Room for Hope: Dealing with Depression and Perfectionism

Sarah Renee Graff, “Room for Hope: Dealing with Depression and Perfectionism,” Selections from the Religious Education Student Symposium 2008 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2008), 125–134.

Room for Hope: Dealing with Depression and Perfectionism

Sarah Renee Graff

 

There are judgments about mental illness that are common among those who have never experienced it. These judgments are expressed in comments such as, “If only they had more faith in Christ, then I’m sure they would be fine,” “they are just putting on a show,” “if their parents would just discipline them more,” “if they would just calm down,” or “medication is just a mask.” All such comments tie into a basic concept that mental illness is a fabrication of modern science, that it isn’t a natural part of God’s plan. I know that these ideas exist because I once was a strong subscriber to them. Then I was diagnosed with depression and stress-anxiety disorder. In this paper I will relate my personal struggle with mental illness as I explain my journey toward overcoming perfectionism.

My Journey

Just over two years ago, I flew home from my mission after serving for thirteen months. In the Missionary Training Center, I developed what I thought was a sinus infection. At first the headaches came and went, but by my eighth or ninth month out, the pain was consistent. Antibiotics weren’t effective, and MRI scans weren’t detecting a problem, so I went into the mission home for a month to recover. Even with all these efforts, I found myself calling my mission president, in tears, after about a week back in the field, I felt I had nothing left inside of me. I was physically exhausted and emotionally hollow. “This just isn’t working for you, is it?” he said. So, just a month over my year mark I was on a plane home, tired, frustrated, confused, and defeated.

After my doctor at home repeated all the tests from the mission and found nothing, he prescribed a drug that would keep my brain from “firing as much.” Though a little wary of the implications, I took it. I was too tired to argue—everything was just a haze anyway. However, I could hardly argue with the results. Within hours, and for the first time in months, the debilitating ache in my head stopped. The follow-up visit with my doctor confirmed my worries about the implications. He said if the pills were working, the next step was for me to start seeing a counselor. I immediately went into denial. A counselor? How would that help? What would a counselor find? I came home early from my mission because of depression? That simply couldn’t be the answer.

I hated those first visits with the counselor. I hated the constant assertions that I had depression. I wanted to be strong enough to take the counselor by the shoulders and yell out, “I am Sarah Graff—the optimistic one, the one always laughing till my cheeks hurt! My nickname at girls’ camp was Chuckles, for Pete’s sake!” But it was too hard to explain to anyone why these assertions of depression hurt. Instead, I held back tears of frustration as he administered tests to delve into my mind.

My counselor officially diagnosed me with a stress-anxiety disorder, which, untreated for too long, had sent me into mild depression. I had no restraint left by then—I cried right in his office. I couldn’t hold it in any longer. The diagnoses made sense, and I had to face it. I felt broken, second-class, like I had a dark secret to hide from everyone. The worst part was I didn’t know who I was. I had always been the happy one, always smiling, always looking on the bright side. That was how I defined myself. Being diagnosed with depression was like reaching inside and pulling out my core. If I wasn’t optimistic Sarah, who was I? I felt completely lost.

Luckily, a friend and former investigator, Matt, called that week. Matt looks at the world in a ridiculously simple but wonderful way. I told him all my horrible feelings. I talked about feeling broken. In his lighthearted tone, he said, “Nonsense! Listen, Sarah; if people catch a cold, are they ashamed of it? Do they try to hide it? No way! They walk around coughing and sniffing and telling everyone how miserable they are because of their cold—even if it was their own fault, even if they stood out in a snowstorm without a jacket, even if they knew their girlfriend had a cold but kissed her anyway. They talk about it, and people never think less of them. Some people’s immune systems are susceptible to colds, and others’ minds are susceptible to depression. The only difference is the stigma society puts on mental illness. This is something you are prone to, not something you are. You are still the happy Sarah Graff. You don’t have to hide or be ashamed of it.” Something clicked inside me with those words. The wonderful idea that I didn’t need to hide or be ashamed of my mental illness broke through the cycle of negativity. Hope came back, and suddenly I could face my mental illness. I realized I could learn to live with this as part of me.

Somewhere between that breakthrough conversation with my former investigator and the present, I began to recognize the place my mental illness has in my life. I’ve begun to see why it is okay to have this be a part of who I am. What’s more, I realize it is part of God’s individually tailored plan for me—that even this weakness can be a blessing in my life. I relate this experience in hope that understanding where I am coming from will help make my message relevant. I would now like to move on to the lessons God has taught me through this trial. I share these lessons in the trust that the principles that helped me can also help you or those you know.

Perfectionism Is Not the Plan

One of my groundbreaking moments was when I realized that my pattern of perfectionism was not what God wanted for me. In other words, perfectionism is not part of the plan. Now before you all revolt, let me elaborate on my definition of perfectionism and where this definition comes from.

My favorite explanation of this topic is found in an address by Elder Cecil O. Samuelson.[1] Elder Samuelson begins this address by expressing his growing concern with what mental health professionals call “perfectionism.” He explains that perfectionism occurs when people “become so obsessed or consumed with their every thought, action, and response, that they may become far too extreme in their own perceptions of what is expected of them.”[2] Elder Samuelson stresses that worthiness and perfection do not mean the same thing. He then goes on to explain that the Lord does not expect us to be perfect immediately, and there is great danger in setting higher standards for ourselves or others than He has. God simply wants us to do our best and then to be pleased with our best effort. Becoming consumed or “extreme” in our desire to be perfect right now is actually destructive to our spiritual progress. The chart helps illuminate the difference between the attitude of “doing our best” and the destructive attitude of perfectionism.[3]

Doing Your Best

Perfe​ctionism

You know it’s okay if you make a mistake. You move on and see your mistake as an opportunity for growth of learning.

Mistakes bring feelings of self-hatred. You don’t want to do anything because you are afraid of failure.

You want to do your personal best, and you try not to compare your achievements to those of others. You don’t need to be the best at all things.

You feel tremendous pressure to earn others’ approval. You must be the best or “perfect” in your tasks.

You can find joy in doing the things you love, and you can get things accomplished.

Your need to do things perfectly leads to procrastination until you have time to do it “perfectly,” and you feel driven by fear or duty instead of love.

Trying to do your best and perfecting yourself “line upon line” with the Savior’s help is Christ-centered because you need the Atonement.

Perfectionism is self-centered. You measure yourself against your own standards and against others’ standards, not God’s.

We see that perfectionism causes us to focus on how we compare ourselves to others or to our own overzealous standards. In other words, Satan can twist our perception of God’s command to “be ye therefore perfect” (Matthew 5:48) in a way that becomes destructive. A perfectionist attitude actually distances us from God because we are distracted by our own standards and often feel unworthy.

I have experienced this for myself. Constantly comparing myself to a perfect standard kept me from focusing on how God saw me. In other words, I was too busy criticizing myself to hear the quiet voice of the Spirit whisper that God loved me as I was. I was too busy trying to earn the approval of others by being at the top to realize I already had God’s approval. I acknowledge my story is not universal, but understanding what perfectionism is will help anyone recognize possible tendencies they may have toward this attitude. Knowing that such tendencies are destructive can help us begin letting go of them.

Yet simply recognizing that perfectionism is not part of God’s plan does not automatically make it easy to change. Perfectionism is a mindset, an often subconscious mental habit that will take conscious effort, hard work, and help from God to change. A key to this change is humility. However, as mentioned above, it is not easy to switch from a mindset of perfectionism to one of humility. The rest of this paper outlines several principles that help break the pattern of perfectionism and create room for humility.

Making Room for Humility: Four Ideas

Concept 1: Being mortal. I was introduced to the first of these concepts by Marty Matheson, a professor at BYU. Marty actually introduced me to the idea of perfectionism verses humility. During a lecture on this topic, Brother Matheson drew a line like the one pictured on the side. He then explained that a tendency is to picture our attempt to “be ye therefore perfect” like this line.

However, our line actually looks like this second picture. As we strive to be perfect, we will not always experience consistent, perfect progress. What’s more, undeviating progress is not what is expected. Our striving to be perfect will be an up and down process—it is meant to be. Having hard days and making mistakes are all part of being mortal. Imperfection is part of the plan. The key is that our overall direction is upwards.

Another illumination on this concept came from my religion professor Kent R. Brooks. Dr. Brooks explained there is a tendency to feel that once we have reached a certain point in our progression that point becomes our best. For example, once we have achieved a 90 percent on a math test, anything below 90 afterward is not our best and thus not acceptable. This is a false concept. Our “best” varies from day to day and situation to situation. For instance, if I am sick one day, my best may be managing to drag myself out of bed to take a math test, regardless of the score I receive. It is important to remember that all God asks of us is our best and that He understands our best varies from day to day. This is one of the reasons He has given us the Savior. If we give our best, no matter what that is, Christ will make up the difference.

This realization helps break the cycle of perfectionism because it helps bring our expectations down to a reasonable level. Referring back to Elder Samuelson, we can “find satisfaction in [our] progress while acknowledging that perfection may still be distant.”[4] Thus, when we make mistakes, we can see ourselves as good people, doing good things with a few kinks left to work out. Having this perspective helps us stop overfocusing on our mistakes. Thus, remembering that being mortal is part of God’s plan, and that He has provided a Savior because we are mortal helps prepare our hearts for humility.

Concept 2: Christ our judge. The next thought comes from Dr. Lars Nielson, a faculty member at BYU. One time when I was being critical of myself, Dr. Neilson quoted 2 Nephi 9:41 to me: “The keeper of the gate is the Holy One of Israel; and he employeth no servant there.” Dr. Neilson asked me what that scripture means. I replied that it meant Christ was our judge. He agreed but then elaborated on the phrase “he employs no servant there.” Dr. Neilson explained that this phrase indicates that Christ reserves the right to judge for Himself. Dr. Nielson then brought this home as he said, “That means that you are not the judge of you.”

Allowing Christ to be my judge helps because He is a much gentler judge than I am. When I start telling myself that I’ll never get things right—that I am selfish, foolish, or worthless—remembering I am not my judge helps me stop. I then offer a prayer asking God to help me know how He feels about me. Every time I do this, the Spirit overwhelms me with a manifestation of God’s love for me. It is important to note this feeling comes even when I have made a mistake. The overwhelming love always comes first and then the correction or the guidance on where I can improve. This is why Christ is our gentle judge. He loves every person and wants every person to feel that love. Feeling this love and remembering that what He thinks of us is more important than what we think helps stop our self-criticism. Thus remembering that Christ is our individual, ultimate judge also helps prepare our hearts for humility.

Concept 3: Weakness as strength. A critical point for me in my journey through depression was when I realized it is okay to be weak and it is wonderful to need help. Often our tendency is to hate our weaknesses. This seems especially true in the realm of mental illness. For a variety of reasons, we are ashamed or afraid to admit when we struggle and what we struggle with. In a way, this is understandable. Working with a weakness is hard. It is often extremely personal and painful. However, a look in the scriptures can help us view our weakness in a new light.

A look at the well-known verses in Ether 12 reminds us of the part weakness plays in our road to salvation. Moroni records, “The Lord spake unto me, saying . . . my grace is sufficient for the meek, that they shall take no advantage of your weakness; And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them” (Ether 12:26–27).

We learn several things from this powerful scripture. First, and possibly most critical, we learn our weakness is given to us by the Lord. This weakness is part of His individually tailored plan for each of us. Second, we learn why a loving God would give us weakness. We are given weakness so we may be humble. They help bring us to Christ by reminding us of our need for Christ. This is why it is okay to be weak and it is wonderful to need help. Weakness makes us realize we cannot do it alone. Realizing we need help compels us to turn to Christ. Thus, our weakness becomes a key factor in recognizing our dependence on God and developing a relationship with Christ. Lastly, we learn that Christ’s grace “is sufficient for all men,” to turn our weaknesses into strengths. Through Christ we can be stronger in weakness than we ever could be on our own.

Another scripture on weakness demonstrates how our weaknesses can become strengths. When the people of Alma were placed in bondage, they cried out to the Lord and received this assurance: “And I will also ease the burdens which are put upon your shoulders, that even you cannot feel them upon your backs, even while you are in bondage; and this will I do that ye may stand as witnesses for me hereafter, and that ye may know of a surety” (Mosiah 24:14). We usually remember the miracle of the Lord lifting the burdens of these people that they “could not feel them on their backs.” I would like to draw attention to the explanation Christ gives for why this was done. He states it is so they can then be “witnesses hereafter.” From this statement we see that weakness plays a role in increasing our effectiveness as servants of Christ. In other words, our weaknesses make us better able to help others. God helped me recognize this through several experiences in my own life, and it was another turning point in my struggle. I would like to share just one of these experiences with you to illustrate my point.

Last fall semester I met a young man in one of my classes. As we became better friends, I would talk openly with him about learning to manage my stress-anxiety disorder. One day he mentioned to me that he had a meeting with his counselor. I was surprised that in our months of friendship I had never known he, too, was involved in counseling. When I expressed my surprise, he told me he had just started counseling. He said my openness about my struggles had helped him realize it was not embarrassing to seek for help and thus had been a motivating factor in his seeking a counselor. This experience demonstrates the goodness of our God since I had no idea this friend of mine was struggling. It never crossed my mind that I should or could help him. Yet God had helped me recognize that my weakness had blessed my life. Because I was willing to express this gratitude to my friend. God was able to use me to help him.

Our weaknesses are blessings from God. As we recognize them as such, our humility will grow, our strength will increase in Christ, and we will be able to use our weaknesses to bless others.

Concept 4: Our personal Savior. If we look again at the scripture from Mosiah 24, we see that another reason the Lord strengthens us in weakness is so we “may know of a surety” (Mosiah 24:14). This ties into what I feel is the best thing I have gained from my struggle with mental illness: my personal relationship with my Savior, Jesus Christ.

Before this experience, I knew of my Savior. I knew the details of Christ’s life, ministry, and Crucifixion. I had learned of Him in church, at home, at school. I longed for a better understanding, but I didn’t know Christ. Through this experience I have finally gained that understanding. I can now say Christ is my champion, my strength, my joy, my friend, my personal Savior. I know His Atoning sacrifice is real because I have felt it in my life each day. Every week, I reach a point where pressures build, stress mounts, fatigue sets in, and I begin to be overwhelmed. Whenever these things occur, I pray. I can testify in those moments I have felt a strength beyond my own, experienced a peace surpassing anything I could create and received thoughts of wisdom that were not my own. This is possible only through the grace of Christ. This is possible for every person who will turn to Him. This has been a long, hard road for me. I know it is not over yet. But I also know Christ will be with me every step of the way. I promise if you turn to Him, He will be with you too.

The purpose of this paper is not to provide a fail-safe plan on how to eliminate the struggles caused by mental illness. I have simply provided some truths that have helped me. My hope is that understanding my journey with depression will help others who struggle with this burden know they are not alone and help others who do not have this burden understand a little better. I hope what I have shared can help all whose lives are touched by mental illness find hope in our Savior. God has a plan for each of us. He knows our struggles and weakness. He understands. He has given us the gospel of Christ to help us. Every day I am discovering new ways that Christ blesses my life. My prayer is that as you develop your relationship with the Savior you will be able to do the same.

Notes



[1] Cecil O. Samuelson, “What Does It Mean to Be Perfect?” New Era, January 2006, 10–13.

[2] Samuelson, “What Does It Mean to Be Perfect?” 10.

[3] See Samuelson, “What Does It Mean to Be Perfect?” 10–13.

[4] Samuelson, “What Does It Mean to Be Perfect?” 11.