Lent for Recovering Perfectionists: What Do You Want Most?

It’s that time of year: runny noses, gallons of hand sanitizer, my bathroom wastebasket overflowing with tissues.

The humidifier is running in my baby’s room each night, and I occasionally do a quick run through the entire house wielding a can of Lysol spray. I know I’m not the only one. I see you bemoaning your sneezing coworker, lamenting the flu vaccine that did no good for your family, and filling up your shopping cart with a lifetime supply of cough drops. Solidarity, winter warriors.

Last winter, our whole family experienced one of those terrible viruses that arrived swiftly and worked its way through every family member, one after the other. When our oldest, Ian, was in the midst of it, he was on a constant rotation of Tylenol and Motrin.

By the end of this particular virus, he had quite enough. Evan and I did the routine all parents of toddlers have done: one of us pinned his arms while the other tried to force him to swallow the medicine.

“Come on, buddy,” I pleaded. “This medicine will make you feel better.” 
Through gritted teeth, he said, “I don’t want to feel better!”

That’s a sentiment I relate to more than I’d like to admit.

The thing about my particular strain of perfectionism is this: It isn’t accompanied by any strong sense of self-discipline or resolve. Some perfectionists have deep wells of willpower to draw upon as they attempt to manipulate life into their desired form. Not me. Once something has gone wrong or does not meet my expectations, my tendency is to declare, “Well, it’s all ruined now!” I make no effort to change course; I resign myself to the “failure.” (Recently, I’ve learned this is my Enneagram Type 9 talking, but that’s a conversation for another day.)

When my Monday starts poorly or my Saturday is disappointing, I start making a string of bad choices. I choose a cup of coffee and a treat instead of a good meal, I scroll social media instead a truly refreshing activity, I mope and pout instead of expressing my thoughts. I could attempt to turn things around (or at least make myself feel better about the situation), but instead, I atrophy. I’d rather let the fever run its course than choke down the medicine.

Why do I do this? Maybe it’s laziness or immaturity or entitlement. Maybe it’s all three. I think, “I am having a bad day. Life is hard. I deserve a treat. I deserve a break.” But each poor choice means I haven’t nourished my mind, soul, or body. I continue being grumpy and sluggish. At the end of the day, I am disappointed with how things went.

This mindset is particularly tempting at this time of year, a couple weeks into the Lenten season. We may be disappointed with our inability to remember the prayers we wanted to incorporate into our days, our the lack of willpower we have to stick to the fast we had planned, or our lack of attention to issues of injustice and poverty this seasons asks us to consider.

Of course, sometimes a cookie is just fine. (I have a truly impressive sweet tooth.) I do not begrudge anyone a grumpy day now and again. But for the most part, this pattern doesn’t help me walk in freedom. Instead, I am a slave to my most unhelpful thoughts. Maybe in the midst of these bad moments or bad days, I could stop to ask myself, “What is going to bring me more lasting joy? The Netflix binge and pint of ice cream, or wrapping up the novel I’ve been puttering through? Loud sighs and cold shoulders or a quick moment to jot down a prayer?"

Lent is a good time to consider these questions. Traditionally, the Lenten season is one of fasting. Some people fast from food, but overall, it is a time of intentionally choosing to remove one thing from our lives to make more room for Jesus. (Last year around this time, back in Issue 006, I shared about fasting from Facebook.) When you’re tempted to grab a cookie from the pantry, you can instead stop and say a prayer. When you would normally turn on a podcast, you can turn on worship music instead. When you would normally complain, you instead jot down one thing you’re grateful for.

Still, I don’t want Lent to be merely an exercise in self-discipline and restraint. I want Lent to be an encounter with Jesus.

Several times in Scripture, Jesus asks someone, “What do you want me to do for you?” He could have looked at them, diagnosed them, made them better. But Jesus looks at us with holy curiosity, and we get to participate in our own transformation.

I don’t know, though, if Jesus was asking, “What do you want?” as much as he was asking, “What do you want most?” The man portrayed in Luke 18 is a beggar; presumably, he has no family or friends, no money or home, no dignity or opportunity. The list of things he could want is large, but he chose just one. “Lord, I want to see.”

If we are choosing to fast during this Lenten season, no doubt, this is the question we'll face: What do we want most? We are practicing acts of both patience and intention: bypassing those lesser, initial desires—Facebook or chocolate or online shopping or complaining—and replacing them with what truly satisfies: Jesus.

If left to her own devices, the perfectionist in me would declare every day a failure. The smallest sign of disappointment, distraction, or disarray is all it takes. This realization, though, is helping me learn to put away my scorecard and stop assuming I’m too far behind for a comeback. Perfectionism says my day can’t be recovered; freedom says otherwise.

Because at the end of a long day, I just want to feel better.

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A version of this post originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of The Drafting Desk. If you want to receive reflections like this in your inbox on the 20th of each month, subscribe here!