My battle with perfectionism

My battle with Perfectionism / Am I Forgiven?

As a child who had only been on this planet for a little more than a decade, I came across a passage from President Spencer W. Kimball. Something he said penetrated my soul and in an instant I saw life with absolute sobriety. I could no longer go about my frivolous play, ignoring the promptings that whispered, “You can behave better than this.”  

Not that I was all that bad before, but I had adopted the rationalization that I’d be ‘righteous,’ when I was old. I’d get serious about spiritual things when I would be a Relief Society regular, for example. That’s what you do: be a kid, do goofy kid things, and grow up when you’re a grown-up.  

But with just a few words from the prophet, I felt the full weight of the realization of how imperfect and unqualified I was to return to my Father in Heaven, and how much I must already be cut off from His Spirit.  

What if I were to die that day? I was unprepared and I knew it like nothing I had ever known before. I felt cold, gray inside, and empty. I thought that surely my Heavenly Father would like to have His Spirit with me, but because I had done so many things wrong without genuine repentance, I believed that He had to leave me to myself.  

I felt exposed, conscious of all my guilt, and so much like Alma the Younger who said, “I was racked with eternal torment, for my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree and racked with all my sins. Yea I did remember all my sins and iniquities, for which I was tormented with the pains of hell; yea, I saw that I had rebelled against my God, and that I had not kept his holy commandments.” (Alma 36:12, 13) 

Even as an eleven year old, I felt it all.

There are no words to describe the numbness. Just as a witness from the Spirit of God can never be forgotten, I could never forget the feeling of utter spiritual abandonment. I felt dark and heavy, and could scarcely make it through each moment. But I had to pull myself through the school day and go about my regular activities with lead weights on my spirit.  

My spirit felt shriveled up with agony. Each time the awareness of my guilt returned to my mind, my soul groaned inside as loudly as a spirit can groan. I didn’t care what I had to do; I would do whatever it took to make things right and reconcile with God. I didn’t care what anyone thought of me. All that mattered now was, “what does the Lord think?”

I inspected my life inside and out, and began to contact people I knew I had offended. I remembered insulting a playmate for not being a member of my religion when I was about six, so I wrote her a humble letter of apology. I abhorred anything that dealt inappropriately with procreation and vowed to remain clean and pure, no matter what my friends did. (That’s an easy promise to make when you’re eleven and think boys are idiots; still, I learned that commitments made long before they’re hard to make prove to be effective when situations later become more challenging.)

I did everything I could think of to restore my inner peace. Now, more than anything in the world I wanted to know that my Heavenly Father forgave me for all my mistakes, no matter the size. Without His forgiveness, I knew I could never live with Him again, and the thought of that was more than I could bear. He was my Father!

But even after all I did, the feeling of peace didn’t return.

My mother had been working with a woman who had been excommunicated, and with my limited understanding of what would warrant such a consequence, I decided I must privately make an appointment with my branch president, and be prepared to accept excommunication if that’s what was needed. He kindly listened and talked with me, and I was relieved that he had no punishment to issue. Still, I felt empty.

In time the darkness left and I occasionally enjoyed a spiritual experience that let me know my Heavenly Father was there and still cared about me. However, there remained in the back of my mind the question, “What if you haven’t done all you needed to do? What if you haven’t been forgiven yet?”

With the memory of my wretched torment still vivid, I lived each moment so as not to ever have to feel it again. Emptiness is one thing, but agony and torment was an entirely different experience, one which I would avoid at all costs. So, for the next seventeen years I tried to be absolutely perfect. If I messed up, I immediately did all I could to make it right. It became my obsession, to live a perfect life. I couldn’t walk my high school campus and pass litter without picking it up, because passing it by would not have been the perfect thing to do.  

I found myself compulsively apologizing to people for unkind thoughts I had had toward them, even if they hadn’t been aware. One day when I was babysitting, the young boy I watched began to spray me with a garden hose so I kinked it and heard one of the threads snap. The damage was invisible and had no negative effect on it, but still I couldn’t rest until I called the parents to apologize for snapping a fiber in their garden hose. After all, what if I were to be called Home before making things right? The thought terrified me, to live with that kind of torment for all eternity. I couldn’t even handle the few days with the horror I had experienced. 

The discomfort I felt as I made my apologies was nothing compared to the agony of a damned soul. This I knew, for I had felt it. The uneasiness I’d feel here in mortality cleaning up all my messes would be worth it in the end. In hindsight, I now understand that the adversary loves to distort the truth, and that’s what he did with me and the truth about repentance and forgiveness. However, it would be some time before I understood this.

Repentance for every little thing was embarrassing, but something I just had to do. Eventually, I determined it would be much easier to avoid doing anything that would require the steps of repentance. Repentance wasn’t fun. It took a long time. It hurt. Admitting my stupidity with complete honesty to people I knew (as well as people I hardly knew) was wrenching.  

So, the next phase of my life was all about making sure I never did anything wrong in the first place. With that strategy, I’d never have to fix messes or make apologies or make appointments with priesthood leadership.

The adversary took advantage of my propensity for perfectionism and planted a few more lies, such as, “If you don’t do everything you can to make sure the people around you are doing the right things, it’s gonna be on YOUR head.” So, I got preachy. I began worrying about everyone else’s sins with the same kind of heaviness that I had suffered with for my own. I even hid someone’s box of cigarettes at the bowling alley once, to help them do the right thing.  

Even with my errant understanding, I was doing the best I could and over the years I grew, learned, softened some, and developed a living relationship with my Father, feeling a nearly constant companionship with his Spirit. My life was full of joy and I actually thought, “I’ve got life all figured out! I’ve discovered how to be happy, what more could there be for me to learn? It is so simple! Obedience. Leads. To. Happiness!”

Then I married and began to have children.

Suddenly, no matter how hard I tried, I could not be “perfect” any longer. (At least, perfect according to what I thought perfection meant back then.)  

My time was no longer my own. If I wanted to study my scriptures and ponder the doctrines of the gospel and commune with the Spirit, I found myself interrupted so often that I resented my new responsibilities. How could I be spiritual and nurture my relationship with God when I’m needed around the clock to nurture someone else? My perfect life was thrown into a blender, poured out, and smeared around like a pudding painting by a pre-schooler on the kitchen table. Life was no longer perfect.

Against all I believed about motherhood being the most important job I’ll ever have, I had to go to work and put my baby in daycare while my husband was also working and gaining an education. We held multiple jobs so that we could ‘be honest in all our dealings with our fellow man’ and pay the bills we promised to pay. We were robbing Peter to pay Paul, so to speak, not just in financial matters, but in terms of obedience to spiritual laws as well. In other words, I found myself breaking one commandment just so I could live another.

Perfection was out the window, and it was devastating.   

In all areas of my life, I felt that I could do none of it well anymore. I had studied just about every important subject in school, but somehow slipped through the system without ever enrolling in Home Economics. If I had been more perfect, perhaps I would have taken it via home study to prepare myself for the life I now lived. Albeit related to cooking, the periodic table wasn’t going to do me much good in the kitchen. 

To aggravate matters even more, pregnancy triggered depression, and I found myself behaving in condemnable ways. I’d throw fits of rage and took up swearing, much to my husband’s dismay. He was frustrated but stuck with me. When we finally realized it was pregnancy hormones throwing me out of control, we were able to deal with it, knowing it would go away in time. But the guilt I heaped upon myself for my lack of control was bad.  

Nevertheless, I kept trying. Suicide wasn’t an option, because I knew I wouldn’t be any happier on the other side, knowing I had made a big mistake without the ability to make it right. I thought I could get the joy back if I were just good enough at making myself do good things, so I set goals related to reading my scriptures, serving in my callings, attending the temple, waiting for the joy that had once accompanied my so-called previous “perfect” obedience. But when you live with depression you are expected do all the right things without any emotional reward. Ever.

Finally, when I was about twenty-eight, I completely gave up. I stopped trying to follow my impossible checklists. Feeling battered and lifeless, I went to my Father in Heaven one last time, to simply present myself as a failure.  

“I can’t do this anymore. I can’t BE all I’m supposed to be. It’s just impossible.” I didn’t feel darkness or torment, I simply felt sorrow. I was so sad that I couldn’t be perfect. To this point I believed I could get there if I just tried hard enough, but not anymore. I knew it was impossible, so I might as well stop breaking myself trying.

I told Him that if He wanted me out of bed in the morning, He’d have to be responsible for it. All I could promise is that I would pray morning and night for two weeks. Beyond that, I couldn’t promise anything more, because I was sure I’d fail again.

Disappointed but resigned, I approached my Father with, “I am so sorry that this is all that I am.” It wasn’t a ‘repentant’ sorry, it was a ‘giving up’ sorry. Like, “So much for eternity. I guess I won’t be joining you.” 

But then, I suddenly felt the biggest SMILE pouring down from Heaven, something I had never felt before. I was shocked. What?? You mean you’re not disappointed in me?

No, it was as clear as day: I felt His MIRTH, literally. He was delighted, and I FELT it. Delighted, with ME?? How is it possible?? I no longer could picture Him looking upon me with disgust, disappointment or condemnation (which I believe now was never an image inspired by God in the first place), but instead with compassion and understanding.   

In my mind I felt Him say, “FINALLY! You recognize your dependence on me, NOW I can work with you!” I had approached Him defeated, and His response was jubilant celebration!

So that’s what it feels like to be broken hearted and come to Him with a contrite spirit. So that’s what it feels like to have the GIFT of his Love and Forgiveness so readily poured out. Why hadn’t I felt it when I tried repenting before? I think one difference is that I was horrified and consumed by shame. That’s not being broken hearted and contrite. I think we sit in shame as a form of self-punishment, but there’s nothing but a dead end at the bottom of that downward spiral. Instead, I needed to look up, and give myself up. When you’re finally in that place, truly read to surrender, there’s no energy left even to self-loathe. 

Since then I have gained much strength. But now I know where that strength comes from. I can do nothing without the Lord. If I get out of bed in the morning, I know that it’s His power that made it possible. It’s because of Him that there’s hope that the day is worth facing. If I accomplish anything noteworthy, I’m convinced that it’s because He does it through me.  

I have learned that I fail miserably when I try to make MYSELF better. But I grow in leaps and bounds when I go humbly before the Lord and confess my unworthiness. Not so that I may be punished, but so that I may invite His strength into my life. I need His strength if I am to be as He wants me to be. As I go to Him in that way, His strength always comes.  

We were never expected to perfect ourselves. This is why our Father in Heaven sent His son, so that in spite of us, if we simply offer up a broken heart and contrite spirit, we may be one day perfected through our Savior, Jesus Christ.

When I offer a broken heart, He helps me know what to do to make things right, the right way, and then He gives me the strength to see it through. I’m not expected to run faster than I have strength.

In fact, I have no strength but what He gives me, anyway.

I’ll always remember the day I approached Him broken and defeated – and the irony, that when I was in that condition, he seemed to smile on me the most.

With a Father like that, I think I can make it, eventually.


(2 Corinthians 12:9) And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.  Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

Originally written in 2009

Leslie Householder
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