There have been times in my life where I have worn the badge of perfectionism with pride. It was a sign that I was a motivated, driven, and successful individual, and my self identification as such certainly served me well when it came to school, work, or any competitive endeavor that I undertook. The perfectionist in me drives me to proof read everything from academic papers and blog posts, to 25 word text messages, as if my life depends on it. Looking back through this process of sharing my writing on a blog, I realized that on average each post that I write stays locked away for about 2 months before I finally force myself to press the “publish” button. And earlier this week I spent 10 minutes reading and editing a simple text message to a friend.
I’ve been tempted to put a positive spin on my perfectionism, reframing it as a desire for excellence. Certainly there’s nothing wrong with that! But while there is nothing pathological about proof reading a graduate school paper, the problem of perfectionism runs much deeper than that, and it’s time to call it what it is.
The truth is, perfectionism is not rooted in a desire for excellence, it is rooted in fear; fear of not being good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, and the list could go on and on. I loved how Brené Brown puts it in her book The Gift of Imperfection:
“Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: if I look perfect and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgement, and blame.”
At the core, perfectionism is a defense mechanism, masquerading as a virtue. It’s a way of controlling and hiding, trying to avoid being seen for who we really are, and trying to neutralize the inherent risk that accompanies being truly known.
With that being said, there are some specific ways that I have seen the effects of perfectionism in my life, and I want to share them with you. My hope is that if you can relate to any of the things I’ve written, you will start to fight back against the lies that perfectionism whispers.
You feel inhibited and/or anxious in your relationships.
For a perfectionist, the relational life can be a scary thing, because relationships are just plain messy. Sometimes they fall to pieces, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it (which, to a perfectionist, is often seen as a personal failure). When you take two messed up and broken human beings and have them do life together in a messed up and broken world, bumps and bruises are certain to follow.
I am a very relational person, my primary love language is quality time (closely followed by physical touch). But I also struggle with social anxiety. One of the ways that I describe how I feel in some social situations, or in my relational life as a whole, is the image of the laser field that we see in movies. In order to get to the thing they desire, the character must carefully maneuver their way through a seemingly impossible trial of dodging and ducking to avoid touching the high powered lasers. If they make a wrong move, well, you know what I’m getting at. Some seem to make their way through it with the beautiful elegance and grace of Francouis Toulour in Oceans Twelve, while I can relate more to the clumsy and awkward maneuvers of Steve Carell’s character in Get Smart.
Because of perfectionism, each move that is made and each word that is said feels like another attempt at a careful move through the laser field. The result is a degree of restriction and fear in relationships that is not conducive to developing any sort of intimacy. But intimacy is exactly what we were created for as human beings, what our souls long for; intimacy with our Creator, and intimacy with other people. Perfectionism keeps us locked in the tension of deeply desiring to connect with other human beings in an authentic way, while at the same time feeling that in order to do so we must be able to perfectly navigate our relationships.
2. You feel like your dreams and passions are suffocated.
Perfectionism is the enemy of vulnerability. Brené Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure,” the very things that perfectionism seeks to avoid. However, whatever the connotations associated with vulnerability, there is no intimacy or creativity without it. To share our hopes and dreams beyond the safety of our journals is to open them up to criticism or rejection, but it is also to open them up to the encouragement and support of the people around us. There is no reward without risk.
The pervasive nature of perfectionism can cause our hopes and dreams to be played close to the vest, not sharing them with even our closest friends for fear of rejection or ridicule. As a result, they are largely confined to the pages of our journals, where although they are safe, they are suffocated, with no room to grow and develop.
3. You are never “good enough,” and it leaves you exhausted!
One of the most pervasive effects of life as a perfectionist is that no matter how skilled or successful you are, no matter how much you accomplish, it is never enough. Perfectionism steals the sense of joy and satisfaction that normally accompanies accomplishment.
In undergrad I could come to the end of an 18 credit semester, during which I was playing a sport and working multiple jobs, with straight A’s… but instead of celebrating my accomplishment and resting, I would be obsessing over a paper I wasn’t happy with or a relationship that had started to fade. Life as a perfectionist is a never ending to-do list, because it is simply never enough, and it never will be. There’s nothing wrong with being driven and motivated to improve, but we also need to be able to be still and rest, knowing that at the end of the day, we are enough.
Perfectionism is a losing game, because the only thing that fallen and broken humans can do perfectly is be totally and completely imperfect.
AND THAT IS OK.
We have a Savior who has accomplished for us what we could never accomplish for ourselves.
“For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” Hebrews 10:14
We don’t have to keep striving, trying to earn acceptance or approval, we just need to receive what has already been offered to us in Christ Jesus.
With his final breath on the cross, Jesus had the last word; “It is FINISHED” (tetelestai). Those words are so important, and so easy for me to forget… Which is why I have it tattooed on my arm as a daily reminder that the work has already been done, and in the eyes of the only one who TRULY matters, I have already been made perfect.
Giving up perfectionism means giving up
control, and trusting that what God says about you is true. It means being willing to be seen for who you are, not hiding behind the counterfeit version of yourself that you think the world wants to see. It means being willing to make mistakes and to ask for help. It means embracing who God has made you to be at this exact moment, and resting in His love. It means finding satisfaction and enjoyment in your accomplishments, knowing that you are enough, and accepting yourself for what you are; perfectly imperfect.