Most people have a perfectionist living somewhere inside of them. Perfectionism manifests itself in different streams according to the values of the person. However, a true perfectionist knows immediately that this blog is about them, and is avidly reading this to make sure they are doing perfectionism perfectly.
I am writing this in defense of perfectionism, though I don’t particularly consider myself a perfectionist. Just in certain areas. My husband says I am a type B+; I think he is a type A-. I think, however, that we settled pretty easily into the A and B types when we first married and I have upped my game while he has learned to accept a little more imperfection.
I was raised by a perfectionist, married one, and then raised one myself, so I claim insight based on close observation. I have come to the conclusion that an emotionally mature perfectionist is a clear gift from God to this planet. I also believe that while sometimes it is very difficult to live with one, most perfectionists find it even harder to live with their own selves.
Every gift has a shadow side, so my goal is to reframe perfectionism and point it towards what I believe God intended this particular gift to be: a love of excellence. But first, recognizing the painful side of perfectionism helps clarify what needs to be healed in order for this particular gifting to bear the glorious fruit it was intended to.
Challenges and Strategies
- Procrastination: When a perfectionist looks at a task, it can seem overwhelming because, in order to do it right, a lot of time and effort is involved. I didn’t understand this until I saw my husband at work. He had to craft an employee handbook. This did not seem like a big deal to me until I saw him craft a detailed document that understood all the rules and that really served the needs of the employees. His only issue was that it took him months to face the task, but he did a far better job than I would have.
I think the best remedy is discerning which tasks are really large and which ones are not. Perfectionism plays head games with people. Learning to sort out things according to actual difficulty and important is crucial to shrinking tasks down to a doable size. Breaking things up into smaller chunks is necessary for most people, even those whose standards are lower.
- Competitiveness: Perfectionists are not just competing against you or themselves. Often they compete against the whole world, at least in their own minds. The best way to describe this is how Oxford University grades term papers. Your paper is not held up to a preformed rubric as it is in the US. At Oxford, your paper is compared to all the papers written on that topic for hundreds of years. You aren’t competing with just your class. You are competing with the whole world of known scholarship. A score of 75 and you are practically a world class genius.
I think the only way out of this all-consuming range of competition is to focus on that thing for which excellence matters the most. Being conscientious in all things is great. But excellence is a goal best focused on things that have a larger purpose than a clean house. Channel that competitive spirit only into what you are called to do. I don’t mean try to be better than everyone else, either. That isn’t a worthy enough focus. Instead, concentrate on this desire for excellence. Excellence is a worthy goal in and of itself.
For me, that is being a writer, at the moment. I live in the land of revision in my novel. It has to be great, not just good. But there is not enough of me to apply that effort to all the other things that vie for my attention.
- Self-condemnation: Curiously, while many perfectionists can be critical, their main focus of critique is their own self. Most perfectionists I know live in a painful world of self-loathing. It is as if they live in front of a TV screen that blasts their often magnified faults all day, every day. It is like standing next to a ruler and finding you always just hit the ‘not quite good enough’ line. No matter how hard you try, you can’t make yourself grow another inch.
But everyone suffers to some degree from guilt and anxiety. Being a perfectionist just amplifies the issue. I believe everyone in the world, just about, has to take on their thought life and learn to be truthful with themselves. And truthful does not mean a catalog of what is wrong but an all-inclusive list of gifts as well as faults.
- Love is conditional: This is what breaks my heart over the perfectionists in my life. Love is earned. Love is given or withheld based on performance. Performance-based issues are not unique to perfectionists, despite all the stereotypes. But learning how to feel loved based on one’s inherent worthiness as God’s son or daughter takes practice. And yes, I mean practice.
Receiving love is a learned behavior. Some are better at it than others because they have more practice. Fight the battle of separating what you do from who you are. The way I learned to feel loved is by focusing on God’s love almost exclusively for years in my prayer time. I practiced feeling God love me. When I felt insecure, I would say to myself, “God is loving me right now.” It took a while but truly I am no longer a slave to insecurity and shame, though they are still occasional acquaintances.
In Praise of Excellence
The single most intimidating verse for me in the Bible is where Jesus tells us to be perfect as He is perfect. It took me years to have the revelation that my perfection was not the point. His perfection, His righteousness is something we put on through faith. It is a gift given to us, but it in no way denies the reality of our imperfection.
So in celebration of the detail-noticing, hard-working, and conscientious perfectionists out there, I want to say thank you for designing safe houses and streets. Thank you for years of medical school and for thoroughly grading my papers so I could tell how to improve. Thank you for designing a Constitution that would hold up for centuries. Thank you for incredible performances in the arts, paintings that breathe truth, music that sings emotion, and books that open up new worlds. Excellence is hard to come by, but it can create treasures that last forever.
If you haven’t read anything by Brene Brown, it is surely time to start:
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