Back in the good old days, also known as the time before COVID-19, I enjoyed speaking at live events. There’s something special about connecting with people up close and personal.
I often began many of my talks with the story of how I decided at 12 years old to be a lawyer. People love hearing how someone decided so young what they wanted to do and the process she used to make it happen. It’s a feel-good story of how a little girl from the projects made good.
But there’s another part to my story that I don’t often share. That part has to do with how my 12-year-old decision started me on a course of trying to be perfect and, how wearing my mask of perfectionism almost destroyed me.
You see, when I told everyone at 12 that I wanted to be an attorney, my decision was usually met with praise and excitement. But, when I told my father, his response was, “You wouldn’t be any good at that.” I had two choices at that point: I could have agreed with him and changed course, or I could prove him wrong. If you know anything about me, you know what my choice was. I set out to do everything in my power to show him just how wrong he was.
But I didn’t just set out to prove him wrong – I set out to be as perfect in the pursuit of my dream as I knew how. That seemed to work through high school, college, and law school. When a few things didn’t go as planned for me, it didn’t really matter because my little miss perfect mask was firmly in place. As long as things looked fine on the outside, I knew I was proving my father wrong.
So, I graduated from law school, passed the bar exam, and got my first job. With my mask firmly in place, I set out to live the perfect “young upwardly mobile professional life.”
You’ve probably noticed by now that I haven’t said much about God. That’s because at that time in my life, He wasn’t very important to me. I was living my best life, and in my mind, my hard work and perseverance was the key that made it happen.
I can’t tell you how wrong I was.
It wasn’t much longer after that, God made a reappearance in my life in a major way.
As I began my new job, I had to admit a couple of things to myself. First, I absolutely hated what I was doing. I couldn’t understand how that happened. Bad jobs didn’t happen to perfect people. I did everything right; as a matter of fact, I did them perfectly.
Second, I felt like such a failure – I wasn’t happy, I couldn’t pay my bills, the student loan people were calling. I didn’t know if I could take it. This wasn’t supposed to be my life.
My mask of perfection was slipping. I didn’t like it and I was going to fix it.
So, one cool dark fall evening, I decided that the only way for me to fix things was to end it all permanently and stop the pain of feeling like a failure. But, in His infinite wisdom, God reached down and pulled me out of my despair.
My Bible was on my nightstand, I picked it up for the first time in months and it fell open to Mark 11:22-24:
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “Have faith in God. I tell you the truth, you can say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. But you must really believe it will happen and have no doubt in your heart. I tell you, you can pray for anything, and if you believe that you’ve received it, it will be yours.”
As I read those verses, God reminded me that I’m not in charge of my life – He is. Putting faith in myself is what led me to live a quest for perfection. But there is no way I could ever be perfect – that’s why I have Jesus. Even though I was saved, I had effectively left Him out of my life. I had decided that I had the obligation and the power to make sure everything in my life was perfect – I was my own god.
That evening, everything changed. No, my problems didn’t immediately go away. But God became first in my life again. And I totally rededicated my life to Him. So, even though things didn’t immediately change for me, I changed.
One of the first things I did was to take off my mask. My time of trying to be perfect ended that night over 35 years ago. Even though perfectionism still tries to raise its ugly head, from time to time, I recognize it for what it is – an idol. And that idol is sin. So, I pray for forgiveness and repent.
Do you wear a mask? Maybe it’s not perfectionism. Anything that you try to cover up and hide from others, including God, can be a mask. But you don’t have to live life this way. If you are ready to take off your mask for good, I invite you to lay it at the foot of the cross and leave it there. Because of Jesus’ love for you, you’ll never have to it up again.