Nothing to prove
By Jolene Cheng
Jolene (second from right), with fellow Gracians after a worship service rehearsal in church
When I started my first day at a new job, I had scrawled “1ST WEEK AT WORK GOT ME SO PUMPED” in my journal. The process of applying for jobs had been nerve-wrecking and filled with fearful tears. But I saw God’s hand and timing as He gently nudged me to this path. So I plunged my heart into this new season. I was thankful that I could use my five loaves and two fishes to be part of a movement I resonated with. I also loved meeting my new team and executing crazy ideas together.
But soon, things started to not be okay.
Exhaustion hit me like a hurricane. Initially, I was probably tired from adjusting to a new schedule and environment. I was grasping at every opportunity to learn, especially if it was out of my comfort zone.
However, I soon noticed my inner voice becoming more sarcastic, critical and perfectionistic towards my own work. At times, I made the mistake of letting that overspill into my colleagues’ work and had to rein myself in. My “veneer of chill” was breaking. I was getting caught up in the demands and expectations of work. Nothing was ever good enough.
Reality started to blur. Was I refusing to ask for help because I wanted to challenge myself? Or was it just to prove that I could do it fast? That I was competent? When work-from-home arrangements began, I soon found myself doing work outside of work hours even more. I can’t go out on weekends, so let’s do more work! Was I spending more time because I really needed more time for the tasks, or was I making up for non-productive hours? Or working to escape the difficult, unprocessed emotions from the crazy things that were happening around me? In those countless sleepless nights, the last thing I wanted to do was pause and pray.
I took forever to reply to messages from family and friends. Often, my colleagues were the only ones I was responding to. I even started watching K-dramas again mindlessly to distract myself from the stress. I was sleeping in on Sundays, missing online service and Bible Class. I skipped Friday's cell for "me-time". Don’t get me started on my time with God. It was 90% work and 10% sleep.
Was this God’s design for work? Most definitely not. But like Romans 7:15-24, I seemed hell-bent on doing the things I ought not to do, rather than things a new creation in Christ is freed to do!
What I should have done instead
A wise brother-in-Christ, who is a career coach by profession, reminded me of what a vocation means. Our first call is: To be with God. Our second call: To love my neighbour and make disciples of Man. My foray into work had totally missed the point.
I recognise that the act of striving reveals my sin of pride and self-reliance. I was relying on my abilities, or the lack thereof, to be “excellent”. I can easily mask perfectionism as excellence. Setting unreasonable and impossible standards for myself pressured me to fret about details over and over again. I desired for my team to trust me, but had focused too much on controlling their perception of me, rather than leaving the results in God’s hands. I had utterly forgotten that I was loved, forgiven and accepted in God’s eyes.
When I remind myself of this reality, it allows me to focus on progress rather than perfectionism. Honestly, it has been a lifelong struggle with perfectionism. Every single time I think I’ve overcome it, there will be circumstances that occur to remind me that I’m far from done. It takes effort to remember: There is grace for mistakes. There is room to grow.
In recent weeks, I’ve been working on being aware of my responses to work stress. God has given us a blueprint: a rhythm of work and rest. There is a time for everything. I’m learning to give more care to my body, mind and spirit by setting limits to my work hours, exercising, planning for a silent retreat, reconnecting with people… There is only so much one can do each day and I’m learning how to be with God.
Everything I do needs to bring me closer to God, including work. As painful as it can sometimes feel, I constantly remind myself that I’ve got absolutely nothing to prove. Because I am secure in who I am. And what I do flows from it.