By Malia Lee
In the 6th grade, I was a finalist in our school spelling bee. After making it past the preliminary rounds, my principal gave the top five finalists a book of words which we would have to spell in front of the entire school in two weeks. I stayed up past my bedtime, reading under the covers with my Dad’s flashlight. I sat at the dinner table -sometimes spilling spaghetti sauce on the book- studying.
When the day of the spelling bee arrived, I was so nervous. I remember exactly what I wore (my navy and white Adidas originals, gray and purple flannel pajama pants—that was “cool” back then, and my spelling bee tee-shirt). My mom took me to Starbucks before school for a treat. I was ready. I was the only finalist who wasn’t in the gifted-and-talented program. I felt so much pressure, but the funny thing is, I don’t remember anyone actually saying anything to make me feel that way. In fact, I think that the only pressure on me came from me. In the end, I flubbed one word in the final round and I was crushed!
I still remember that moment vividly. For those of you familiar with Enneagram, I am a 1w2, to the letter. Accomplishments mean a lot to me, and I think in terms of black and white. I made a mistake; therefore, I am bad. In order to negate that mistake, I need to work 200% harder to be back in favor with everyone. I was raised in a Christian household and I erred on the side of thinking that mistakes are sins that cannot be forgiven. My understanding of the Lord’s grace was very limited, and I carried that mentality with me through college. I believed that I always needed to be busy, because that meant I was working hard. And if I’m working hard, that means I’m a good person, right?
Here’s what happens with that little girl with perfectionist tendencies grows up: I burned out. Hard. I’m pretty sure there were flames involved. I earned my Bachelor’s degree, but not without difficulty. My freshman year, I skipped a lot of classes because I was dealing with depression and anxiety. Those absences affected my grades and I was just shy of graduating with Honors, another mistake that I carried with me for years.
Two years after graduating with my Bachelor’s, I started an accelerated program for my Master’s degree. This time, I wouldn’t let my mistakes haunt me. I would stay focused. I wouldn’t let my human nature get in the way of having a “flawless” academic record, because I thought that that would make me more worthy, more lovable. I became so consumed with how I appeared to other people, I lost relationships with friends. Choosing work over having quality time with people who truly cared about me—and who could have help save me from my guilt-fueled work habits—only made things worse.
I falsely believed that my accomplishments equaled my worth. I had made so many mistakes, said the wrong thing so many times, and been so very flawed that I needed to find some way to make things up to God. I got caught up with the aesthetics of being the “perfect” teacher and wife. I cared so much about trivial things that could be gone in an instant, like having a perfectly decorated classroom or a freezer stocked with labeled casseroles so that my husband would always have a home-cooked meal if I was ever too tired to cook. I became consumed—and obsessed—with being everything to everyone. Being so focused on how my actions appeared made me ignorant of the fact that I was working against what God wants for us. It was going to take a huge wake-up call to pull me out of the depths of my obsessive, toxic perfectionism.
In December 2017, I noticed that my hair had started to thin out. I’ve always had really difficult to manage, thick and wavy hair. This was a bit unusual, but who has time to make a doctor’s appointment? I was busy. I didn’t feel sick. I brushed it off and two months later as I was brushing my hair—I felt something smooth behind my left ear, and as I explored that spot, I realized…I’m bald. All of a sudden, I felt sick to my stomach. What was happening to me? How on earth did that happen?! I was healthy, or so I thought.
I was officially diagnosed with alopecia areata, a condition which has no cure or cause. My dermatologist believes that stress can trigger a response, which is probably the worst thing for me to hear. As if I wasn’t already swimming in guilt, I was now drowning in it. I had caused my own baldness?! In addition to my hair loss, I wasn’t sleeping well and I had lost weight. These physical symptoms all added up to the same conclusion: I was spiritually sick. This brought me to seek stillness simply because there was no other alternative.
I received steroid injections in my scalp, and I had to take the day off from work to go to these treatments. For the next few days after a treatment, I was in significant pain. Sitting there on the couch in those moments, I realized that this happened for a reason. I had always believed vaguely that God brings us to challenges in life for a reason, but I didn’t have a concrete understanding of that. Letting go of my control issues and seeking comfort in God’s peace is what I needed to do, both physically and spiritually. Seeking surrender wasn’t the glamorous moments you always see in the movies—my makeup didn’t stay in place as I dramatically cried on the bathroom floor. A beam of light didn’t shine through the window at the doctor’s office with a big, booming voice telling me that it would all be okay. Instead, I found the answers in my Quiet Time.
For me, Quiet Time is all about having a special time set aside for regular conversations with God. My Quiet Time during the school year includes leaving my house to get to school a little earlier than necessary. I listen to worship music on my commute and pray for the day. When I’m settled in my classroom, I read my devotional (I’m currently reading Annie F. Downs’s “100 Days to Brave”), and pray over my classroom and my students. During the summer, it’s more relaxed as I take my Quiet Time in my craft room and I often have time to do a little Bible journaling. No matter how it looks, Quiet Time is something that I hold dear. It’s as necessary to my functioning during the day as water.
I’ve slowly changed. Rather than punishing myself for my mistakes with more work, I have things to pray for. I pray for guidance in saying “yes” to the right things and the strength to say “no” as well. I have a sense of inner confidence because I don’t have to fight for everything—God has already spoken. It is done. My relationship with my husband has improved because I’m not resentfully doing chores around the house for the sake of cleaning—I do it because I love him and our home together and I believe that it’s a way to show him that I care about him. I’m learning that it isn’t so much about what you do, but why. Now, this isn’t to say that every morning, my Quiet Time is perfect and uninterrupted. Some days are more difficult than others but knowing that it’s important to me makes it worth fighting for.
My prayer for anyone reading this is that they begin to seek God’s wisdom and accept just how limited we are. Hear His promises for you and know that you don’t have to “make up for” any of your mistakes or flaws.
We come to you to admit that often times, it becomes about the work we do. We become so focused on what the “right” thing to do is, that we fall for the lie that we should feel completely guilty about what we have or have not done. Instead, draw our attention to you. Bring us to you. Rather than being consumed with work, help us to find time to regularly pray and be in your presence. Thank you for your grace and understanding. Thank you for providing limitless patience and peace while we wrestle with how difficult it is to surrender. I give it to you today, knowing that this is not for me to worry about or control. I trust your goodness and your promises for me. Let your will be done, Father.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways, submit to Him, and He will make your paths straight.” -Proverbs 3:5-6
Malia Lee is a high school English teacher, proud dog mom of a sweet (and hyper) German Shepherd, and wife to an amazing man. She grew up as a believer but really, truly recommitted her heart to the Lord after a health crisis in 2016.