“Elisha, I don’t think you’re a bad person. I think you have unrealistic expectations for yourself. You have all these ideas of what you should and shouldn’t be and you don’t allow yourself to make mistakes.”
This was the first time I had met with a therapist. I was in tears sitting on a little blue couch, telling a complete stranger about my struggle with self-esteem and self-doubt. I was there because I had a complete emotional breakdown after coming home from my mission and returning to school. It was like everything that I had pushed down while I had been on my mission resurfaced with a vengeance. All the negative feelings and unresolved issues of self-worth came back in a deluge during my first week back in classes.
I cried to my sweet friend Amy, expressing that even though I had changed so much, I was still in the same place emotionally that I had been for years. Amy suggested that I go see a therapist and in the matter of a few days, I had an appointment with Sam at the BYU counseling center.
Sam saw right through me. He understood that every time that I said “I should…” I was stating an expectation that I had for myself. I needed to be perfect. I desperately wanted people to view me as responsible, likable, and trustworthy. I truly believed that if I wasn’t perfect, I was not worthy of love. I looked at myself in the mirror and I hated myself because I didn’t meet my unrealistic expectations. Sam first helped me unpack all of my toxic beliefs about myself and then helped me realize that being perfect and being good (and deserving of love) are not the same thing.
That experience was not my first struggle with my inner demons. When I was on my mission, I had to leave a sacrament meeting because I could not let go of how much I hated myself. I ran to the bathroom crying because I couldn’t stand it anymore. My companion, Hermana Fernandez, held me while I cried and listened to me as I let loose every insecurity I was feeling.
Continuing her endless kindness to me, Hermana Fernandez told ward members I was crying because I was sad my mission was ending soon. She refused to let me get the better of myself. Every day for the rest of my time with her, Hermana Fernandez made sure I took care of myself, did my hair, and put on makeup to do my best to love myself. She patched me up and pushed me to act in self-love.
Hermana Fernandez taught me a crucial lesson in the time I was with her. She emphasized the importance of the two great commandments. First, we are to love God with all our heart, might, mind, and strength. Second, we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. Hermana Fernandez asked me one day, “Hermana Ransom, how can you love your neighbor if you don’t love yourself? God commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves and if we don’t love ourselves, we can’t love our neighbor.” I had never realized that the second commandment is reflexive. It is a commandment to both love our neighbor and to love ourselves.
The Love and Life of Christ
Because of my struggles with perfectionism, I have often thought of Jesus and His perfect life. Jesus lived a perfect life. In order to be our Savior and to atone for our sins, He had to be perfect. That means the life that He lived was never truly His own. Before he suffered in Gethsemane and before he walked the long, lonely road to die on Calvary, He lived His life completely for us. Every decision He made was for us.
I wonder if He felt overwhelmed by the weight of His mission to be a perfect sacrifice for the “…pains and afflictions and temptations…” (Alma 7:11) of every child of our Heavenly Parents. I put a lot of pressure on myself to be perfect because I don’t want to let anyone down. If Jesus had not been perfect, He would have let us all down. One of the most intimate glimpses that we have of the Savior’s personal experience in completing the Atonement is in Doctrine and Covenants 19:
16 For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent;
17 But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I;
18 Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—
It was difficult for Jesus to go through the atoning process. It was not a small thing for Him and at some point He felt inadequate to the mammoth task in front of Him. With that understanding, verse 19 is one of my favorite verses in the scriptures:
19 Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men.
“We Are Not Small Things”
While the Atonement was not a small thing for Jesus, we are not small things to Him either. We are greater than all of the suffering that He experienced for us. When things were difficult, I imagine He thought to himself, “But how will [insert your name here] ever make it?” He has said, “…thy walls are continually before me,” (Isaiah 49:16) and I believe Him.
In these last few years since my mission, I have gotten better at remembering, as Elder Gerrit W. Gong said, “To be worthy does not mean to be perfect.” I have still struggled. I have felt left behind and spiritually stunted and a million other feelings as I have struggled into my mid-twenties. I felt like I was slamming myself up against the same wall of impatience and imperfection. In a blessing I received recently, my sweet cousin told me that God has cried with me in every moment of struggle. Jesus knows the burdens of my heart. He has carried them when I could not. He lived the way He lived so He could carry them.
Isaiah described Jesus as “…a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief..” (Isaiah 53:3) and I know that it had to be that way for Him to fulfill His mission. I am reminded that when He chose to be our Savior, He chose to give up some of the most joyful experiences mortal life has to offer — quite possibly marriage, children, and certainly a sense of belonging — in order to bridge the gap between us and God created by the fall of Adam and Eve.
It was part of the plan that Adam and Eve would fall and distance themselves from God. Their transgression brought sin and death into the world and in order to overcome the effects of the fall, we needed a savior. Jesus volunteered to be that for us. He did this because He loves us.
I’ve spent hours and hours wondering why someone so perfect would do that for me, someone so imperfect, and the only explanation I have is that He is filled with love for us. I have to keep reminding myself that “He doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world; for he loveth the world, even that he layeth down his own life that he may draw all men unto him. Wherefore, he commandeth none that they shall not partake of his salvation” (2 Nephi 26: 24).
So we’re back at where we started. I am imperfect. I try so hard not just to be good, but to be perfect. I’ve felt at times that I am not worthy of Jesus’ mercy or grace because I have made mistakes. I forget that He will never send me away because I have yet to reach perfection.
As Nephi wrote, Jesus laid down His life to draw me, and everyone, to Him. He invites us to come and be perfected in Him. I have failed in the past to recognize just how much mercy is available to me. He was and is perfection and everything He did in His time on Earth was to help us reach our Heavenly Parents once more.
Additional help with perfectionism:
Becoming Perfect in Christ by Elder Gerrit W. Gong
Be Ye Therefore Perfect—Eventually by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland
Living the Gospel Joyful by Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf