Realistically speaking, anyone who’s busy trying to be perfect is in an active state of delusion. Whoa! What’s wrong with doing your best? Aren’t we supposed to have high aspirations? Life, liberty, and the pursuit of excellence—that’s the American dream!
Perfectionism vs. Excellence
Unfortunately, perfectionism is not synonymous with the pursuit of excellence. While having high aspirations can be healthy, measuring our value by our performance is NOT. The Bible says everything we do should be done to the glory of God. If our self-worth hinges on our performance, then whom are we attempting to glorify?
Psychiatrist Allan Mallinger distinguishes between perfectionism and the will to excel. The will to excel is a reasoned-but-flexible desire to perform competently. Failure to do so does not generate self-hatred. On the other hand, perfectionism is painful, rigid, self-defeating, and extremely unforgiving.
Being right or doing the right thing isn’t bad. But being obsessed with being right and righteous and/or being focused on the wrongness or wrong-doing of others is pathologically perfectionistic. When we make perfection our sole source of meaning and identity, when we evaluate our worth and the worth of others based on performance, and when we persist in doing so in the face of negative consequences, then perfectionism takes on an offensive quality at best, an addictive quality at worst.
In The Art of Imperfection, author Veronique Vienne advises, “Whenever in a moral quandary, do the right thing. But don’t consider that having principles makes you special, superior, or heroic. If, on the other hand, you fail to be as ethical as you think you should have been, don’t act surprised.”
I define perfectionism as the out-of-control pursuit of unattainable goals in the interest of proving one’s worth. It’s more than the pursuit of excellence. The pursuit of excellence is a conscious choice. Perfectionism is neither healthy nor a choice. It’s a compulsion. People with high ideals set reasonable goals and pursue them in a balanced fashion. They don’t believe that their value or their right to live (temporally or eternally) depends upon being perfect. They feel worthwhile even when they fail. Also, they don’t use their unimpeachable piety to compensate for feelings of brokenness or defectiveness.
By contrast, perfectionists set goals that are impossible to achieve or are achievable only at a high cost to themselves and the people close to them. They base their value on the quality of their performance. Incidentally, research shows that obsession with perfection impairs rather than enhances performance.
Perfectionists are precise and exacting. They place excessive demands on themselves and are highly upset by less-than-perfect performance. If dissatisfied with the quality of their work, they do it over and over until they get it right. They become irritable when others fail to live up to their standards. Meanwhile, they expect others to overlook their mistakes because they want to be held in high regard by everyone at all times. We’re not talking high and holy motives here! Perfectionists are greedy for approval. One admiring glance is too many, and a thousand are never enough. As is true with drug addicts for whom one drink or drug is too many and a thousand are never enough, one A+ is too many, and a thousand are never enough, one flawless performance is too many . . .
From Painstaking to Perfectionistic
Reared in an alcoholic family, Claudia was thorough in everything she did. Because her early environment was chaotic and out-of-control, she found security in being meticulous. To this day, she is a paragon of pathological perfectionism. Her home is immaculate, her grooming impeccable, her children bright and well-mannered. But she isn’t satisfied. Nothing she does is good enough. Being the perfect wife and mother, a respected educator, and an ideal Christian isn’t enough. Despite negative consequences (neglecting her family, harming her health), she continues to drive herself. Because her behavior seems right and feels good, Claudia has no idea she is addicted to perfection. Nor does she realize how exhausted she is.
Claudia has progressed from meticulous to merciless. Her unfavorable judgments are not reserved for herself alone; she judges others without mercy also. Although she’s patient with her students, she critiques peers who don’t measure up to her standards. She gets annoyed if they fail to be on time, keep their promises, or follow through on commitments. She disrespects anyone who wears wrinkled clothes, keeps a messy house, or drives a dented car. She’s irritated by poor manners, incorrect word usage, and improper pronunciation. She mentally edits people’s wardrobes, hairstyles, and home décor. No wonder her friends and family avoid her.
Parental and Institutional Perfectionism Harms Children
Much has been written about the emotional scars carried by children of alcoholics into adulthood. Children who face unrealistic demands for perfection carry similar scars. They live in fear of disapproval. Overly conscientious and compliant, they are willing to do anything to avoid criticism. They perfect their parent’s perfectionism in adolescence and become even more perfectionistic. Or they rebel. As one young drug addict said, “I wasn’t satisfied with being bad. Ever the competitor, I had to be the baddest of the bad.”
As adults, children of perfectionists become non-conformists in the one extreme or approval-seekers in the other. They tie themselves in knots trying to please everybody, or they give up in despair. Many evolve into compulsive caretakers and controllers.
Celebrating Our Humanity
By way of self-assessment, notice how you react to failure. Do you feel worthless when you don’t perform perfectly? Does your mood take a nosedive? Do you deny your faults and blame others to maintain your dignity? Does your need to be correct and righteous drive people away from you? Do you or the people close to you suffer due to your drivenness? If so, you may be a perfectionist.
Six Steps to Imperfectionism
Be not dismayed. Here are six easy steps to imperfectionism: First, assess your theology. Develop a more accurate understanding of God’s character. His love/approval doesn’t fluctuate based on your performance. Second, abstain from managing your image. Drop the phony facade. Accept your fallibility. Cut yourself a lot of slack and cut your mate, children, peers, and pastor some, too. Give everyone permission to be human.
Next: drop the take-charge persona. On social occasions, let someone else be the cruise director and withhold your ideas and opinions. If you know the answer, don’t tell. Resign from the Trinity. Say “I don’t know,” “I’m not sure,” and “I’d rather not” more often. Repeat silently to yourself, “I am not an oracle. I am not an oracle.” Do the minimum whenever possible. Put less than the usual amount of effort into achieving a goal.
Next, squelch your inner critic. When you’re in a judgmental mode, shift into positive gear. Focus on something pure, good, and lovely in yourself and others. Finally, find a mentor. Handcuff yourself to someone who knows how to relax and have fun.
And, if at first you don’t succeed, do not try, try again. If you have trouble sustaining new behavior, go to a professional counselor and address your underlying insecurities therapeutically. Most importantly, recognize that pathological perfectionism can be a full-fledged addiction. This warrants hooking up with a twelve-step group—the best place you could possibly go to join the human race.
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