Tears streamed out of my eyes as this reality bounced off the walls of my heart and home. Like any good physician of the soul, she brought the Truth to my situation like it was tailor made for it. God’s word never returns void, it accomplishes what He sets out for it to accomplish. And her words would plant a seed of hope: hope that began its journey by exposing my perfectionistic tendencies that united me to shame.
The “Successful” Perfectionist
I have struggled with a desire to be perfect since birth. My mom says that I wouldn’t even try to walk until I knew I wouldn’t fall. This pattern has echoed throughout my life in meaningful ways. In 4th grade, I told my teacher that ‘B’ stood for bad. In high school, I cried uncontrollably after the state cross country meet and state soccer game because I didn’t live up to my own expectations. I punished myself when I didn’t do well in athletic practice by running more hills, more laps. More recently, I have found myself secretly fearing that I am not measuring up as a Christian woman or wife. I’m not great at cooking, I don’t yet have 5 children (much less, 1) and I have an unshakable desire to spend my time both in and outside of the home. Those of you that struggle in this same area don’t even have to call to memory your moments or nagging thoughts of perceived failure. You know them, you live in the shadow of the sense of rejection, failure or inadequacy they produced. And chances are, as the instances multiplied, so did the overwhelming sense of shame.
This weekend, I attended the CCEF Conference on Guilt & Shame. One of my favorite sessions was Mike Emlet’s discussion of perfectionism, a topic I have never heard formally addressed. All of the thoughts from this point forward reflect his musings on the subject and how to fight it.
Less “Common” Forms of Perfectionism
Most people that struggle with perfectionism know it; however, there are less common forms of “perfectionism” that reflect the same sinful attitude:
The Procrastinator: You procrastinate because your standards are so high that they’re essentially self-defeating from the beginning.
The Controller: You are hard on yourself and others. Typically, if you are hard on yourself, this attitude easily transfers to thinking about those around you.
The Pleaser: You live (and die) by the standards of others.
The Tortured Decision Maker: You find it hard to make decisions and you have a general aversion to commitment.
Although most of us can identify with one (or in my case, all) of these struggles, insight at the level of the heart will free us to see what is really going on and serve as a starting place to fight.
1. Misplaced Security
“Ultimately, perfectionism is about wanting to find in yourself what you can only find in another” – Mike Emlet
Are your standards rooted in God’s law, or are they formed on the basis of your own expectations (or the expectations of others)? Even if they are rooted in God’s law, your response to failure says everything. If they are based on your own expectations (or the expectations of others) both the standard itself and response are faulty. Our security is rooted in our position, not performance…or standing, not standards. Sin means relationship breaking more than rule breaking.
2. Mistaken Timing
Perfectionism robs you of the present, as you dwell on past failure or fear of future failure. We live in the “already, but not yet” and we will not break free of our failures and weaknesses this side of heaven. Perfectionism demands that our future hope be fulfilled in the here and now.
3. Malformed View of God & Self
God is distant and wrathful; God requires us to earn His goodness. None of us would say this out loud, but as we live with a perfectionistic attitude, we act as if this is the character of God. At the same time, the perfectionist views him/herself as the ultimate judge and jury. There is a co-existence of pride (I hit the mark!) and shame (I am such a failure).
Start here. Pray for wisdom to see how a perfectionistic attitude has infected your daily interactions. Take heart.