“Confessions of a Perfectionist,” Ensign, June 2005, 64–67
I started life as a perfectionist. My mother tells stories of my color-coded closet and sock drawer. If I had order, I felt I had control. Even as a child I was passionate about life and the successes I would make for myself.
I married at a young age in the temple, and we had four children in six years. With the birth of each new baby, I obsessed about losing weight and exercised myself down to my pre-pregnancy size and sometimes even smaller.
I worked from sunup until sundown trying to keep my house a place of order. When people visited, I felt sure they thought I was lazy because my home was not perfect. Though my mother often told me, “You wouldn’t worry so much about what people thought of you if you understood how infrequently they do think about you,” I believed that people were judging me as harshly as I judged myself. I would make excuses. It was a source of embarrassment and heartache, so I tried harder to keep things clean and orderly.
Finances were tight. I sewed most of my children’s clothing, baked homemade bread twice a week, and canned fruit and vegetables from our garden. On top of it all, I was in the Relief Society presidency, sang in the choir, and was visiting teacher to five sisters. I was just plain overburdened with what I required of myself! I found myself slipping into depression.
A series of employment mishaps for my husband left me with the need to go back to work. My skills as a graphic designer had become obsolete with the technical explosion of the personal computer. With four children, I headed back to school. It was exhausting! I struggled with my studies to maintain a 4.0 grade point average in addition to everything else.
Before long I found a job. All my children were enrolled in school, and I began to feel that I was getting a grip on things. Then I discovered that my husband and I were expecting our fifth child. I was both excited and scared—happy to have a new baby but nervous because the birth would mean that our family income would drop dramatically if I stopped working. After our baby was born, I struggled to work part-time but just couldn’t keep up.
My husband and friends pleaded with me to not be so hard on myself. Instead, I stole time to attend classes on how to improve my life. I read every self-help book that I could get my hands on. All of this training got me excited to be more productive, but I found myself once again running faster than I had strength. I would break down, and with each new failure to “perform,” depression would take a tenacious grip.
One day I was joking with a friend about how I didn’t want much in life—just perfection! My friend asked me what I thought perfection was. I said that I would be happy if my home were completely organized (not one thing out of place) and clean all the time. I wanted my family to pick up after themselves and be on time to all their obligations. I wanted the children to do their homework and come to family scripture study without complaining. I wanted to adhere to a strict schedule and not deviate from it. Early to bed, early to rise. Discipline! I didn’t need expensive, new things—I just wanted the possessions I had stewardship over to be in perfect condition.
I was stunned by what my friend said next: “Really? You just described my hell.” Then it hit me. It finally hit me! I was trying to force my family to meet my expectations, to make them do exactly what I wanted. I couldn’t even match my own expectations; how could I expect my family to? I knew that using force was not right. What I wanted ultimately was to surround myself with beauty and order. So what I was seeking was righteous. But using force was Satan’s plan. Did I really want my family to be robots, with me as the controller? I knew the answer was no.
I prayed for forgiveness. I asked Heavenly Father to help me see things as they really were. I fully expected all my sins and character flaws to be displayed as in some kind of showcase for me to review and begin to make the needed changes. What I experienced instead was the most beautiful outpouring of love and acceptance I have ever felt.
Soon, through my prayers, scripture study, conversations with my husband and friends, and observations, I found truths that helped me shift my attitude. I embraced the words in Mosiah 4:27: “It is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength.” I realized that I was trying to run faster than I had strength. My drive for perfection and task orientation was overshadowing everything. I was losing sight of compassion. I felt physically sick at the realization that I was not enjoying my children and husband as much as I could.
Slowly I came to understand that we are required only to do our best. I saw that I had imagined an ideal person that had all those qualities I so admired. There was just one problem—that person did not exist! I came to understand that Christ is the only perfect being. We come unto Him and try to be like Him. He is our example.
The burden of our redemption is not completely on our shoulders. Christ’s Atonement is the core of the gospel. Sometimes we mistakenly believe that the Atonement works only for other people, that somehow we must earn exaltation by ourselves. We don’t. We can’t! President John Taylor (1808–87) said, “Let us seek to magnify our callings and honor our God, and the Lord will take care of the balance.”1 That is one reason we call Him our Savior.
It is human to feel inadequate at times. Even our own prophet has struggled with feelings of inadequacy. President Hinckley told a personal story in the October 2003 general Relief Society meeting about attending a stake conference in the eastern United States many years earlier. He felt his service had been a failure. He felt he had not touched anyone for good. He said that on his trip home he was miserable with a sense of inadequacy.
It was amazing to me that our own prophet has felt feelings of inadequacy. President Hinckley finished his story by saying that at a later conference a man came up to him and said that he had been in attendance at the first conference. “You said something that started me to think,” he continued. “It touched me and stayed with me and stirred me. I decided to alter my course. It turned my life around. Thank you.”2
I believe happiness comes from striving for a better understanding of ourselves. Striving for perfection is the journey, not the destination in this earthly existence. It does not need to be an obsession. We must learn to exercise faith in the Savior and seek His help in making our weaknesses become strengths (see Ether 12:27). The answers truly are all in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We only need to listen and come unto Him.
Pray for guidance. Many of our choices as Latter-day Saints are between good things. Prayer can help us discern our best possible options.
Don’t compare yourself to others. Chances are you compare your weaknesses to other people’s strengths.
Be gentle with yourself. Christ is a gentle teacher. He is gentle with us, and we also need to be gentle with ourselves. Acknowledge you are doing the best you can. Be accepting of your efforts and those of others.
Forgive yourself. If you fall backward—brush yourself off and start where you left off. All is not lost.
Don’t worry what others are thinking of you. It is really only important that you know how the Lord feels about you.
Acknowledge the fruits of your labors. Write them down in a journal. Even during the Creation of the earth, the Lord acknowledged the beauty and effectiveness of his tasks each day: “God saw that it was good” (Gen. 1:12).
Be thankful. We know that Heavenly Father wants us to be happy. “Men are, that they might have joy” (2 Ne. 2:25). Rejoicing in Christ and in our many blessings is the best way to show gratitude. A daily closing prayer is a great opportunity to thank the Lord for all your abundance.
“We don’t have to be fast; we simply have to be steady and move in the right direction. We have to do the best we can, one step after another. …
“The only thing you need to worry about is striving to be the best you can be. And how do you do that? You keep your eye on the goals that matter most in life, and you move towards them step by step. …
“That is easy enough. We don’t have to be perfect today. We don’t have to be better than someone else. All we have to do is to be the very best we can.”
Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, “One Step after Another,” Ensign, Nov. 2001, 26.
Invite family members to begin marching in place. Add another task for them to do while marching, like clapping their hands. Add more simultaneous tasks until they become overburdened. Ask how they felt as the tasks multiplied. Make a list of the author’s tasks (see sections one and two). How was the activity like her life? Discuss the portions of the section “Christ’s Example” that will be most helpful to your family.
Have the family review the “Seven Thoughts.” Discuss each situation and how following it can help bring peace. Consider choosing one to work on as a family.