01 May An Open Letter to Perfectionists
Dear perfectionists everywhere,
I know the feeling. That feeling at 1 am when you’ve just moved on to the second paragraph of your 8 page paper due tomorrow. After 30 minutes of frantically searching for the perfect word to drive your point home in the introduction, you turned to your good friend Thesaurus.com for help and inevitably ended up on Facebook to stalk people you don’t even know – because you still haven’t composed the perfect thesis and, well, you’re just stressed. Or how about that uneasy feeling you get when one of your group members volunteers to complete a task, but you don’t trust that they can do it as well as you can?
Before you expect me to tell you to just embrace the fact that perfection is unattainable and chill out, let me be the first to confess it: I’m one of you. I’m a recovering perfectionist, and I understand that overcoming it is a whole lot harder than it looks.
You know what? I think the reason why it’s so difficult to quit striving for perfection is that, deep down, we just don’t want to. And we don’t see the need to.
Instead of seeing perfectionism for what it is, we often view it with faulty lens. We see it as a minor character flaw, as one of our weaknesses that we can swiftly convince interviewers is actually a strength. Sure, it’s kind of an obstacle, but really it helps us be diligent workers that produce flawless work. And this is what digs deep into the heart of the matter. Many of you have a difficult time seeing your obsession with perfection as a disadvantage, because more often than not, it works for you. You get praise, recognition, a high GPA and the satisfaction of superiority. So instead of casting your perfectionism down at the feet of the only perfect One, Jesus, you treasure it and clutch onto it in desperation.
But let us consider something: when perfectionism doesn’t work for you. Sometimes, you fail, and you get frustrated, angry, and upset – not because something failed, but because you failed. In this instance, we clearly see that perfectionism is not a personality trait that helps you or a minor character flaw to overcome. Rather, it is a burden that crushes you.
In order to be freed from the burden of perfectionism, we need to understand that it is a heart issue driven deep into our cores. It shapes the way we manage our time, the expectations we set for others, the image we portray of ourselves, and our ability to make decisions. More importantly, it spills into our spiritual life and threatens to devour it. It tempts us to constantly compare ourselves to our brothers and sisters, to be silently shameful about our sin instead of bringing it into the light, and to work for God’s approval instead of resting in the approval Jesus purchased for us at the cross.
It’s a defense mechanism we use in the face of fear that others will abandon us if they knew who we really are, or reject us if we fail them. It is a force that consumes and masters us, teaching us to find our worth, satisfaction and acceptance in our performance and achievement. And most notably, it’s a worship disorder that exposes us. We are flawed; so flawed, in fact, that we make every effort to prove that we’re not. And we are sick; so sick that we prize our glory more than we prize the glory of God.
Interestingly enough, though, our longing for perfection is not inherently sinful. Much like our desire for eternity, it points to what we were created for. But this good desire grew into something entirely different in the cursed ground of Eden.
Amy Baker, in a 3-part blog series on perfectionism for the Biblical Counseling Coalition, puts it this way:
“From the very beginning, God’s purpose has been that men and women would reflect his image, that they would radiate the glory of a perfect God, their Creator and Friend. Sadly, sin has turned what was once a glorious mission into a source of tension. Sin has also caused us to come up with our own definition of perfection, a man-centered definition that often focuses on performance and outcomes that glorify us, not our Creator…because of sin, good desires become warped and twisted.”
So, my fellow perfectionists, now that we have considered the magnitude of our problem, where do we go from here? We can’t just follow a list of practical steps in hopes of severing these bonds, nor can we resolve to be more intentional about resting. If we do, we’ll find ourselves locked in the same vicious cycle of trying harder and doing better that we desperately need to escape. But we cannot settle for cliché, culturally Christian answers either, like the typical “You will never be perfect, so stop trying to be” or “God accepts you as you are.”
Fortunately for us, the answer to our problem is simple: look at Jesus. Really, truly look, and stay there awhile. Avert your eyes from other things and fix your gaze on the spotless lamb on the cross, trading his blameless life for the full weight of your sin. As you behold your perfect Savior there on Calvary’s hill, let his act of impeccable justice both convict and pardon you. See yourself for who you really are apart from him: not merely imperfect, but wicked, by nature a child of wrath, dead in your trespasses. Now see him: rich in mercy, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and removing our transgressions from us. See him freely extending his perfect righteousness and eternal life to us and hear him call: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Perfection isn’t a goal to be achieved; he’s a person to surrender to, worship, and follow.
Samantha Beavers is a graduate of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a soon-to-be member of the Summit College Staff Team at Duke University.