It’s a dream killer, a relationship hurter, a healing inhibitor, a paralyzer, a prison creator, and a fear instiller.
Perfectionism is an obsession with making sure that whatever it is you’re doing or working on is done right. And until it’s done right, it’s just not done. There is no “almost perfect.” There is no good enough. There is simply…perfect.
As a recovering perfectionist myself, I’ve had moments of intense pressure and obsession with making sure that a project I was working on, a room I was cleaning, or something I was designing was done perfectly. Not one thing out of place, not a crumb left on the kitchen counter, not a line uneven in a design, or a word out of place in a document.
I remember thinking, “It’s good enough. I should stop now.” But then I would realize that one more thing could be improved, and I could not let it go. It would bother me all day–or for forever –if I left it as such. So I would keep on going…sometimes for hours, or depending on the project, for days.
I can’t tell you how many hours in my 40 some odd years have been handed to this perfectionistic obsession. There was no such thing as “good enough.” If it wasn’t done perfectly, it simply wouldn’t be done at all.
In my early years of housekeeping, this was clearly reflected in the state of my home. Either my house was perfectly clean (under the beds and everything), or it was a complete wreck.
While wrapped up in my own image of “done right,” I would also take these expectations and criticisms and apply them to others. When others would start programs or write an article or step up in leadership, I would often find myself criticizing their work and thinking of all the ways it could be done better. I couldn’t understand why they would push something out that wasn’t done quite right.
It didn’t matter where I was; the criticism seemed to raise its ugly head. Whether it was the singer at church not hitting all the right notes, a social media post filled with uncapitalized and misspelled words, my kids not getting a room cleaned right or a blog article filled with uninteresting and disorganized paragraphs. It seemed that often all I ever saw were the mistakes, errors, or a person’s clear lack of follow-through to make it right.
To top it all off, in my own life, I can’t tell you how many goals went unmet or dreams went unfulfilled because I was afraid to put something out there that wasn’t perfect.
My wrestle with perfectionism went beyond the things I did and extended into who I was and how I would see myself.
I struggled if I wasn’t the right weight, if my clothes weren’t styled right, if I misspoke or acted in a way that didn’t reach my level of perfection. I was so incredibly self-critical.
I was way more generous with others. Rarely would I even find myself beginning to criticize others for their imperfect behavior; in fact, I was more likely to make excuses for them.
But for me, there was no room for mistakes. I’ll never forget one day when I was having a long conversation with my friend Sherri. I was upset over a friendship and partnership that had ended and was reciting a litany of all the things I had done wrong.
Tears streaming down my face, I looked up at Sherri, who also happens to be a clinical psychologist, and cried…“Why can’t I just be perfect?”
To my surprise, Sherri laughed. I was shocked. Why was she laughing?
But then she said something that hit home and has really stuck with me. “Michelle, nobody’s perfect. Even Jesus doesn’t expect you to be perfect.”
It’s crazy to me that I’ve spent years striving to be perfect, angry at myself for failing to be perfect, and working hard to overcome these failures so I could finally be–perfect– when not once did I actually stop and think that even Jesus doesn’t expect me to be perfect.
Only two perfect people have ever walked the face of this earth–Jesus and his mama Mary.
As obvious as this revelation should have been, I had been so busy trying to get it all right that I just never stopped to think about it.
This past year has been like being in an overcoming perfectionism boot camp. I went back to work in the corporate world and immediately had to start producing documents and creating long-term plans in areas that were completely new to me.
My boss insisted that I stop trying to make things perfect and just get it done. To push this point, I had unmovable deadlines that absolutely had to be reached.
This is when I realized how much I really struggled with perfectionism. It might sound silly, but in the first few months of this job, in the evening of when some of those projects were due, I’d hit send on that email and be in tears after, knowing it wasn’t done right. I knew there were gaps, and my entire body was filled with anxiety and fear at turning in something that simply wasn’t ready.
It caused me to stop and think… why was I so afraid of turning in a project that wasn’t perfect?
I wasn’t afraid of losing my job, so that wasn’t it.
I wasn’t afraid of my boss saying anything rude or unkind. She’s a great coach and leader.
To be honest, I still haven’t quite got to the root of why I felt such doom and gloom over those documents. I’m still working on that one. What I will tell you is that the more I worked hard to get it done and hit my deadlines, the fewer tears were shed and the stronger I felt.
If you’re like me and struggle with an overwhelming battle with perfectionism, I’m going to share with you some things you can do to help overcome this lie. Where in the “doing” of your life, you can find a new freedom in “good enough,” and in the spiritual growing, you can strive for perfection, but not hate on yourself when you fall short of that goal.
Allow Yourself to Make Mistakes
My husband is an amazing soccer coach. Many times with kiddos new to soccer, he’d notice their hesitation to really give it their all, and their very real struggle with the fear of making a mistake on the field.
When he’d notice this happening, he’d pull the kiddo off the field and quietly tell them that it’s okay to make mistakes. That, in fact, they should give it everything they had, which meant they were going to make mistakes, and that was okay, because that was the only way they were going to get better.
Taking that concept into our own lives, the idea of putting something out there that isn’t quite perfect can be paralyzing for a perfectionist. We don’t want to put something out there that is sub par, so we pixelate on the details. That’s what my hubby calls it–pixelating–focusing on all the small details so much that we can’t see the big picture.
The only way we’re going to grow and continually move forward is by getting out of our comfort zone, allowing ourselves to let go of perfection, and giving ourselves enough grace to make mistakes along the way.
In the end, if we just get it done, whatever “it” is, we may be able get more stuff done and not get lost in counting the pixels. We’ll have way more peace and perhaps get quite a bit further than our pixelating selves could ever have gone.
Look Through Eyes of Gratitude
When we’re looking through the eyes of perfectionism, it’s easy to become quite the critic. We see all the details that weren’t quite attended to or notice the failure in others. This makes it quite hard to be content at times.
How do we transform our critical mindset? The best antidote for criticism is gratitude.
Take that singer at church who can’t quite hit all the right notes, or her timing is consistently off. We can’t help but notice it and our immediate response is to cringe and think that maybe she should consider serving in another way.
Imagine if we trained our brain to start looking through eyes of gratitude. “Lord, thank you for this beautiful soul who is giving of herself to serve you.” It’s amazing how our attitude can turn right around when we make gratitude our go-to response.
Instead of criticizing the wrinkles on our face, we can thank God for the gift of being able to live long enough to get wrinkles. Instead of criticizing someone else’s work or appearance, we can find something to be grateful for.
What you’ll find over time is that your brain will more often turn to gratitude over criticism and thereby transform the critical perfection into gratitude.
Take a Dive in the Ocean of Mercy
I dare say one of the hardest crosses that we often bare as perfectionists is our incredibly harsh judgement of ourselves.
No one but God knows us as intimately as we know ourselves. It’s easy to focus on all of the ways we have failed, the things we said that we shouldn’t have said or maybe came out the wrong way. The things we did that we shouldn’t have done or things we didn’t do that we should have. The list is endless.
This is where that reminder from my friend, Dr. Sherri, comes in quite handy. Even God does not expect us to be perfect–no one is good but God.
God calls us to be faithful and He calls us to draw close to His heart when we sin. He doesn’t call us to get everything perfect.
In Saint Faustina’s Diary, in Jesus’ conversation with a sinful soul, He says,
Be not afraid of your Savior, oh sinful soul. I make the first move to come to you, for I know that by yourself you are unable to lift yourself to Me. Child do not run away from your Father; be willing to talk openly with your God of mercy who wants to speak words of pardon and lavish His gracees on you. How dear your soul is to Me! I have inscribed your name upon My hand; you are engraved as a deep wound in My heart.”Jesus
His ocean of mercy is deep. When we’re struggling with our failure, our sinfulness, and our lack of perfection, we have to kick pride out the door and take a deep dive into His ocean of mercy.
His grace is sufficient, and His love and desire for us, even though completely undeserved, is, in His own words, “unspeakable.”
I’ll never forget a time where I went to confession for the exact same sin three days in a row. On the third day, I told the priest I almost didn’t come. I certainly didn’t deserve forgiveness if I kept making the same mistake.
He told me that that was the lie the enemy was whispering to keep me from the grace of confession, and from God‘s incredible mercy.
Often, perfectionism is just that– a lie whispered into our hearts that we have to get it right, or perhaps not even do anything at all.
This is a way that the enemy can lead us on the path of pride and keep us from accomplishing God‘s plan for our lives.
And is His plan perfect? Of course, it is. But God knows that we aren’t. That’s why He gave us hope in Romans 8:28, where the Bible says that God takes all things and uses them for good for those who love Him. He’s quite used to using people who are far from perfect to fulfill His perfect plan.
So I want to encourage you, my friend, the next time you’re tempted to stress about not having something perfect or not being perfect, fight back. Allow yourself to make mistakes, look through eyes of gratitude, and take a deep dive into the ocean of mercy.
And remember… while God does call us to strive for perfection, even He doesn’t expect us to be perfect.
Jesu, ufam tobie.
Jesus, I trust in you.