Learning to Pray Through My OCD and Perfectionism

Understand what it's like to live with OCD and perfectionism.

Having OCD means bringing perfectionism to a whole new level.

I’ve always had some perfectionistic tendencies. I’ll never forget being in fifth grade, sitting at my kitchen table crying because I couldn’t draw a whale well enough for a project I had to turn in… and then my tears wetting the paper and making it even worse.

But when you’ve got OCD, perfectionism isn’t about making good art or producing a great result. It’s a trap that makes you doubt every bit of yourself — it can stick you in a spiral where you’re gasping for air, desperate for a way out.

My OCD constantly tells me that I’m not enough, that I have to do something again and again until I get it right. Sometimes it’s something as silly as the number of steps I take within a sidewalk square, or the exact tone with which I’ve got to say a word. And while that seems laughable, in those moments even the need to change my stance so I can walk three steps then cross the line with one leg or the other can stop me from doing or thinking about anything else.

But other times, that need to do something just right has much more dire consequences. For a long time, that was the case with my prayer life.

As a kid — and as an adult — I had certain anxieties and phobias that really plagued me. One of those was the fear of sickness. The fear of major diseases or death bothered me as much as anyone, but this was different. In my brain something as innocuous as the threat of the stomach flu caused in me a panic far fiercer than the fear of a failing grade, of being lost, of much else I could imagine.

Being a church-going kid, and someone who loved rules, I settled on the only reasonable solution: I just had to pray — the absolute best I could — and that would make all my worries go away. In OCD terms, praying became the compulsion to my obsession with not getting sick. So every time a family member, friend, even an acquaintance got sick, I doubled down. I truly believed that if I prayed well enough, and got just the right combination of words and phrases and patterns, I’d be spared from illness.

And that need for perfect prayer extended well beyond my fear of illness. I convinced myself that no matter what I did, prayer wasn’t enough. Maybe I prayed the rosary, but I wasn’t really dedicated to meditating the whole time, so it didn’t count. Or I’d pray for a few minutes at bedtime, but then I got distracted and fell asleep.

When Lent rolled around, I’d think for days, weeks, months to figure out what the right penance could be — and it couldn’t just be one thing. It couldn’t be something simple. It couldn’t be “just enough.”

I put this pressure on myself in every aspect of my relationship with God, always trying to achieve, to get to a point where I deserved His love, His mercy. I tried to prove myself to a point where He’d be willing to keep me healthy, to love me, to let me get into heaven.

But guess what?

My family still got sick. I still got sick. And my relationship with God suffered.

I’d created this rigid structure of reality for myself where I was constantly trying to prove to God that I was enough for Him, that I loved Him. Trying to be the best at praying, trying to find and follow all the rules was an effort to be perfect, to be enough.

And I wasn’t. I failed.

I failed not because I didn’t try hard enough — I failed because I cannot be enough. There is no prayer, no series of actions, no routine I can follow that makes me worthy of God’s love by my own actions. I am a child of God, loved by Him because He created me and loves me for who I am. Nothing I can do can make Him love me “more,” and I don’t have to fight for His love or work to earn it.

There is no magic number of Hail Marys that I can say that will guarantee my admittance into heaven. God isn’t a scorekeeper, He isn’t looking for what I do. God seeks to be in relationship with me — He wants me to allow myself to be loved by Him and then to bring that love to the world. And I can’t do that when I’m constantly keeping track, trying to crack the code.

Knowing that God loves me and that it is enough that I am created in His image is not a perfect solution. I’ll probably always struggle with a desire to achieve, and I know I’m not the only one who feels that way. But I take solace in the knowledge that God does not work the way my mind does. His grace is what saves me. He loves me into being.

So, at the end of the day, no matter what I do, it’s not enough. But that’s okay, because God is in charge. He is enough. And that’s enough for me.

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