Limits: My Antidote For Perfectionism

“We can, for example, say yes to what we are in spite of our failings, because we know God loves us; we trust that, out of our deficiencies, the Lord is capable of making splendid things.” – Fr. Jaques Pilippe, Interior Freedom

I have a problem, you guys. I find myself over and over again waking up and finding myself in a state of being totally overcommitted, overdrawn, and just generally over it. It starts with a burst of enthusiasm – I can do anything! I can take on the world! – then lots of positive feedback from other people – They like me! They really like me! – pretty soon I’m too busy to pray about anything besides the million and two things I’ve got going – It’s the gift of intercession, right? – and slowly but surely, the bitterness starts to creep in – Ugh. Do I really have to do this/drive here/plan that again?!?!? – and then the negative self talk – You’re so irresponsible. You just need to stick with it! You made this commitment, even though you knew it wasn’t God’s will, so now you have to reap the consequences. Maybe someday you’ll learn to think before you commit! – until finally, I am so overwhelmed from within and without that it takes all my strength just to get out of bed in the morning and face the day. So then I’m late, which makes things worse. And I’m so stressed out that I stay up way past when I would normally go to bed, all in an effort to, “get some things done” – but we all know how that goes at ten o’clock at night, don’t we?

Does this cycle sound familiar to you? It runs my life, people, and I can’t tell you how exhausted I am from living on this roller coaster for nearly 24 full years! And yet, I continue to accept offers, take on projects, and pursue ideas that I truly have no business busying myself with.

Now before I go any further, let me be clear: this is a beautiful thing. I call it St. Therese Syndrome – a common psychological disorder among millennial Catholic women (and humans in general), caused by desiring ardently all the good things that there are and being entirely unwilling to accept the limitations of reality.

Why do we have this ache? Because the Holy Spirit lives in us, you guys! We have this intensity, this passion because we are alive! We are not the stones we once were! We have good desires because we are children of the King, and we are daily invited to come to the Banquet Table and eat our fill of all the good things His Blood has won for us. The trouble is, having this much goodness at our disposal can lead to one of two spiritual eating disorders – or sometimes (like in my life) – both at the same time.

We either become so overwhelmed by the sheer variety of good things that life in Christ offers to us that we don’t reach out and take any of it, or we take far less than we really could. We become paralyzed. Think about the last time you were in a good Catholic book store. How long did it take you to decide which book you actually wanted to purchase? I rest my case.

Or we become greedy and try to take it all in as fast as we can, for fear that we might miss out, or that it might soon be taken from us, or…..wait, what are we actually worried about, anyway? Don’t we know who this King is who invited us to the Table to begin with?

He loves us, ladies and gentlemen! He loves you. He offers you more good things than you can possibly take in in a lifetime – and he offers you eternal life so that whatever good you don’t get to here, you’ll have plenty of time to make up for it hereafter. If we really believe that God is who He says He is and that His promises are true, Fear of Missing Out has no place in the Christian life!

So, practically, how do we stay off the overcommitment roller coaster? Here’s the process I’m starting to use for myself. I hope you find it helpful – it’s been incredibly fruitful for me this past week as I try to recover from the burnout hangover.

Step 1: Know God If we know the goodness of our Heavenly Father, if we know His true Heart for us and we daily experience His generosity towards us, we will be less likely to fall into the trap of believing that He is stingy, or that waiting on His Will is impractical, or that we might miss out on a good opportunity if we “waste all our time praying”. God is not going to punish us for putting Him first.

Step 1.5: Know God’s Voice Learning to recognize how God speaks in my life and the patterns of His movements has been the single most transformative spiritual experience of my life, after inviting Jesus to be my Lord and Savior (and, you know, the Sacraments, but that’s implied!). I cannot emphasize enough that if you do not have a clear idea of what God’s voice sounds like in your life, what it feels like to be in His Presence, there is nothing more important for you to take time to learn! In my humble opinion 🙂 If you want an excellent resource on how to do this, start with Fr. Timothy Gallagher’s books Discernment of Spirits and The Examen Prayer. And if you know you’re not a reader, you can listen to podcast summaries (quite in depth) of those books here and here.

Step 2: Know Your Neighbor By this, I mean, whose feet are you called to wash right now? How is God asking you to serve? What are the non-negotiable relationships that you need to be investing in and giving your best self to? For example, the people you live with, the people in your parish, your students if you’re a teacher, your patients if you work in medicine, your friends and your family. Having a clear picture of who you must give to, and who you’re choosing to give to out of your overflow is an important piece of knowledge to keep in mind. That way, when you start feeling depleted, you know where to look to stop the bleeding.

Step 3: Know Your Limits The Lord gave me this image on Monday as I was driving to work: imagine the ocean. God created the ocean to be very deep and unfathomably wide. It contains all manner of life, and is incredibly powerful. And yet, for all its vastness, it is finite. When God created the ocean, he set its limits. And when the ocean violates its limits, terrible destruction ensues – we call it a tsunami. Now, dear hearts, when we violate our God-given limits (or deny altogether that they even exist), why do we expect that good will come of it? If we instead choose to live within our limits – all the way out to the edge of them, to be sure, being all we can possibly be, but not crossing that threshold – then we will be a source of life, beauty, and power in this world.

So when an opportunity arises that ruffles the tranquil waters of your soul, ask your Heavenly Father, “Father, you created me. Is this within my limits?” If it is, you will know because you will have peace. If not, you will know because you won’t have peace. You may be uncertain, and then you may need to take some more time, or you may need to make some mistakes in order to learn that particular boundary. But once you have that knowledge, it will do you absolutely no good if you choose to plow on ahead anyway! We must choose to live within our limits, and trust that even though we desire to exceed them for good reasons, our greatest good, and greatest good of the world around us always lies within those very humble, small, tedious limits. And it’s okay. It’s okay to not accomplish anything extraordinary this week, or this month, or this year, or in the next ten years. Because the truly extraordinary life is one that relies totally on God and trusts His wisdom and His ways over the frantic ways of the world. I don’t know about you, but I want my life to be Glory to Him not Glory to Me. So I want to choose to live my life in a way that seems a little crazy and impossible to the children of this age, to prove that God really is trustworthy, even in the details.

I should point out that for me, part of knowing my limits means knowing that there will be times when I choose to live outside my limits, even though I know better. I have to accept the fact that I will not choose to do God’s will perfectly in this life 100% of the time. It’s not “okay” exactly…I’m not indifferent about it. But I just simply accept that reality, do my best to live in my limits moment to moment, and trust that God’s mercy will always be there for me when I need it.

I want to leave you with some words of our Savior to encourage you to take that leap of faith.

“The one who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, because I always do what is pleasing to Him.” – John 8:29

Don’t you want to be able to say that about yourself? I do. I want to be able to know beyond knowing that God is with me because I’ve chosen to stay right where He is, hand in Hand with Him through all of life. That’s where peace is, folks. That’s where I want to be.

Until next time,
Margaret

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