After nearly two decades of being a skilled professional I had to tone down my perfectionists tendencies. I have to explain this perfectionism part of my life for people who know me outside of the work place. When I am at work everything has to be just so. You may know what I'm talking about. As a printer I always needed to make things as perfect as possible. I was the one who was always tweaking my press, checking my color, and making it perform with precision. Everything had to be perfect.
Now away from work was another story. It was as though I was two different people. I left part of myself at work. I tried to be happy and at peace being an imperfect person in an imperfect world. I finally gave in. Enough is enough I decided! I indulged my irrational, dysfunctional desire for perfection and just gave in. I sought perfection in one part of my life – my job!
But Oh, when I do not have this outlet to be perfect I tend to find other things to take its place. Creating things, writing, and relationships. This tendency spills out all over the place.
And when I’m having a bad day or things in my life seem messed up I can go to create something or write a story and stay there until I feel better!
The Problem of Perfectionism
All kidding aside (I don’t hang out at work! Although I used to.), perfectionism is a serious and painful problem for many people and their loved ones.
You can see that if I spent hours every day obsessing about making things perfect and neglecting God, my family, or my work I’d have a problem. Or if I insisted on neatness and order in my wife’s closet or my kid’s rooms or tried to control the choices of my family and friends or was critical of people who weren’t perfect enough then it’d be a problem not only for me, but also for other people.
Fortunately, I’ve learned to live in God’s grace.
I Talk with Many Perfectionists
I’ve talked to many different types of perfectionists – people who are compulsively perfectionists about…
- How they look
- What they achieve
- What others think of them
- What they feel
- A relationship
- The ideal spouse
- Expectations for their kids
- Keeping their home immaculate
For these perfectionists, when their compulsion is not ideal (which is almost all the time) they feel bad. They are beset with inner feelings of inferiority, inadequacy, guilt, anxiety, jealousy, or emptiness.
They think, “If it’s not perfect then it’s bad” or “If I can’t do it right then I won’t do it at all.” This kind of black and white, all-or-nothing thinking gets perfectionists into trouble.
Perfectionists struggle to live in reality. They often procrastinate, neglect responsibilities and commitments, or isolate from others. And even when they have succeeded at something they often don’t enjoy their success. “It could’ve been even better,” they think. Or rather than savoring their achievement they’ve already moved on to perfecting their next project.
Perfectionism is Deadly
For some perfectionism has a tragic end: suicide. One well-known example is that of former deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster.
Prior to his time in Washington D.C. Foster’s life looked super successful and spotless: first in his law school class, highest score on the Arkansas bar exam, partner in a prestigious law firm, stable marriage and family, popular, a sterling reputation.
Foster’s perfect life all unraveled, especially the sterling reputation, when things went wrong at the White House in the early months of the Clinton administration. He couldn’t remedy the situation and he felt responsible. To make matters worse, the media was all over him, questioning his integrity and competence. His reputation had been destroyed. He killed himself in July of 1993.
Most perfectionists never take things to this tragic end, but Vincent Foster’s story illustrates just how increasingly consuming and destructive a problem perfectionism can become if its not addressed.
Are You a Perfectionist?
If you or someone you know struggles with perfectionism know that there is hope. There is help for perfectionists! It all begins with identifying that your perfectionism has gotten out of control.
My Perfectionism Survey will help you see to what extent you (or a loved one) may have perfectionists tendencies. It will highlight the areas that you need to rely on God’s perfect grace to get free of anxious perfectionism.
Paul (not his real name) has always been talented in a wide range of skills. He married late in life for he could not find the perfect women. In every thing that he does he performs it with great skill. He researches to find the best technique, the finest tools, and criticize everything he does as not being good enough.
Paul even though raising three great children needed to do more so he adopted two more. There seem to be something incomplete in his world. Usually when you see them they’re on their way to an activity, striving, working at being better. Paul could have been so much more than what he turned out to be. This haunts him every day as he works with people who screw up around him.
Other guys want to be like Paul because he seems to have it all together. He is a likeable guy. But working with him can be a nightmare I should know I have been doing it for most of my life. He's like an ever ready battery who keeps going and going in perfect performance.
How Paul Got Free
No one would argue that Paul is impressive and successful. Yet, inside he felt he was not accomplishing any good..
As I relate to Paul I have such a high admiration for him yet he is always so hard on himself. “It isn’t enough. He has to do more.
I believe his greatest fear is to fail in anything that he does. He tries so hard to be the best. As Paul has gotten older he has understood some of his own shortcomings.
“Grow in God’s grace” Peter taught (1 Peter 3:8). Paul needed a “Christ’s Ambassador” (2 Corinthians 5:20) to help him experience God’s grace and apply it to his struggles with perfectionism.
Through his acceptance of his shortcomings Paul learned little-by-little, to rely on the gift of God’s grace that accepts his sins and struggles. He learned to be his true self before God and others.
From Performance Pressure to God’s Grace
Perfectionists need to learn is to step out of the performance trap. Ironically, many perfectionists try so hard to earn love and acceptance from others by being outstanding and yet end up feeling rejected and inadequate.
They may know intellectually that God is kind and merciful, gracious and forgiving. They’ve read the Bible. They believe in Christ. And yet deep in their hearts they haven’t trusted in the grace of Christ and they don’t experience God’s unconditional love.
Paul had to try a different approach to his life or he’d never experience the grace of God that he professed to believe. He learned that he wouldn’t feel loved and accepted by his family and close friends until they knew how he felt inside. He wasn’t the seemingly perfect person people saw on the outside.
Indeed, Paul was a high performer and a good person, but he also was an imperfect Christian man, a husband with emotional needs, and a father who struggled with his kids at times like any other human being.
In addition to being more honest, Kristen had to start putting limits on her activities and not worry so much about her accomplishments and her appearance. Instead she started paying more attention to her inner self and put more priority on developing her relationships.
Don’t “Should” on Yourself
When Jesus said, “Be perfect” (Matthew 5:48) he was not pressuring us to perfectionism! He was teaching us to learn from him how to keep growing in a life of love. He said this as part of his Sermon on the Mount and the point of his message was to open up our hearts before God and apply Jesus’ wisdom to how we live.
Jesus shows us that by apprenticing ourselves to him we can mature and grow to become more loving people, from the inside out. He encourages us in his famous sermon to ask and keep asking our Heavenly Father for what we need (Matthew 7:7-11).
But perfectionists like Paul tend to make unreasonable demands on themselves (and often on other people too!). They don’t like to be vulnerable and to ask for what they need.
Paul was self-reliant to a fault. He was self-critical and self-pressuring. He lived with destructive shoulds like: “I have to look my best… I need to do all these things well to be a good person… If I say no then people won’t like me… I should be more responsible…”
Paul learned to “abandon outcomes” to God. He learned to submit himself to God, to live in his kingdom. Instead of trying to make things happen for himself or get people to think well of him he took hold of the hand of Christ and followed him in her daily life.
Paul depended on God’s grace rather than trying make his life look perfect. He learned to have wants instead of expectations or demands. Instead of saying "I should" or "you should" his attitude became: “I would like to…” or “I’m going to work towards….” or “I’d appreciate it if you could…”
Paul was greatly helped by Scriptures like, “How great is the love the Father has lavished on me that I should be called a child of God” (1 John 3:1). He came to know that the Bible is full of Grace for Perfectionism; it is the message of God’s grace to us in Christ. It is a book of life for disciples of Jesus to learn to live in and rely upon the favor of the Lord.
Strive for Excellence, Not Perfection
Don’t misunderstand me by thinking that I encouraged Paul to settle for laziness and mediocrity. Quite the contrary, I encouraged him to strive for excellence.
But first Paul needed to be free to be himself and to achieve more balance in His life between work and play, accomplishments and relationships. This enabled him not only to feel better about himself, but also to focus on what was most important to him and to his family.
The key to Paul's transformation was that he focused on being his true self and doing an excellent job in what was most important to him.
Perfectionists often have great trouble with focusing on priorities. They need to learn not to obsess about minor details, not to get compulsive about things that are irrelevant or of secondary importance, but to instead focus on putting their heart into the things that are most important.It’s people like you who support "Bytes of Truth", which includes articles like this. Perhaps you would like to invest in the transformation of men in the community, Future leaders, productive workers, and care-givers? Your tax deductible donation to Transition To Community will support this website, help the transition of broken lives back into the community, and the spreading of truth one byte at a time. When giving just say Bender Bytes sent you.
RonRonald Bender- President/CEO Bender Consulting.~http://www.benderbytes.net/bender_consult