Perfectionism is a happiness trap. It blocks happiness because it prevents us from accepting things as they are.
I can’t be happy because I’m not good enough yet. Once I’m better at everything I’ll let myself be happy. Until then I don’t deserve to be.
This is such a dangerous lie. We can’t be grateful for our lives if we don’t believe we should be happy. If we don’t accept ourselves, we can’t accept our reality either. We will be like drops of water trying to strain against the river’s flow–always frustrated.
A huge part of gratitude is acceptance: I accept my life, all that is good and bad, all that is challenging and beautiful, and I am grateful for it. I receive it and give thanks. I am comfortable in my own skin.
My friend Monique reminded me of all this. I was fussing a bit about my lack of Thanksgiving plans, as my husband and daughter are on a special father-daughter trip out of town. I told her I’d probably just come home from church and put on my pjs, make a dinner the kids actually like (butter chicken, rice and naan bread), have homemade pumpkin pie and watch a bedtime movie together. I worried it maybe wasn’t good enough. Not the big family dinner of the movies…and then she reminded me of what Thanksgiving is all about: gratitude.
Maybe you should just be grateful you don’t have to cook a huge meal the kids don’t really like. Maybe you can be grateful for getting to just have a relaxing holiday instead of doing tons of work.
And it’s true…it was fine. We had a busy day on Saturday with ballet, then having friends for pizza and a movie. Then Sunday was packed with Mass, socializing over lunch, First Communion and Confirmation classes until mid afternoon. By then I was ready for down-time and so were the kids. So the worry was for nothing. I’m grateful for how the day went.
So my Thanksgiving take-home is this: let go a little of your ideas about how things should be in the perfect world. Embrace your imperfect life. Accept your imperfect self. Be grateful for all the people who love you anyway. Love them back. Focus on the good. Don’t wait to be happy. Happiness is accepting your now.
Some days are crazy
but flowers bloom, stars shine
and the baby smiles.
and you’re working round the clock
like a donkey round the threshing mill–
sacrifice in each step.
Working like your dad,
but long hours away instead of long weeks at camp.
we celebrate our eldest daughter’s 12th birthday–
a dozen years of parenthood–
building a life together bit by bit.
I think of the early days of motherhood,
pregnancy and giving birth for the first time,
and those inexpressibly precious baby snuggles.
Remembering I rejoice
and celebrate having made it thus far.
The day, says my classy and clever friend Laura,
calls for champagne.
And although it takes two,
often moms get all the credit
for building their children’s bodies,
knitting them together in their wombs.
But I think of you, honey
working away in the office each day
so I can order in groceries–
paying for each apple, cake and curry I prepare.
And I realize our children’s cells
are built upon your sacrifice.
They are nourished by your love,
strengthened by your resolve,
encouraged by your perseverance
to believe that anything is possible.
So thank you…for working so hard
so I can be with our little ones
and celebrate with them
all the mess and glory
of being alive.
Some long days the baby cries
and the toddler screams
and the 5 year old seems to have
ants in his pants
and a megaphone around his neck.
Some long days
the toddler won’t nap
and the phone rings five times
during the quiet-time movie
and it seems nothing can wait
for you to just chill out and relax
for just an hour…even half an hour!
Some long days
the boys fill your kettle with pencil crayons
and draw on the bathroom door
and the baby wakes up
as soon as you begin the math lesson
and everyone moans and groans
and forgets how to round to the nearest ten.
Some long days you hit dinner time
with a sense of desperation…
“How long till bed?!”
and sing along to “The Muppets” soundtrack
in an attempt to feel that you’ve got
“Everything that I need, right in front of me.”
Some long days
the smartest thing you do
is have a glass of wine with dinner
and veto everything but laughter
as you listen to stories from the Vinyl Cafe
with the kids
who delight in the one
when Dave gets trapped in a sewer
after dropping down his keys
and gets mistaken for a monster by a little boy.
Some long days
the greatest relief is the feeling of your toddler
drooling on your shoulder
as you rock him to sleep early, to prevent any more fits.
Success! The little beast is quiet…
and you can actually read the others
“The Never-Ending Story” about Atreyu and Bastian,
the luck dragon Falcor and the childlike Empress,
until their eyes close and their breath gets deep and even.
Despite all the chaos,
all they’ll probably remember about today is
listening to stories with you
and falling asleep on the warmth of your lap.
Some long days
when the hours drag on,
remember you’re not alone
and try to end them with a smile…
Just keep picturing diving into bed
and sinking into the sweet relief of sleep!
Some long days, mamas,
you gotta keep your eye on the prize!
I get a lot of comments walking about with 7 kids. They’re usually not very original. “Oh, you’ve got your hands full!” “You must be busy!” “How do you do it, aren’t you tired?” “Do you have help?” etc. But one comment that stood out as a pleasant surprise was by a fellow mom who got on the bus after us one day. She had black spiky hair and tattoos and one young toddler in her stroller. I wasn’t sure what she’d think of me, taking up a quarter of the bus with my crew.
You’re a warrior!
I have to say this really made my day. Yeah! A warrior is someone strong and brave, who is willing to make sacrifices for what they believe in. A warrior is to be admired, not pitied. Instead of thinking I was either crazy or some kind of poor victim, she honoured my decision to have children as an intentional life choice, and gave me a verbal thumbs up.
Moms are soldiers for love, fighting the battle against selfishness, affirming that life is worth living, that love is more precious that personal comfort, that heroes exist, that love is unconditional, that life is beautiful.
To pity a mother is disempowering and belittling. It acknowledges only the difficulty of her task while failing to see its sublime importance for society. Motherhood is the make or break place for people’s futures. The world 20 years from now depends on the mothers of today. This isn’t to put more pressure on mom’s who already always worry about doing enough. It’s to cheer them on, and say, “Hey, all these sacrifices are worth it! You truly make the world a better place!” A world without mothers would be cold and empty, literally and figuratively.
But we forget this. Sometimes at the end of a long day of caring for kids, worn out from all the giving, a mom can feel inadequate, and only focus on the things that went wrong, the things that didn’t get done, or how incredibly hard it was to do what was done. But finding a challenging job hard doesn’t mean you’re bad at it. Think of a soldier in the trenches, fighting all day to keep his ground, surrounded by chaotic noise, inching forward through the mud. If at the end of the day he is messy and exhausted, it’s because he has done his duty…and fought bravely without giving up. He should be, if he had the energy, happy and proud. It’s the same with a mom. If at night you’re tired from caring and feeding and cleaning your troops and your shirt is covered in milk the baby spat up, know you’re doing it right.
Perhaps the only medals you’ll receive are stickers the toddler decorated you with but you’re not in it for the glory. You arrive at the end of the day empty, but not because you’re poor or worthless, but because you’ve spent yourself so generously, and have given so much. Someone once said that the only things you truly keep are the ones you give away…so also in this irony of self-giving you find yourself, stronger and braver and more generous than you were before this adventure began.
But hopefully by having a better appreciation for the dignity of your task, you will also realize the importance of taking care of yourself as well. No one would think of telling a firefighter or a police officer to wear a dirty uniform and skip breakfast in order to focus more on saving people, for they need to be alert and properly equipped for their jobs. So do we! So hop in the shower, make your favourite meals, go for sanity dates with your mom buddies, and keep doing an awesome job bringing up the future citizens of the world.
The other day I was reading a little book of Lenten meditations by Pope emeritus Benedict about the true meaning of fasting. He describes how Jesus spent 40 days in the desert fighting the temptations he was offered…to the world’s power, to enslavement to the physical world (bread), and to spiritual pride. It made me think…what temptations do I need to fight to be more free? And I don’t just mean the temptations to scarf boxes of chocolates…but deeper things.
Are we tempted by discouragement? By anger? By sulking and blame? These are the kinds of demons we can fight off during Lent, so as to become more happy and free. So how about instead of giving up something we like, or maybe as well as that, taking up arms to fight harder against what we don’t like…what drags us down and brings misery and isolation.
It is amazing how these demons of discouragement prey on our weakness. We recently watched the excellent movie “A Man For All Seasons” as a family. What struck me most this time, because I have seen it before, was what great destruction came through a weak man. Richie Rich, poor and soft man, is corrupted by bribery and the lure of wealth and power. He becomes a powerful man externally, but inside is still incredibly weak and can no longer follow his conscience when tempted, and ends up perjuring himself. St. Thomas Moore is killed because of Rich’s lies in court. It is very sad to see how Rich destroys himself and others…perhaps after certain point he no longer believed it would be possible to reform. It is so important to be both humble enough to receive mercy and forgiveness and strong enough to persevere in the truth when times are tough.
So why do we fail, make mistakes, commit sins? Many times out of weakness. Why do we yell when tired? Weakness. Why do we slam drawers when too hungry? Weakness. Why do we fall into discouragement when the house is exploding with mess and the floor seems a distant memory? Weakness. But if there is one thing we must always hang onto despite our weakness, it is hope, and the knowledge that we are loved. Discouragement comes when we look only at ourselves and all our failures, all at once. Then the amount we need to change and then improve becomes utterly overwhelming.
Can you imagine a baby looking ahead and envisioning all the things they would have to do and learn as one giant, looming to do list? Learn to walk, run, jump, speak thousands of words, dress themselves, read, write, learn sports, to cook, get a job, change careers, etc. It’s exhausting to think about all at once. But why aren’t babies stressed like the rest of us? Because they live in the moment and in trust: “Mommy and Daddy are here and they will teach me.”
What we adults have to do is spend less time looking at ourselves and more time looking at God, who is perfect love, who is infinite mercy, who is glorious king and wise and loving Father. It is he who will give us the strength and grace to improve. It is he who will teach us. Of course it won’t be all at once, but a little bit at a time, each day hanging on to hope despite our failures. Babies are so delighted with life…it would serve us well as adults to spend more time marvelling at the beauty of life as well, practising gratitude and making a point of savouring the good little memories each day provides.
Ultimately, Lent is about learning to love better, and we have opportunities to do so every moment of each day. St Josemaria said to be a true friend is to honour the image of God in others…”as you do to the least one of my brothers so you do unto me.” No matter how long our to-do list, we can always afford time for a smile. May God give us all the strength to love well, and the hope to grow each day, seeing self-knowledge as an opportunity to improve, rather than a cause for discouragement.
You may have read some of my past posts about happiness author Gretchen Rubin’s theories about the four tendencies people have with regard to habit formation and meeting inner and outer expectations. As a quick review, the four types are:
- Upholders (meet inner and outer expectations)
- Questioners (meet inner but question outer expectations)
- Obligers (meet outer but resist inner expectations)
- Rebels (resist both inner and outer expectations)
I’m an obliger, so I’m writing from my personal experience.Obligers have a keen sense of others needs, and tend to focus primarily on them. It always feels more virtuous to be doing something for someone else rather than ourselves. We have a hard time doing stuff that’s “just for me.”
Obligers need to reflect to make good decisions about their priorities and needs, but struggle to take that time. Often they push themselves to remain in busy activities for others instead…even when that inner voice is screaming, “No!” Instead of stalling for time so they can calmly quietly decide what to, they try to silence that inner voice of resistance and force a guilt-induced “Yes, of course!” This can lead to them getting burned out and resentful–punishing those they love most with grumpiness–a bad pattern!
So if you’re someoe who falls into this, resist the temptation to say “yes” right away…make some good easy lines to use:
“Let me just check my calendar and get back to you.”
“Sounds interesting. I’ll talk about it with my spouse and let you know.”
“Thank you for the invite. I’d love to come but I’ll just have to see what my week is looking like before I commit.”
And then pray about it. Consult your calendar. Consult your gut…and listen to it! That quiet time in which to make decisions is essential. Helping your inner life to flourish can bring such strength. Taking things to prayerful refection can help you discern which things are really the most important and necessary, and also which are actually your responsibility. This is key because obligers can struggle with boundaries and often feel responsible for the perceived needs of others, even other adults.
My Dad told me the other day something very simple but which stuck me like lightning:
“Other people’s stuff is not your responsibility.” Really!??! Wow!!
How freeing this is! It is such a beautiful thing to just focus on the task at hand–to totally concentrate on what you’re doing, whether it’s grating carrots, writing or folding the laundry. For there is something really beautiful about just doing one thing and not thinking about anything else. Airplane mode! Just cruising without all the beeps and bells intruding from the internet.
Alternatively, can you imagine if God was the way we are, getting so distracted by every possible thing going on all around the world? He would be completely insane because he knows everything. And yet somehow, living in the eternal present, aware of past, present and future, He is still able to simply exist. He is able to live fully and totally present in each moment.
What a gift it is when we have a little taste of this! But to find it we have to be intentional, and block out all the noise and distractions around us, to focus on what really matters. We need to have the humility to acknowledge that all we really need to do is take care of our tiny corner of the world. If we don’t, no one else will. And actually no one should.
To need to be rescued is ultimately disempowering.
Remember this. Give people the fishing rod, not the fish. Otherwise you imply they couldn’t have done it themselves, which is actually depressing. We all want to be able to take care of ourselves. And with the grace of God, and perhaps a little help (but not rescuing!) from friends, we can.
So, Obligers, it’s so awesome that you are sensitive to the needs of others, but pack up your super-hero capes and martyr badges and stop being so afraid to say no. The world will not fall apart if you set a few much needed boundaries and focus on taking care of your own needs and duties, your own personal mission, before deciding how much you can help others with theirs. Perhaps in what the women from the podcast Project Love call this “brave act of self-love” you will give others the freedom to do the same, and more people can find the peace that comes from simply doing what they need to do, without getting tangled in guilty knots when they can’t do everything else! 😉
PS This rare sighting of the ‘creatura materna’ without countless offspring was captured by my friend Rachel Lalonde on an awesome 4 hour moms only coffee date and walk! Also… I highly recommend the podcast on boundaries mentioned above! So awesome…especially for women who tend to feel the need to always put others first, even to the point of neglecting themselves:
Many people struggle with saying “no.” It is so hard to disappoint people, to imagine letting them down. It feels easier to take on added stress than to refuse someone and upset them. But this attitude can lead to burnout and resentment, and endanger the peace and well-being of the person giving. Boundaries are necessary to protect these things, and having healthy boundaries means being able to say “no” without excessive guilt or worry.
Perhaps reframing things would be helpful to those who struggle with saying “no.” Within each situation where something is refused, another positive thing is chosen. Saying “no” to taking on an extra work project over the weekend means saying “yes” to quality time with your family. Saying “no” to joining an extra committee means saying “yes” to being able to take care of your own work and family, without getting so frazzled and stressed. Saying “no” to that late night movie means saying “yes” to gettting the rest you need. Every decision involves discerning and affirming your priorities. Decisions are a way to say “yes” to the life you wish to live…and that life requires the boundary of various “no’s” to maintain it.
I think the key, which I am trying to learn myself, is to allow yourself to say “no” calmly, without the guilt or worry that can lead to harshness or sarcasm in order to protect the fragile boundaries around yourself. It is ok, and even necessary and good to take care of yourself and make sure that whatever you do give is given freely, with a cheerful and generous heart. We need to give this good example to our children and those around us. Love can only be given freely, and that means also having the freedom to say “no.”
Many of these helpful ideas are found in the book Boundaries: When to say Yes, How to say No, to take Control of your Life by psychologists Dr.’s Cloud and Townsend. I believe I have written about this book before because I found it so eye-opening and transformative. After discussing boundaries with various people– family, spouses, children, co-workers, etc– the book ends with various tips and questions to see how you are growing in your ability to maintain your boundaries. The best quick check for responding to a request was this: if you hesitate to say “yes,” the answer is “no.” You shouldn’t have to force yourself into things because of fear of disappointing others or appearing badly.
Remember, every “no” is also a “yes”…a “yes” to what you are able to do, what you desire to do, what makes your life better, what helps you feel free. Of course we should practice generosity and strive to live affectionately with those around us, but in the security of knowing that their love for us doesn’t depend on our unconditional “yes” to every request. And hopefully by learning to say “no” with confidence, we will also greatly respect the “no’s” of others, and never receive them with bitterness or resentment.