THE PERIL OF PERFECTIONISM
Confession, ladies: I have struggled with perfectionism for years. I still do on so many levels.
Being the goal-oriented person I am, I struggle to keep up to “the list,” “the planner,” “the performance,” very often affording myself little or no grace. It’s taken me years to even receive a compliment without questioning it. But I didn’t realize that perfectionism was one of my biggest weaknesses until I entered ministry life. Everything I did in ministry, whether in leadership, administration, or event planning, led to emotional and physical burnout because of the unrealistic expectations I had set for myself and others.
Even my own personal spiritual life was marked by perfectionism. I came to God with a set of ideals regarding what to say and how I should behave and what I should do in order to check off the “good daughter” list. It bothered me when I missed prayer time or when I didn’t “feel” as I should in prayer. On the other hand, I tried to “do” things for God when I failed, as if trying to make up for the loss on God’s behalf. The outcome of such a life was nothing less than anxiety, insecurity and lack of trust.
It was not until I began to really dig deep into scripture and seek help that I began to see the innumerable ways I was trapped, even in religious life. In my pursuit of perfection, I had forgotten to embrace my uniqueness; I had misunderstood Grace and gained a distorted perception of spiritual goals.
But God is so patient with us. One thing I have learned (am still learning) is that Perfectionism is but our veiled, pulsing desire for acceptance. I spent years trying to be perfect for other people, striving hard to please them, lest they reject me.
I realize today that when I refute this lie and choose to live in the truth—that I am God’s child—that I discover that I don’t have to “do” for God in order to earn back His love: God loves me for who I am.
I have learned that when things begin to fall through the cracks and I hit rock bottom, that is where I can receive and experience Grace most directly. It is when I choose to rise, with God’s help, that I can truly overcome. If I start thinking I only need to work harder or find it in me to “fix it” one more time, then I have only reentered the vicious cycle of self-validation. But if I allow Grace to take over, then I no longer need to live in the tyranny of perfectionism.
Perfection or Excellence
Dr. Brene Brown defines Perfectionism as “a way of thinking that says this: ‘If I look perfect, live perfect, work perfect, I can avoid or minimize criticism, blame, and ridicule.’”
I realize that every human, in some way, desires to see a world that is beautiful—that we see in ourselves a human responsibility to make it better for everyone. But that doesn’t mean we have all the answers or need to perfectly check all the boxes. In our stubborn perfectionism, we deny ourselves the opportunity to be a conduit of Grace; through this very stubbornness, we deny others the gift of blessing our lives.
Jesus calls us to a life of perfection (Mathew 5:48). That word, “perfect,” derives from the word for virtue or excellence: that innate ability we possess to transform ourselves in order to transform the world around us. In other words, we can live a life of excellence even when things don’t perfectly fall in place. We can still encounter God in the most unlikely places. We can discover His Grace in the grind and see His strength in our weakness.
As a mother, I need discipline in my home—whether it is arranging the shelves, working out children’s school schedules, writing a grocery list, or making travel plans. But I recognize that it is often in these small, daily, ordinary things that I fail the most in embodying this excellence. Yet, it is exactly in these little failings that I discover that His grace is sufficient for me.
Turning to Mary
Over the years I have grown to love our Lady, our model for virtue. But I must admit that it has taken me years to relate to her. I mistook her immaculate conception for a life devoid of temptation, and I saw her perfect life more through the lens of perfectionism than of excellence. Now I love how over the years, as a patient mother, she has gently taught me to see otherwise.
Mary’s humility and dependence on Grace offers us a paradigm shift in the way we have perceived and lived out our feminine genius. As St. Edith Stein (also known as St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross) so poignantly put it, “none of us is completely free of this fierce tendency to grasp and control. Every woman has something in herself, inherited from Eve, and she must search for the way from Eve to Mary.”
If we are honest with ourselves, we know that there is a bit of defiance in each woman that does not want to humble itself under any sovereignty. And so our journey from Eve to Mary is a journey of the restoration and transformation of our true womanhood.
We’re actually allowing the Lord to transform us. And Mary shows us how to do that in the most beautiful way possible.
Turning to Truth
Take a moment to think about the area(s) of your life where you seek perfection. In those same areas, how have you progressed? Next time you feel a sense of failure for being imperfect, I hope that you will pause and, instead, think about the progress you made.
In those same areas, how have you progressed?
If perfectionism has a hold on you, I invite you to run from it. Run slow, run fast, or even walk—however you get there, I encourage you to begin abandoning perfectionism and replacing it with a genuine appreciation for progress.
God wants to use each of us in his work on earth to give gifts of Grace and Beauty to the world.
When we place too much importance on our own contribution, we lose our humility. We thereby risk obscuring the real gift-giver: Our Heavenly Father.
Take time to appreciate the small stuff. Make a list of what moves you. What do you love? As we journey together, dear sisters, I encourage you to offer yourself a little grace. Take a step back from this digitally obsessed world and focus on where you are at this moment, even if it isn’t perfect.
His Grace is sufficient for you (2 Corinthians 12:9)