord.” Haydock Bible Commentary on Matt. 5:48
So striving to be perfect means that we strive to be good, meek, charitable, humble: a spiritual kind of perfection. That’s a far cry from the “perfect” that the world calls us to.
We can often fool ourselves into thinking worldly “perfectionism” is virtuous. But perfectionism is a false humility. In true humility, we recognize the limits of our talents and abilities. In the false humility of perfectionism, we believe we should be able to do everything “just so,” that we can do it all ourselves, and we beat ourselves up when we aren’t able to achieve our lofty goals. Perfectionism causes us to do things for our own glory, rather than for the glory of God. With perfectionism, the end is the only thing that matters, and the path we take to get to that end is meaningless. However, if instead we do our actions for God’s glory, then the effort that we put into our work does matter, rather than simply just the finished product. St. Margaret Mary Alacoque said, “It is only necessary to say energetically ‘I will,’ and all will go well.” The path to our goal is as important, if not more important, that the achievement of that goal.
So how can we deal with the perfectionism that creeps into our daily lives, causing us stress and unhappiness, and thwarting our desire to do good?
Prayer. We must avoid worldly perfectionism in prayer; perfectionism is the antithesis of humility, and our prayers must spring from humility in our heart. We must not worry about saying the perfect rosary, completely free from internal distraction. Instead, when our mind wanders, we should gently redirect our thoughts back to our prayer. We should not avoid Mass because we fear our children will distract us and we won’t “get anything out of it.” God will supply where our human efforts fail, as long as we make the effort.
We should also not be discouraged if we cannot spend as much time in prayer as we would like. We are all busy women, many of us wives and mothers, and have many duties to attend to. St. Frances of Rome said,
“It is most laudable in a married woman to be devout, but she must not forget that she is a housewife; and sometimes she must leave God at the altar to find Him in her housekeeping.”
We can sanctify our souls through our works as well as our prayers. If we say the Morning Offering each day, we offer God all our “works, prayers, joys, and sufferings”; this encompasses everything we will do throughout the day, and thus, all of our works will be offered for God’s glory.
Reflect on the saints and model our lives after them. What were their goals? How did they achieve spiritual perfection, while abandoning the perfectionism of the world? Mother Teresa said, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then just feed one.” She teaches us to not be frustrated by our inability to do great things, but to embrace the small things we can do. She also says, more specifically, “We cannot do great things, only small things with great love.”
Baby Steps. On a practical level, many times we procrastinate and put off important things because we can’t get it all done – if it won’t be perfect, why bother? We must abandon that mentality, and realize that the small things DO matter, a lot. Our path to eternity is not one long paved road, but many small pebbles that build upon each other, each of those pebbles being our small daily efforts. Just because we’re too tired or busy to do a complicated art project with our children doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything with them – read a short story, or spend just a few minutes on the floor, playing with them. No time to clean the bathroom? Take 2 minutes to clear off the counter, pick the dirty clothes off the floor, and change the toilet paper. If we do each of these small things out of love for God, He will give us grace with each small effort. God doesn’t ask the impossible of us, He asks us to do what we can, when we can.
(For practical household tips, I highly recommend Flylady. She is a huge help for perfectionists, procrastinators, and those who just have trouble keeping a clean and organized house.)
Be realistic. We should have a realistic view about our talents. We shouldn’t compare our homes to those in magazines, especially if we don’t have an eye for interior decorating. If we do our best to make our homes comfortable and inviting, we are serving our family well. If we are not a great cook, then we should concentrate on making something that is healthy and filling, not 5-star restaurant quality, and we should be satisfied with it. That’s not to say we should do the bare minimum: we should certainly strive for excellence. But as the acclaimed P90X trainer Tony Horton says, “Do your best and forget the rest.”
We must remember that at the end of our life, we won’t be judged on how organized our house was, how delicious our meals were, or even how many perfect rosaries we prayed – we will be judged on whether we performed the daily duties of our vocation with love.
Do you struggle with perfectionism? Procrastination? How do you “let go and let God” in your day-to-day life?