When I introduce myself at Celebrate Recovery, I usually say something like, “Hello, my name is Jen. I’m a grateful believer in Jesus Christ who struggles with overcommitment and anxiety.” Because that’s how we introduce ourselves at CR: our name, a statement that indicates our primary identity is found in our relationship with Jesus Christ and an indication of the particular issue or issues that we are struggling with or are finding victory over.
I started working with Celebrate Recovery because I wanted to help other people and, as part of the training all potential leaders have to work through a 12 Step Study. That step study took my group over a year to complete and radically altered my inner world. The issue I had chosen to focus on (my “hurt, habit or hang up” to use CR language) was overeating. Pretty early into the process God revealed to me that overeating, like anxiety was a symptom of a deeper problem, overcommitment, which was itself a symptom of a more complicated problem of where I found my worth and how I determined my value.
Last night at Celebrate Recovery, Adam shared his testimony* that centered on the issue of perfectionism. In his story, he shared how perfectionism had once served him well (as our addictions and unhealthy habits often do) by helping him to achieve in school and in relationships. Excelling and the desire to excel are not inherently bad things; in fact, I think most of the time they are good things. But like any good thing, it can be misused and can be come a tool of destruction in our lives and relationships. As it did in Adam’s life and as it has in mine.
In the book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown defines perfectionism as “the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame.” She also says, “Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people-pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect. Healthy striving is self-focused—How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused—What will they think?””
So, from a young age we are trained to look to others to judge us and determine our worthiness.** “What do they think?” becomes the standard by which our value is determined and perfectionism becomes our shield against pain as we strive to measure up to the judges in our lives. As a result, we thrive in areas where we know there are clear standards for judgment and we try to be perfect, or at least better than everyone else in the areas where we know we can succeed. We don’t need to be perfect in every area, as Adam pointed out, we just need to be perfect in some area. And we will sacrifice things that should not be sacrificed (important relationships, physical health, spiritual health) to pursue this perfection.
Brown points out that the opposite of living like this (shielding our brokenness with perfectionism or other destructive habits) is wholehearted living that is based on a sense of personal worth. In what I’ve read of her work (which is only two books incompletely) she doesn’t attempt to explain where this sense of worth comes from, just that it exists in people who live wholeheartedly.
I believe that our individual worth is directly derived from God. In Genesis 1 we see our value connected to God’s special creation of humanity in his image. Every single person, no matter how broken or sinful, bears God’s image and so has inherent worth, value and dignity.
In his testimony last night, Adam described perfectionism as “needing people to judge me to feel okay,” and shared that part of his journey toward wholeness was realizing that God was the only judge he needed to worry about. “God is a judge who judges on this curve called ‘grace.’” It is not the place of other people to judge us and we are incompetent to judge ourselves.
When God judges us, he starts by determining that we are valuable. And then he judges our works, not to earn merit or assess our value, but to help us see reality and to give us the chance to realign our heart and actions with his heart.
When I judge my value the same way God does, it enables me to face the world from a starting place of worthiness and gives me the freedom to pursue excellence without basing my value on it. It allows me to be real and vulnerable without needing a shield to protect me from the judgment of others.
This is not to say that my interactions with others won’t shape how I feel about myself. We were designed for connection with others and our interaction with others affects and shapes us. But this interaction needs to be tempered with truth. And the truth is that my value is predetermined by God. The truth is that it is okay to pursue excellence but that my worth isn’t determined by my achievement. The truth is that God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. And based on this truth I can take one more step toward living a wholehearted life.
* Anonymity and confidentiality are part of the DNA of Celebrate Recovery (what’s said in the meeting stays in the meeting) unless permission is granted to share. I received permission from Adam to share his quotes and parts of his story and my responses to them.
**For the record, I don’t blame the people who gave us approval or helped to foster these habits and belief systems in us. I have learned that, often, our interactions with people and the situations we find ourselves in are only part of what shapes our experiences and our reality. Our experiences are shaped by our inner world and our perceptions of what we experience. Two people, placed in nearly identical situations may experience those situations radically differently because the lenses through which they filter things. It’s why I sometimes tell people that even though my sister and I lived together growing up, we grew up in different homes with different families. The way we processed the situations we were in as children have caused us to have had such radically different experiences in the same house that, to hear us describe our homes, you would likely think we think we grew up in different families in different homes.