Letters from a perfectionist
Pretty much everything I do involves teaching. And whether I am in a counseling session with someone, teaching a class at Spring Arbor University, or preaching a sermon, I have noticed that nearly everyone responds positively to perfectionism. Perfectionism is popular in America. (Perhaps other places too, but I’ve never really been anywhere else — well, okay, Mexico and Canada, but that’s cheating.) We positively exalt it. When I ask a class, or a client, or a congregation if they are perfectionists, hands shoot up like crazy. People think perfectionism is a good thing. Which is fine. Except that it’s not a good thing.The -ism should be the giveaway. How many things ending with -ism can you list that are good things? The mere presence of the suffix -ism usually indicates something taken to an all-encompassing extreme. Now how is it possible to take perfection to an all-encompassing extreme? After all, there’s only one kind of perfection and it’s the perfect kind, right? Actually perfection is taken to an all-encompassing extreme any time imperfect human beings feel driven to strive for it, and cannot accept anything less from themselves or others.
Perfectionism is generally thought well of because it is often confused with the desire for excellence. Of course the difference between perfectionism and excellence is that excellence is possible, and perfection is not. Besides, true perfectionism is never just task-related. It goes beyond feeling we have to DO things perfectly, and moves into feeling we have to BE perfect. Now of course we all know we aren’t perfect. Perfectionists are awesome at admitting we’re not perfect. The more we admit this, the less others will expect of us (we hope) and then the higher we can perform over everybody’s expectations of us. This makes us look almost as amazing as we need to look! We can admit all day long that we’re not perfect. What we cannot ever do is settle for anything less. Look for the people in your life who most frequently say things like, “Nobody’s perfect.” Most of those are the perfectionists. As they say it, they are reminding themselves and hoping they’ll remember when it’s time to perform. But usually they won’t. And they definitely won’t remember when they realize they screwed up.
Perfectionism is a type of painful psychological slavery. For the perfectionist, the bar is higher than he/she will ever be able to get over, no matter how excellent they are. Most perfectionists actually do tend to be extremely high achievers and highly capable people, and this only makes things worse. Perfectionists are people who have probably always done well at things, and they have taken this on as part of their identity, and feel they must always do well in order to be worthy of the love and respect of others.
Perfectionists grow through seasons. When we are young, we do not realize we are perfectionists, we just think everyone else is sloppy. As we grow older we start to realize we are perfectionists but we think that’s a good thing, and want to help other people “move up” to the level we are on. But at a certain point, the perfectionist begins to realize that the perfectionism is hurting them and those around them. Perfectionism begins to feel not like a special gift, but like the curse that it is.
You might say, “I’m not a perfectionist. I know I’m not perfect and I don’t always perform perfectly. In fact rather than feeling perfect, I usually am very aware of being imperfect.” That is what I would expect. As I said above, most perfectionists are acutely aware of our imperfection, and it deeply bothers us. So how do you deal with not being as good as you wanted to be? Do you get depressed? Frustrated? Do you chronically procrastinate because you are afraid you aren’t going to be able to do the job well enough? Do you judge yourself harshly? Do you expect too much of others? (One good clue that you probably expect too much of others is if people are always telling you that you expect too much of them.)
Perfectionist, there is a way out of this. You don’t have to carry this any more. I’m a Christian so I believe God’s grace plays a huge role in this, but for Christian and non-Christian alike, the way out is probably going to also involve a lot of counseling and a lot of honesty with one’s self. One has to find the truth, and then face it, and then follow it where it leads, and each of these can take a lot of time. But I did not write this post to help people through their perfectionism. I wrote this hoping that perfectionists will stop seeing perfectionism as a good thing and start seeing it for what it is. Then I hope perfectionists will be encouraged to pursue the help they need so they can find the healing that is available.