Amy Carroll explains how listeners can find freedom from self-imposed and unrealistic standards of perfection in a discussion based on her book, Breaking Up With Perfect: Kiss Perfection Goodbye and Embrace the Joy God Has in Store for You.
Amy Carroll: I became a believer at 10, but I didn’t break up with perfect until I was in my 40s.
Jim Daly: Huh.
Amy: And so, I lived in this trap of feeling like I had to earn God’s love and acceptance, my husband’s love and acceptance, my kids’ love and acceptance, my friends’ love and acceptance for decades.
End of Excerpt
John Fuller: That’s Amy Carroll, and we’ll hear more from her today on a Best of 2018 Focus on the Family. Thanks for listening. Your host is Focus president and author, Jim Daly, and I’m John Fuller.
Jim: Hey John, here’s a no-brainer: relationships are complicated. Aren’t they?
John: Oh my goodness. Life would be so much easier without people, huh?
Jim: That’s the truth. You know, but the most complicated relationships are the ones we have - maybe - with ourselves. Have you ever thought about it that way? I mean, you have all these thoughts and ideas and conversations going on in your head. One side of you thinks, “I’m okay.” But maybe the other side keeps reminding you of all your mistakes and failures. And for Christians, this can be a spiritual battle because we all want to do the right thing, but our sin nature and our flesh rises up against us. But here’s the core message from today’s program: you are enough. You don’t have to prove yourself to anybody. You are unconditionally accepted and loved by God because of Jesus and what he did for us. And that’s a great message, and I’m looking forward to hearing from Amy Carroll again. She’s an author and speaker for Proverbs 31 Ministries. She’s a wife and a mom of two grown boys. And she wrote a wonderful book called,. I love that title. And I think you’ll quickly figure out why this was one of the most popular programs of this year.
John: We do recommend that you check out the entire Best of 2018 collection of programs available on CD or as a download, and of course, Amy’s great book. Just stop by focusonthefamily.com/broadcast.
Well here’s how we began the conversation with Amy Carroll.
Jim: Amy, welcome to Focus on the Family.
Amy: Oh, thank you so much. I’m delighted to be here.
Jim: I’m looking forward to it. I love your energy. This book,- let’s start with this question. You make an analogy between bad boyfriends and perfect, I’ll use air quotes, “perfect boyfriends.” Um, share what you’re meaning by that. Did you find Mr. Perfect in your husband?
Amy: Well, yes. And he has said, how dare I write a book called, that I have to stay. And he’s right.
Jim: He’s in the audience, so we’re definitely throwing you a softball for the opener.
Amy: God did give me the perfect man for me, for sure. But all of us probably have that bad girlfriend or bad boyfriend in our past. And when we think about that person, usually we started with this huge attraction. So, he looks so good, and we just were so excited about trying to connect with him. And so, for girls especially, I think a lot of times we’ll try to morph into whoever we think he wants us to be. And so, we dress the way we think he wants us to dress, and we talk the way we think he wants us to talk, and we show up wherever he is and bat our eyelashes a little bit. And we work and work and work.
Jim: Is that how it’s supposed to work?
I never knew this.
Amy: Well, this is allegedly teenage girls, right? But then we work and work and work to try to get this boyfriend. And then we get him. And he is not at all what we thought he would be, ‘cause he’s the bad boyfriend. He’s the one that makes us feel “less than.” He makes us feel like we never measure up. And it’s hard to get out of that relationship once our self-esteem starts to be affected, and perfection is the same way.
Jim: Well, and your title I want to make sure people are grabbing what you’re trying to express -. I think what you’re talking about is this glamorous view of perfect, either externally or with ourselves, which is what I was mentioning in the opening there. Having that breakup with yourself and that conversation with yourself. What do you mean by breaking up with perfect? Just give me the definition.
Amy: Well, that’s such a great question because I think our culture has gone - swung to some really opposite extremes. So on one hand, we have social media coming at us, and - and the things on our screen that show perfect beauty, perfect, um...
Amy: Yes. All - you know, all kinds of perfection coming at us all day, every day. And on the other hand, there’s been this, uh, swaying in our culture where people are talking about embracing your imperfections. Well I think scripture reflects something different because it does say - Jesus says, “Be perfect as I am perfect, and be perfect as our Father is perfect.” So what does that mean? Well the root word there actually means whole, mature or complete.
Jim: I love that.
Amy: So God is calling us to be perfect. He’s calling us to be whole, mature and complete. What I’m talking about inis this whole, um, idea of perfection that we’ve developed in our own mind, like you said, Jim, this relationship with ourself, and our own thoughts of what we think is supposed to be perfect.
Jim: When you say your relationship with perfect led you to being discontent in your marriage for over a decade, now, some women are saying, “That’s nothing. I’ve got three decades of believing this.”
And, uh, you know, I think, again, this goes right to the bullseye of what you’re expressing in the book. Why do we feel we have to be perfect? And why, particularly for women, when it comes to their marriage and what their expectations are about their marriage, um, why are they expecting more than what can be delivered? And to give us your example of your marriage.
Amy: Well, absolutely. I think there are two things in women’s lives that really amp up this perfectionism. One is our marriage, and the other one is parenting. And those were the two places where it just started...
Amy: ...To explode in my life. And I walked down the aisle with a train loaded down with expectations. And I call these things “the pictures of perfect” in my head. I had an idea of the way everything should work, the way everything should look. And one of them revolved around making our bed. Now that seems really silly, right? But my parents have an amazing marriage. And one of the things that I loved about my parents’ marriage is that they always went to bed together, and then they always got up together. When their feet hit the floor, they immediately stood across the bed from each other and made the bed together. To me, somehow in my mind, that translated to what a perfect marriage looked like.
Jim: You held onto that, right?
Amy: It’s so silly, right?
Jim: And there’s probably harp music in the background, right?
Amy: Oh, yes.
Jim: (Singing) Ahhh.
Amy: Of course. When my mom read this in my book, she was like, “Are you serious?” But this is what...
Jim: “He never made it right.”
Amy: I know.
Jim: “Your dad.”
Amy: That’s probably right. Um, but I had really internalized that. Well, Barry’s a night owl. I’m a morning person. We rarely go to bed at the same time. We never get up at the same time. I made the bed by myself for over 15 years. This was just one of those low-level discontent places in my heart and in my mind. Now, if you would’ve asked me, “Do you have a happy marriage?” I would’ve said, “Yes.” But until I started recognizing what kind of expectations that I had put on Barry and our marriage and letting go of those, I - there was always this low-level discontent. And when I started letting the expectations go, the happiness quotient in our marriage just multiplied. It was amazing.
Jim: But you - when you get to Barry’s understanding of your expectations, on behalf of husbands worldwide, did you ever actually say, “Barry, this is what I expect - that we get up in the morning make our bed together”? Did he ever - I mean, you got to tell us.
Amy: No. And he is sitting out in the gallery shaking his head “No.”
Jim: I mean, that’s a...
John: So, like, after a week...
Jim: Is this the first time he’s heard this?
Jim: Barry, make the bed!
Amy: Well, when he read the book, there were a lot of revelations, actually.
Jim: Well, this is a point.
Jim: How can that be? Uh, where are we falling down as couples? I mean, husbands - we’re not always on the ball, picking up the cues. So what advice do you have to that married woman that is expecting things from her husband that she’s never actually expressed? And that frustrates her that he doesn’t know it.
Amy: Exactly. When I started recognizing my own expectations, I asked Barry one day - ‘cause I realized how many I had brought into our marriage and how it was affecting our marriage negatively. So I asked Barry, “So Barry, what did you expect when we got married?” And seriously, he had the most puzzled expression on his face.
Jim: I was going to say, maybe one...
Amy: Uh, yeah. He said...
Jim: ...Maybe two (laughter).
Amy: “Um, that you would love me forever.” I mean, he was seriously puzzled.
Amy: And so, I realized, and when I reflected back, that Barry’s greatest gift to me over the years is that he has just let me be, that he has had no expectations, that he has supported me and encouraged me. When I realized that, it became my life’s goal, as a wife, to give that gift back. But it has changed everything for me.
Let me give you an example. Last year, my husband was in a really hard place at work. And it was a hard time for him, and for the very first time, I realized I’m feeling compassion for my husband. Now I’ve been married for a long time, and really, it makes me tear up to even say that for the very first time, I had this great compassion for him. So I started asking myself, “How come I haven’t felt compassion for him before?” And I realized it was ‘cause I was always critiquing him before.
Amy: Well so - and you know, I’m the worst to myself, but man, I’m going to help everybody around me be perfect, too. That’s the way I had always viewed it before. It’s so damaging to our relationship.
Jim: Well and Amy, I so appreciate that vulnerability. One of the things that we can observe in our relationships, especially in the marriage relationship, is you get comfortable with your spouse and with your kids, and you treat them like you would treat yourself.
Jim: And it’s always interesting to me that often in marriages, you’ll make the observation that “You treat your friends a lot better than you’re treating me.”
Jim: Why is that? And I think you’re hitting on it because I’m - well, “I’m treating you the way I treat myself.” And it’s not healthy.
Amy: And Barry would tell you, uh - he’s very aware. I’m much harder on myself than I am on anyone else.
Jim: Right. It starts with you.
Amy: But it still does start to transfer.
Jim: Well, and that drives me to the next area that I wanted to get to in your book,- is this idea of perfectionism. Um, and I love the topic because, again, I think so many people, and I think particularly wives - women, are struck with this - this enabling, uh, perfection. Describe perfection a little more concisely for you and how it has manifested in your life. Let’s start there.
Amy: Okay. Well, first of all, I’ve had so many women who have read my book or heard me speak who have said, “Well, I never considered myself a perfectionist.” But what I would say to your listeners, if you’re listening today and you walk around feeling like you don’t measure up, you are a perfectionist.
Jim: That seems pretty broad.
Amy: Yes. Because it can - well, a lot of people say, “Well, I’m not a perfectionist ‘cause I don’t have to have the perfect house.” Or “I’m not a perfectionist ‘cause I’m a little bit fluffy.” Maybe you’re like me and a little fluffy, and so you think, “I don’t have the perfect body” like, you know, what’s on the magazine covers or things. But usually - my friend Kathi Lipp says that there are pocket perfectionisms. And so, we have this place that is important for us that we have these unrealistic expectations. So it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re a perfectionist in every area of your life. The way that it has manifested for me is in my relationships. I went through a five-year period where four close friendships imploded. Now, whenever that happens, there’s always two in the relationship. However...
Jim: Well, they were imperfect friends, obviously.
Amy: Exactly, exactly. But when I thought - started thinking about all this hurt and the damage behind me, I realized that I was the common denominator. That was a really powerful and painful realization. And that’s when God started showing me my perfectionism and how it was damaging my relationships.
Jim: Amy, you describe two kind of belief systems with perfectionism. And that - that’s where I want you to drive this next answer is your explanation about “good girl syndrome” and “never good enough girl syndrome”, because I think that hits to the heart of many, many women.
Amy: Absolutely. Well, see, I think the root of perfectionism actually begins someplace good, which sounds strange. But I believe that because we’re made in the image of God that He has created us with two big realizations. First of all, that He is perfect. And He’s perfect in the most beautiful ways. He’s perfect love and perfect grace and perfect, um, mercy. And - and all of that is rolled into a ball that the Bible calls “holiness.” And He is perfect. He is holy. And then, the second realization is we are not. And so those are both really important realizations to have to lead us to a place that we understand that we need a Savior. But the problem is - is that most of us go a little wonky at that point. And what we do is we start to make lists about how we can be perfect. So, the good girls - the one - those with the good girl list, that’s the list of all the things that I have to do to measure up to earn God’s love and earn His acceptance.
Jim: What are examples on that list?
Amy: Oh, I mean, I’ve had all kinds of things. Well, for you Christian girls out there, that I have to do my quiet time at a certain time every single day for God to accept me and love me. That can be a trap. Um, does God wanna spend time with us every day? Absolutely. Is He gonna love me less because I don’t read my Bible at 7:00 every single morning? No, He’s not.
Jim: I - I want to ask you, you know, because I - my heart goes out to the person who’s struggling with that - the woman who’s struggling with that.
Amy: Hm. Yes. Oh.
Jim: How - how do you move from that feeling of guilt to the feeling of, “God still loves me no matter what,” and be comfortable with it?
Amy: I think we have to let go of this idea of earning anything. That we have to rest in God’s love. Years ago, um, as this process started for me, I sat down with a friend of mine named Ray, and she been a, I hadn’t known her long at that point, but I had asked her if we could sit down. I just felt like God had something to say to me through her. I didn’t know what it was. And at that point, I was hiding all of this really, really well. And so, she listened to me for a little bit, and she goes, “Hey, Amy, um, what I want to know is when that list of yours doesn’t turn out the way you thought, what’s gonna happen to your faith?” And I immediately started crying. Now mind you, I was part of the Proverbs 31 speaker team. I was writing devotions. I was teaching Sunday school. I was doing all the stuff, and I could not feel God’s love for me at all anymore.
And it was because all the stuff was part of my good girl list. And so, um, she said, “I want you to pray that God would break through that shell around your heart and that you would experience God’s love for you.” And so, I came back to her several weeks later, and I said, “Ray, I’m listening to songs about God’s love. I’m reading books about God’s love. I’m reading scriptures about God’s love. I’m working so hard, and I still can’t feel God’s love.” And she goes, “Amy, did you just hear yourself? You said you’re working to feel God’s love.” She goes, “You can’t work to feel God’s love. You have to rest in God’s love.”
And there’s a story in the book that is a whole story about how God broke through that shell on my heart.
Jim: Well, come on. Tell us. I mean, you’re - come on. Just get to it.
Amy: Oh, Okay. All right. Good. Okay. Well, good.
Amy: So, months later, God took me, um, to India. And I was doing women’s conferences in these churches with both believers and women who were Hindus and Muslims. And, um, it was just amazing. Well, one of my friends - Nanette, who’s a really creative force, came up with this idea that she wanted to do a mock wedding. And so, we did these mock weddings. And what we did is we lined the women up. They were the bridesmaids until it was turn - their turn to be the bride at the end of the aisle. And they were to walk down the aisle of their sisters and picture Jesus at the end as their bridegroom - the one who loves them the most. Well, we have been doing this for a while, and it was really moving, but there came a time when, uh, one of the pastors’ wives went to this woman who was - she looked probably about 90 years old. She was teeny tiny woman, curled up in this chair. And she went, and she said, “Auntie, it’s your turn.” And she started walking down the aisle picturing Jesus at the end with tears streaming down her face. Well, as she was doing this, the pastor’s wife leaned over to me and she said, “Amy, that woman is dying, and she just met Jesus the Savior two weeks ago.”
Amy: And in that moment, watching that woman and knowing that she had spent her whole life not doing one thing for Jesus ‘cause she didn’t know him, and that she had very little of life left to do anything for Jesus, but she was completely loved by Him...
Amy: The shell around my heart broke off.
Jim: It connected.
Amy: And I found myself on the floor weeping. And God broke through. And I felt His love for me again.
Jim: You can’t earn it.
Jim: That’s not the way.
Jim: If you’re in that spot. If you’re connecting right now, man, I hope this is ministering to you. Because, this is what we’re here for at Focus on the Family and having a great guest like Amy talk about that life experience and what she’s gone through. That the “good girl syndrome”, Amy.
Jim: Now you mentioned also the “never good enough girl”.
Amy: Well, it’s funny because when I wrote the book, I thought that you were either one or the other. But my childhood best friend Josie was part of this whole process of writing the book, and my launch and all that stuff. And - and she said to me, “Amy, I swing between the two.” And I realized I did, too. So the “never good enough” list is the list of all the things that we’ve done that we feel like we cannot earn God’s love.
Jim: So, the guilt list.
Amy: The guilt list. The shame list. And sometimes, what I’ve learned from talking to other women is we don’t even earn that list - that it’s handed to us. The very people who are supposed to love and nurture us are the people who tell us we’ll never be good enough. Sometimes it’s culture that hands it to us. That culture who says, “You don’t have the right address or the right skin color or the right paycheck.” And so that never good enough list can be generated a lot of different ways. But it’s both of the lists - the good girl list and the never good enough list - they both separate us from God ‘cause what we need is a savior.
Jim: Yeah. That’s so true. Amy, you have also a funny story in the book about wanting to be that normal Christian family. I love that title, “The normal Christian family.”
Amy: Normal, yeah.
Jim: But what went wrong?
Amy: Well, I have been blessed to have so many mentors in my life, and so I was really thrilled one day when one of the college girls at our church came up to me and said, “Amy, can I come over and spend time at your house? I need to see the normal Christian family.” Now this girl had grown up...
John: And you welcomed the scrutiny, right?
Amy: Yeah. Right. Exactly.
Jim: And you showed up at John and Dena’s house.
Amy: I wish she had.
Amy: But I said, “Well, I don’t promise the normal Christian family, but you can come and hang out.” Well, I said that, but it was still in my days of my worst perfectionism, so I went into Christian, um, Cleaver mode, you know. I wanted to present the perfect Christian woman to this young girl who was seeking me out. And so, I, um - I’m really challenged in the kitchen. So, I did my best, and I was making grilled cheese and some chips and a dill pickle.
Jim: Wait a sec, you had to do your best with grilled cheese?
Amy: Grilled cheese is kind of my best. I mean, don’t talk to Barry about this.
Jim: You are challenged.
Amy: I - I am. This is not an area of perfectionism for me. My perfect...
John: But she’s let go of it, Jim, so it’s okay.
Jim: I’m just loading onto your guilt list, I know. Don’t write me about that. I’m sorry, Amy.
Amy: That’s okay. Yeah. My idea of a perfect meal is one that I dial out for. But anyway, that’s a different thing.
Jim: That’s okay.
Amy: Um, and so I had gotten - I was getting lunch together, and I had my bible open. You know, I’d been praying about what to share with her. Well, my 3-year-old was not on board with this whole plan.
Amy: And so he was just, as we say in the South, cutting a rug and misbehaving. And so - and he was not going to stop until I gave him my full attention. So I told her, “Um, please excuse me for a minute.” And we went upstairs to - I gave him my full attention for a few minutes.
Jim: “What are you doing?”
Amy: Yes, exactly. And as...
Jim: “I’m trying to be perfect.”
Amy: I - exact - and you are showing me up. Right? This is a whole different parenting show.
Jim: Right. I love it.
Amy: Um, but I came down the stairs with my crying child on my hip, and all of a sudden, I realized that there was smoke swirling around my house.
Jim: Your grilled cheese on fire!
John: Oh, no.
Amy: My grilled cheese was on fire. And so, I rushed back in the kitchen, turned off the burner. And I serious - I felt so humiliated. My child was misbehaving, my lunch - my meager lunch - was ruined. And everything in me wanted to hand her $5 and tell her to go to McDonald’s and never come back to my house again.
John: Thanks for playing.
Amy: Yes. But in that moment, you know, God was doing a work in me even then. I have really heard that still small voice to my ear, “Will you love her enough, and will you love Me enough, to open up your life - warts and all?” And the amazing thing about that is that in that moment - I’ve made lots of wrong decisions, but in that moment, I made the right decision. And I said, “Hey, so much for the perfect Christian woman. Like, let’s just go from here.” And, um, years later, when my friend, who was her campus, um, ministry person asked this girl, “What do you want your life to look like?” She said, “I want my life to look like Amy Carroll’s.” And, you know, uh, that really makes me teary every time I tell it because she saw my life - warts and all. So she didn’t see perfection.
Amy: She saw a woman who loves Jesus, who loves her family. And that’s what she wanted, too.
Jim: Boy, that is so well said. And it’s exactly, uh, what we want to project in a healthy way - that this is normal.
Jim: Normal is messy.
Jim: Yeah. What’s not normal is when it’s all perfect.
Jim: You should have a little bit of suspicion when you’re seeing that. That something’s not quite right. And I love that, Amy. And, uh, let me say, you went on from that day to create a list of “50 Ways to Leave Your Perfect,” which I think is something we should post on the website, John.
John: That’s a great idea.
Jim: Um, because I think it’s your attempt - a great attempt - to say, here are the 50 ways that I was, uh, you know, imperfect - and still am.
Amy: Yes, absolutely. And that list - I hope people will look on your website ‘cause it’s a really varied list. Some of the things are really serious - some scripture to memorize that will hopefully help you. But also, there are some fun and silly things, like wear mismatched socks, have a picnic on your living room floor.
Jim: Oh, no. The best one - eat a Twinkie for lunch.
Amy: Oh, there, yes. Well, you know, for a fluffy girl, that’s, like, a given.
Jim: No, that’s great.
Amy: But, uh, yeah. Absolutely.
Jim: But those are fun things in there. I - I think the very first one - go through an entire day without any form of a list. Wing it.
Amy: Wing it.
Jim: You know how many women just went, “What? Are you serious?”
Amy: I know. Me too.
Jim: But that’s a good thing, isn’t it? It’s a good thing to do. This has been so helpful. I can see it. I feel it.. We all have different prisms of what perfect looks like, and you’ve done a wonderful job getting people back down to the ground. What is our relationship with God? What should it look like? What is healthy? What’s unhealthy? And you’ve knocked it out of the park, girl.
Amy: Aw. Thanks.
John: What a great conversation with Amy Carroll. And this was one of our Best of 2018 radio broadcasts for the year.
Jim: John, I really hope our listeners will take this to heart - that God loves and accepts us because of who Jesus Christ is, not because of us. We don’t have to prove anything. Everything we are and will ever be comes directly from Him. And Amy did a wonderful job reminding us of that. And I want everyone to - to get her book, because it is filled with great encouragement. And we will make that available to you for a gift of any amount. And we’ll get a copy out to you. If you can’t afford it, contact us anyway. We wanna get this tool into your hands because we believe the content will help you in your walk with Christ.
John: Yeah, stop by the website - that’s focusonthefamily.com/broadcast - or call 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY - 800-232-6459. Um, I should note that on the website, we’re gonna be posting Amy’s list of “50 Ways to Leave Your Perfect”. So look for that and a video with some extra conversation with her as well.
Jim: And let me remind you, too, here at the end of the year, we need to hear from you. Focus on the Family depends upon your financial support so that together, we can continue to rescue and strengthen marriages, equip parents, and share the good news of Jesus Christ with as many people as possible. And we’re calling it our “Give the Gift of Family Campaign”. And right now, we have a - a matching gift opportunity some friends have provided so that any gift you send is going to be doubled. So please, contact us today and let me thank you in advance for your generosity and for helping others.
John: And that phone number again is 800-A-FAMILY, or you can donate at focusonthefamily.com/broadcast. And when you get in touch, please be sure to check out our entire Best of 2018 collection of broadcasts. And be sure to give us your feedback as well. We have a Listener’s Survey that we’re linking over to. It takes a few moments of your time, and it’s really helpful for us as we plan toward 2019 broadcasts.
Now, coming up next time, how God can help a mom better manage her anger.
Amber Lia: And I realized, “Wow, this journey that I’ve been on away from this angry, reactionary parenting and the problem is actually not just my problem. It’s something that thousands of people are struggling with and now we have a safe place to talk about it.”
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Amy CarrollView Bio
Amy Carroll is a public speaker and a writer for Proverbs 31 Ministries. She's the author of Breaking Up With Perfect and offers coaching for speakers as the director of Next Step Coaching Services. Amy loves a great story and a challenging idea, so co-hosting the Grit 'n' Grace podcast has become one of her favorite things. She and her husband, Barry, reside in North Carolina. You can learn more about Amy at amycarroll.org.