One of the most damaging words I ever heard growing up was not a curse word, a name, or anything derogatory, it was something intended to encourage and spur me on towards hard work and self-discipline. But an unfortunate consequence of using this word in this context created a prison of which I still am trying to break free.
It was third grade and our teacher initiated a reward system to encourage good behavior– it was a small gold trophy with a plate stating “Student of the Week” given to one who exhibited the best behavior of all their peers. This was before participation awards and the over-praising of children that we see in society today. A trophy back in 1982 meant you did something awesome, something truly noteworthy. And I wanted one. BAD.
Each Friday afternoon at 2:45, we students sat with rapt attention, hearts pounding, hoping to hear our name called.
Week after week, my name wasn’t called. But I could usually recall an instance where I spoke out of turn, failed to follow directions, or had an issue with a fellow classmate. And since I could identify those infractions, I only worked harder the next week to ensure I didn’t repeat those same mistakes.
Then MY week came. I’d had an awesome week. I hadn’t been called down for anything! Not for talking, arguing, or being unprepared- I had scored well on tests, been helpful to my teacher, and been a good citizen of my class. I just KNEW if it was going to happen to me, this was the week I would finally hear my name called!
I could hardly wait! As he stood up, our teacher began describing the student he chose to receive that week’s award, everything lined up with my behavior and my positive attitude throughout the week- it was going to be me!
“And this week’s “Student of the Week” trophy goes to….Mandy!”
“Wait, WHO???” I thought.
It wasn’t me. It STILL wasn’t me!
I was shocked…so visibly shocked that our teacher called me personally to his desk afterwards to explain, “I know you wanted the award for this week. You have been working hard to get this and I want you to know I have noticed. And you were close. It was SO close this week. It was between you and ‘Mandy’ and ultimately came down to 1 thing.”
He began to point out that one thing I did wrong that week that I could not even recall…but what he said next is etched in my memory. I remember where I stood, I remember his face and his expression, I remember that moment like it was yesterday.
“But you just weren’t perfect. And that’s what it took to get this week’s award.”
I hung my head and went back to my seat weaping bitterly for some mistake I never realized I had even made.
Proverbs (18:21) warns that our words carry immense power– power of life and death to ourselves and others.
His words killed me that day. He didn’t mean to. I feel certain that he was attempting to validate my efforts and encourage me to continue working hard.
But instead they wounded my heart and broke my spirit.
It is that underlying belief or standard set and applied to any number of areas of our lives which allows no room for mistakes, error, defect, or shortcomings.
What began as effort directed towards improvement and excellence eventually morphed into a toxic thought process that now prevents me from appreciating or enjoying nearly everything I do. (Thankfully, this no longer applies to housekeeping as my close friends can attest- I am far from keeping a perfect house- freedom from that bondage has been glorious indeed!)
But it still intrudes upon my writing, leadership, and various other areas of ministry. If I do not feel a strong sense of completion, a flawless execution, or unsurpassable excellence, there is little joy or satisfaction- only a determination to try harder, prepare better, or get it “right” the next time!
It is an endless cycle of hurt and frustration…One which I hope to never impart on my own children. I pray that I will help them celebrate and appreciate whatever the outcome of their hard work and sincere effort- to not expect perfection as it is an impossible ideal, an illusion, and a trap.
It took me a long time to figure out how this became such an intrinsic part of my thinking. In fact, I had to pray and ask God where this even came from! My parents were always encouraging and supportive, not very demanding of me. In fact, all they ever required of me was my best effort.
Even though I had quit trying, I eventually did win “Student of the Week” later that year. It was after nearly everyone in class had received the award and to keep things equitable, I believed he was just going down the list.
I had kept every ribbon, certificate, and trophy I earned as a child. But my “Student of the Week” trophy went into the trash. It no longer mattered. My very best effort had not been enough, so how could minimal effort have been?
I struggle to end this post, even now, as I want to give it the “perfect” ending…but I don’t have it.
One day, I hope to share the keys to unlocking these chains I and maybe you too, have placed on ourselves. But for now, let’s not imprison others. Let’s do our children a favor and simply eliminate this word from our vocabulary.
What about you? Do you struggle with perfectionism or have a perfectionist child? Please share your thoughts or comments about it- I’d love to hear from you!
If you like this post and are encouraged by honest discussion and the pursuit of wisdom in our lives, please join our growing community here at Crowning Wisdom!
You can also find us at Facebook.com/CrowningWisdom, (give us a LIKE please) and hear various topics discussed on my podcast, The Way to Wisdom available on iTunes.
And of course, if you want the book, Crowning Wisdom, filled with GREAT stories of folks like you and me who are pursuing wisdom and even experiencing the blessings and benefits of this pursuit, as well as HUNDREDS of helpful and easily organized Proverbs, you can purchase it here!