I distinctly remember walking into a dentist appointment thinking, “I want to be this hygienist’s favorite patient ever.” I already flossed and brushed my teeth, gargled, and blotted my lipstick. I smiled broadly, asked and answered questions, complimented her technique, and thanked her for her hard work. I left with a new toothbrush and a sense of accomplishment.
Before I went home to cook the best dinner ever for my husband and friends, I interacted with the cashier at the store, tollbooth attendant, and neighbor the same way.
I did everything I could to be the best customer, toll-payer, and neighbor they ever had. I wondered if they would go home and tell their families, “You’ll never believe how great this lady was today!”
For my husband’s birthdays I would brainstorm a million ways to show him lavish love. I’d cover all 5 Love Languages – big gift, very long letter full of loving words, celebratory physical touch, sacrificial service, and lots of uninterrupted quality time. There could be no doubt I was a great wife. Was I the best wife?
I’d look in the mirror while shopping, tilt my head and smile holding up a dress. I wanted to be the prettiest girl at the party. A quick inventory of flaws that couldn’t be fixed without surgery made that an unreachable goal. So I modified: the prettiest girl with red hair? The prettiest married girl? The prettiest girl in her 30s?
Performance reviews at work? It was like report card time! I loved it. They laid out expectations and I exceeded them. It just took working 20 extra hours a week. I hoped they thought I was the best consultant. Or maybe the best consultant in Chicago. Or the best one on our floor? Or the best one that used to work in nonprofits?
Every time I read the Bible I found more expectations, which I worked so hard to meet. In my performance reviews/prayer time with God I would track my progress, confess sins and remind him of my growing successes. I really wanted to be God’s favorite. Maybe not his favorite believer ever, of course, but who was trying harder? Maybe his favorite Christian at my work? Or favorite on my street? Or…
I was in a season of striving to “be a blessing.” I researched hours before leading Bible studies and wrote lots of additional questions. I befriended my consulting clients and teammates with lots of off-the-clock hanging out. I watched other people’s kids and made meals for hurting families at church. I remembered everyone’s birthdays before they happened. I hosted parties and dinners and out of town guests. I asked myself, “What Would Jesus Do?” The answer was always “More.” So I did more.
I thought this perspective was fiercely Christian. “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” (Colossians 3:23) Yes, Sir! I will be the BEST. For you. I will work harder. How high would you like me to jump? It’s my pleasure, Sir.
I wanted to have my picture next to all the superlatives in Yearbook of Life – smartest, fastest, funniest, kindest, prettiest, most creative, most humble, most compassionate, most likely to succeed. It was a lot of work, but I was trying. This is perfectionism. It’s anxiety. And it’s ultimately despair.
God cures people of perfectionism in a lot of ways. For me, he chose to give me amazing, intense, hard to shape children. From the beginning of my first troubled pregnancy to today, when my daughter looked right into my eyes and lied, I’ve felt failure and doom.
I know I’m not the Best Mom Ever. Or the best mom of twins. Or the best mom with anxiety. My greatest achievements are now like all those messy mom blogs: “Didn’t Yell for 24 Whole Hours” or “Had a Loving Smile for All of Breakfast” or “At Least Everyone is Potty Trained.” And because I was missing accolades, my kids like to tell me I’m “The Meanest Mom Ever” and that I have “The Scariest Face.”
How the mighty have fallen.
At first I was angry, then resentful, then resigned to be so far from whom I know I could/should be. But now I’m reveling in a late-bloomer’s rebellion. I’m not playing that Superlative Game anymore. I’m looking around at my life and my heart and I’m saying, “Well, God, this is the best I could do today. I’m sorry. I tried. Thanks for loving me.”
These days I fall asleep getting my teeth cleaned and avoid eye contact at the grocery store. Every once in awhile, when I’m feeling romantic, I leave a tiny post-it love note on my husband’s mirror. I wear skirts with elastic waists and don’t really go to parties.
And it feels like freedom.
How to be the Best Superlative Rebel
- Figure out what you’re trying to win. Who do you compare yourself to? Who are you jealous of? What do you hope will be highlighted in your obituary? What makes you feel a little smug about your own self? Set a timer for 5 minutes and write it all down. Perhaps you could ask, “God, could you show me where I’m putting my worth?”
- Consider what that effort costs you: money, relationships, time, integrity, ______. Where did you get a little lost? Perhaps ask, “God, have I sacrificed things you gave me as gifts, in order to get other stuff I wanted instead?” Set the timer for another 5 minutes and list all these costs.
- (This is going to get harder before it gets easier.) Take a moment to officially admit it. Confess your sins. Where have you compromised, exaggerated, lied, chosen easy love over hard love, minimized, qualified, and competed? Owning it is essential to freedom, “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.” (Hebrews 12:1). Set the timer for 5-10 more minutes and ask, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10) Write it out. It will suck.
- But then, receive grace. Receive the Lord’s forgiveness. Picture God’s grace pouring over you, filling in all those spaces where the sins were just uprooted. What does it look like for you? Playing in an open fire hydrant on the sidewalk? A champagne fountain? A baby getting a bath in the kitchen sink? Baptism? Receive it. Revel in it. You are forgiven. Like Peter you could say, “Then, Lord, not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” (John 13:9)
- If you’ve been enslaved by Superlatives, it’s going to take a while for new habits to take hold. For me, perfectionism is an addiction. I will be in recovery the rest of my life. I love the Serenity Prayer from Alcoholics Anonymous, not just when I’m counting to 10 after a confrontation with my kids, but in silence when I’m alone with God:
God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
You are loved.