After nearly two decades of toning down my perfectionism tendencies and learning 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 closet!
I have a small walk-in closet in our master bedroom and I decided to go all out and make it perfect! I got a closet organizer system, new hangers, and arranged all my clothes. Now my closet is clean and white and organized! All my clothes are in there, where they belong, and hanging on nice, wood hangers. It makes picking out my clothes in the morning so much easier.
And when I’m having a bad day or things in my life seem messed up I can go in my perfect closet and stay there until I feel better!
The Problem of Perfectionism
All kidding aside (I don’t hang out it my closet!), 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.
And that’s the kind of thing that perfectionism leads to. Like the man using scissors to cut the grass perfectly! Jesus said to a group of religious perfectionists, “You strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:24)
It’s not just the Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day that struggled with religious perfectionism. That’s a virus that’s been passed on down through the centuries. Pastors, ministry leaders, and others who are strongly committed to following Christ seem to be the most susceptible to perfectionism.
I Talk with Many Perfectionists
As a psychologist I’ve talked to many different types of perfectionists — people who are consumed with perfectionism about many external things. It’s all about their image, how they appear and how that makes them feel. Perfectionists are focused on things like:
- How they look physically
- 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 is at the foundation of perfectionism.
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.
Rarely does perfectionism have such a tragic end, but Vincent Foster’s story illustrates just how increasingly consuming and destructive a problem perfectionism can become if its not addressed.
If you or someone you know struggles with perfectionism know that there is hope. There is help for perfectionism! It begins with coming out of the closet to be honest about the ways that your perfectionism has gotten out of control.
Our Perfectionism Test will help you see to what extent you (or a loved one) may have perfectionism tendencies. It will highlight the areas that you need to rely on God’s perfect grace to get free of anxious perfectionism.
Kristen (not her real name) is the mother of three children and the wife of a successful CEO. She’s in her mid 40’s, but looking at her you’d think she was 29 and spent most of her time at the health club and the beach. She’s attractive, thin, sports a tan, and wears a bright smile.
Kristen and her kids seem to always look like they stepped out of a catalogue. And usually when you see them they’re on their way to an activity. Kristen took a leadership role in all their activities: Room Mom in all three kids classes, teaching Sunday school, Scout Master for the local Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, and assistant soccer coach. And she loves to gather her friends and her kid’s friends in her immaculate home.
Other Moms get tired just hearing about all that Kristen is doing! But Kristen just keeps going and going and looking so perfect.
How Kristen Got Free
No one would argue that Kristen is impressive and successful. Yet, inside she felt empty.
Sitting on the couch in my therapy office Kristen cried, “It isn’t enough. Nobody really loves me.”
I replied, “I think your family and friends would love you if they knew you. It’s time that you shared your true self with them. Don’t try to impress them so much. Just be yourself, and share some of your struggles and your inner feelings.”
“Grow in God’s grace” Peter taught (1 Peter 3:8). Kristen needed a “Christ’s Ambassador” (2 Corinthians 5:20) to help her experience God’s grace and apply it to her struggles with perfectionism.
Through her therapy and by participating in a support group at her church Kristen learned, little-by-little, to rely on the gift of God’s grace that accepts her with her sins and struggles. She learned to be her true self before God and others.
From Performance Pressure to God’s Grace
Perfectionism sucks us into a performance trap. Ironically, many perfectionists try so hard to earn love and acceptance from others by being outstanding and yet no matter how much praise they receive they end up feeling alone, unknown, and inadequate. They can never “measure up.”
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.
Kristen had to try a different approach to her life or she’d never experience the grace of God that she professed to believe. She learned that she wouldn’t feel loved and accepted by her family and close friends until they knew how she felt inside. She wasn’t the seemingly perfect person people saw on the outside.
Indeed, Kristen was a high performer and a good person, but she also was an imperfect Christian woman, a wife with emotional needs, and a mother who struggled with her kids at times like any other mother.
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 toward being perfected or completed 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 teach how we can learn to be loving people — even blessing those who curse us — by discipling ourselves to Jesus and living in terms of God’s Kingdom, not our own abilities or what other people think of us.
Jesus shows us that by apprenticing ourselves to him and learning to live from the resources of his Kingdom of the Heavens we can mature and grow to become more loving people, from the inside out. For instance, 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 Kristen 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.
Kristen was self-reliant to a fault. She was self-critical and self-pressuring. She 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…”
Kristen learned to Abandon Outcomes to God. She learned to submit herself to God, to live in his Kingdom. Instead of trying to make things happen for herself or get people to think well of her she took hold of the hand of Christ and followed him in her daily life.
Kristen depended on God’s grace rather than trying her life look perfect. She learned to have wants instead of expectations or demands. Instead of shoulding on herself and other people her attitude became: “I would like to…” or “I’m going to work towards….” or “I’d appreciate it if you could…”
The grace of God in Christ is the antidote to perfectionism.
Kristen was greatly helped by memorized 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). And she repeated God’s Word to herself often during the day, letting it lead her into prayers like, “I thank you Heavenly Father that you love and accept me when my friend is disappointed in me… Or when I back out of a commitment because I’m overloaded.”
There are many Bible Verses on Perfectionism to help us get out of perfectionism and into God’s grace. What a blessing the grace of God through Christ is to us! Grace is not just unmerited favor — it’s God acting powerfully in our lives to do what we cannot do for ourselves.
Strive for Excellence, Not Perfectionism
Don’t misunderstand me by thinking that I encouraged Kristen to settle for laziness and mediocrity. Quite the contrary, I encouraged her to strive for excellence. Instead of trying to be perfect in the image she projected to other people she relied upon the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ to keep working at who she was, perfecting (completing) her character. “Being confident of this that God who began a good work in you will complete it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).
Kristen’s process of being perfected in grace began with honesty. She became freer to be her true self. She learned to focus on achieving more balance in her life between work and play, accomplishments and relationships. This enabled her to enjoy God’s love and to share his love with her family, which was really what was most important to her all along.
Perfectionism gets us sidetracked on the wrong priorities. We 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 our heart into the things that are most important.
By taking a step back from her life to think about her activity level and her lifestyle, Kristen was able to re-prioritize and to make some adjustments to get out of her pattern of perfectionism. For instance, she learned to spend less time dressing herself and her kids and more time relaxing and talking with them at the dinner table. She decided that being Scout Master and Assistant Soccer coach weren’t as important to her as being involved in her church and her kids’ school. She stopped her compulsive cleaning and spent more time sitting down and listening to her kids.
She was growing in God’s grace! She was learning to bring all that she was responsible for into the Kingdom of God.