All my life I never described myself as a perfectionist. I took pride in as close-to-perfect grades as I could get, I liked all my attempts to be successful the first time, I hated any form of regret or mistake that I made, and even the most miniscule details of my life that caused embarrassment or unideal circumstances would taunt me for days, weeks, months, sometimes years. And despite these truths about myself, I still never believed that I was striving for perfection.
It wasn’t until recently when my mom called me a perfectionist, in conversation with other people, that I took that word a bit more seriously. She never said it in a negative way, but God has been revealing to me the poison that perfectionism is in my life. And for the record, I referred to my perfectionist tendencies in the past-tense in the first paragraph, but they are very much still present in my life.
Upon having my eyes opened to the concept of perfectionism, I have been even further awakened at the extent to which this mentality slowly and gradually distorts so many aspects of my life. Like many toxic things in this world, the surface of this characteristic often appears harmless, maybe even beneficial. Society glorifies the idea of perfection, and despite the newer trend of encouraging “weaknesses”, the subliminal messages behind most advertising and products still point back to as little imperfection as possible. But let me tell you, there is nothing admirable or strong about striving for perfection.
What I never realized about perfectionism is that it doesn’t reveal itself the way you would often think that it does. It’s not as though I spend hours trying to make myself look perfect everyday, I don’t care about fluffing my pillows a particular way, or literally getting 100% on every assignment. But, if I’ve set the standard of at least 80% on every grade I get back and I don’t meet it, I am disappointed in myself and I feel like a failure. And although I don’t need to have a perfect outfit on, anything less than what makes me feel most confident is a day of negative feelings towards myself and my appearance.
Needless to say, I never identified myself as a perfectionist because I’ve never strived for literal perfection – knowing that it’s completely unattainable. But in knowing this, I have overtime still developed my own ideas and standards of perfection. What I feel is satisfactory and ideal in my life (aka my “perfect”) may be someone else’s unsatisfactory. No matter how you look at it though, these standards easily become idols and I’ve been seeing how damaging they can be. There are six particular issues with perfectionism that I have come to realize:
1 – It causes you to look solely within yourself for strength and ability
Perfectionism is not total dependency on God, it is the furthest thing from it. Instead of calling out to God for strength, ability, wisdom, rationality, your needs, etc., you are turning to yourself and attempting to dig deep into your own potential. Yes, it’s important to tap into your gifts and talents, to work hard for Christ and to use your life to bring Him glory – but this is not accomplished through your own ability, it is accomplished through Christ within you.
2 – It sets dangerous standards
There are a few intimidating circumstances coming up in my life, and as I make myself vulnerable and show others my fear and worry towards the situation… I often get back “you’ll be fine”, “you’ll do great”, “you got this”. And when I respond with “I’m afraid of failing”, the response is yet again a “you won’t fail”, “you know what you’re doing”.
I appreciate the confidence that others have in me, but honestly those statements make me cringe. I realize now that my perfectionist tendencies are lies to people. While others see someone who does well in school and who loves to talk to people, they don’t always see the work behind the assignments or the fear of someone not liking me behind a conversation.
Perfectionism sets these standards and it’s dangerous because it hinders you from authenticity and places an even greater pressure on yourself to attain what you feel you have to in order to meet the expectation of others.
3 – It stems from discontentment
We strive for perfection when less-than-perfection is unsettling and unsatisfactory to us. In this case I have to ask myself where my fulfillment, satisfaction, and contentment come from. Am I finding them in my grades, relationships, possessions? Striving for perfection in these areas is unattainable and I will never be fully satisfied or content. True, sincere, genuine, and life-changing contentment is found in Christ alone.
4 – It focuses on your will instead of God’s
I like the idea of perfection because I don’t like the messiness and ugliness of my mistakes and shortcomings. I fear judgement from other people and I desire approval. My will says perfection will safeguard me from hardship. God’s will says that my imperfection is meant to point people back to the redeeming power of Christ, and to cause me to fully depend on God and His way only.
5 – It’s not fair to the people around you
Perfectionism is truly selfish. When I complain or throw a pity-party over a grade I don’t like, and someone around me got a lower grade – how does that make them feel? When I’m unappreciative of how God has provided for me financially, how does that look to the person barely getting by? Perfectionism causes us to think about self instead of others, and it can consequently hurt our testimony and cause others to question God’s faithfulness and goodness.
6 – It diminishes the beauty of grace
My imperfections were accounted for on the cross. Jesus died so that I don’t have to live with the guilt and shame that my sin bestows on me. When I don’t boast in my weaknesses, when I get hung-up on my imperfections, I am diminishing the work that Christ did on the cross, I am throwing aside the beauty of grace and forgiveness and instead choosing to live in bondage. Consequently, I am robbed of joy and my life no longer becomes a mission to serve God, but a mission to serve myself.
These points being said, perhaps the biggest aspect of perfectionism that I’ve felt convicted of is that my feelings of inadequacy and “not being good enough” often crush my spirits and debilitate me as I try to live up to the expectations I have set for myself. But, when I stop striving to meet my expectations and start living according to God’s, everything changes.
Where perfectionism says to try harder, God says to come as you are. Where perfectionism says you’re a failure, God says that he’s pleased with your best effort – despite the outcome. Where everything in this world says there’s no hope, no chance, no peace, nothing worth living for – all of that and so much more is found in Christ.
So while I slept through ten alarms on Thursday morning and was wickedly late for class, while I studied for my law test and ended up totally bombing it, while I don’t have enough time in the day to do all that I feel I should, I have comfort that my imperfections are glorious reminders from God. A kind of beautiful brokenness that slaps me in the face and reminds me that I do not get by on my own strength, but by leaning into God’s grace, goodness, and power every single minute of every single day.
“But he said to me. ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” – 2 Corinthians 12:9.