The Weight of the World
I still remember the smell of stale chalk on my hands. I recall the feel of dried sweat on my forehead and the ache in my stomach as I began my gymnastics routine. My heart raced as the eyes of my friends and family rested upon me. Before saluting the judges, I always prayed I would execute my routine perfectly.
My greatest fear growing up as a competitive gymnast was inadequacy. Anything short of perfection was devastating. I equated my success to the number of medals and trophies that rested on top of my bedroom dresser. I believed failure to be reflective of some sort of deeply seated inner flaw and frank inability to achieve success. I remember replaying minor mistakes made during my routines repeatedly in my mind, often finding it nearly impossible to move forward from errors, large or small.
My radical inability to separate my own success and achievement from my self-worth took me years to overcome. It was not until well into my college years when I truly came to appreciate my innate worth as a daughter of God.
Realizing We Cannot Save Ourselves
During college, I began to practice mindful prayer exercises and to look within to evaluate my perception of self, reminding myself that as Psalm 139 declares: I am a precious child of God and thoughtfully and wonderfully made. This verse directly challenges my inclination toward self-criticism and radically juxtaposes my own inclination toward continually trying to improve myself.
Just as I earned my score as a gymnast or grade as a student, in my mind, I was to earn my place at Christ’s table. I was to earn God’s love. Yet, the Bible does declare that Christ’s grace is sufficient (2 Corinthians 12:9) and that Christ came to save us; we cannot save ourselves through our own action or pursuit of perfection (Luke 19:10). Our pursuit of perfection will always be fruitless and in vain without Christ: we will always fail ourselves and others. Is that not declared at birth through the stamp of original sin? Yet, miraculously, through the shadow of the cross, we are able to rise out of the ashes with Christ. Even without a perfect 10.0, we are all still worthy of Christ’s love.
At the end of my undergraduate studies, I started praying and reflecting upon my unhealthy idols, including achievement and my fixation on perfection, and worked to deconstruct and rebuild my own psyche to allow for Christ’s grace, healing, and love to deeply permeate my life. In this effort, I have learned it is challenging to rebuild a part of ourselves that is deeply embedded into our mental framework.
Re-Evaluating Mental Frameworks
As number five of six children in a beautifully chaotic home, I always found a deep sense of calm within the peace and quiet of prayer. I resonated with rules of religion and inner beauty and grace interwoven within the sacraments. However, without knowledge or experience of the immense mystery and theological depth of the sacraments, my inclination toward perfectionism led me to dilute the sacraments. I viewed sacraments as pathways that would help me find rightness in my own mind as I shuffled through a mental obstacle course toward a distant God.
Since I equated my faith life with my own ability to perform actions to find God’s favor, I found I moved away from the message of the cross. I focused on actions I could take toward perfection in my own conscience instead of the richness of meaning and significance of devotion in taking part in sacrificial worship and the communion of saints in the Catholic Church.
Reorienting Thoughts and Attention
It is challenging to be a perfectionist Catholic. I constantly strive to better evaluate my own intentions behind my worship. Since there is a tendency for perfectionists to become rigid and inflexible to the highest degree, I have learned to soften my own stubbornness and rigidity through contemplative and reflective prayer. Daily mass, reflection and prayer, reading the lives of the saints, as well as generous tithing and service have all helped me think outside of myself and bring me closer to Christ.
Whenever I find myself lapsing into my knit-picky and self-critical habits, I simply look to the cross, zoom out to a birds-eye view of the situation, and re-center myself on my identity as a daughter of God. Oftentimes, I find lifting up intentions and prayers for others – my family, friends, community, and the social justice causes in which I care most – enables me to shift my gaze outside of myself and ultimately curb my fixation on internal perfection and external achievement.
Reimagining Freedom and Light
Recently, I listened to a song by Jon Bellion titled “Weight of the World” and it struck a chord. I found myself identifying with the refrain: “I don’t hold the weight of the world anymore.” It’s such a simple line and message, but a gift to acknowledge given my personal journey as a perfectionist who struggled to reconcile her very human imperfections. No one should feel the weight of their salvation, the weight of the struggles of this world, or the weight of their imperfection upon their shoulders. Through our journey of surrender, we can join the refrain and declare the freedom and light of our mysterious faith.
I must often remind myself I will always fall short; I cannot save myself. If I could save my own life, then why would I then need a Savior? If I am enough and if I am sufficient on my own, then why is worship and the practice and expression of my faith necessary? These are questions I challenge perfectionists and achievers alike to ask every day as we work to dismantle our critical nature and shift our consciousness toward Christ.
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Amelia lives in Washington, DC, and works in international development. She is a MA candidate in Security Studies at Georgetown University and holds a BA in International Studies and Political Science from Pepperdine University. Amelia is especially passionate about holistic living and cultivating intentional community. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking, water coloring, and spending time with friends and family.