“Oh, I guess I’m just a perfectionist,” I opined, in an “Aw, shucks!” sort of feigned shame tone, as I tried to hide the weird contortions required to pat oneself on the back.
But twisted pride is one of perfectionism’s pernicious symptoms. Perfectionists like to think they are a cut above ordinary folks. We have, we think, higher standards, work with more diligence, and see more clearly than pretty much everyone else.
Granted, low standards, lazy workers, and the lousy outcomes produced by such are not hard to find. But those ills are never cured by perfectionists; if anything, they are made worse. Even folks who do an average to slightly above average job just want to give up under the incessant pressure of a perfectionist’s thumb; folks on the lower end of the scale won’t even try.
Perfectionism’s thinly-veiled arrogance, along with out-of-balance priorities, and deep (and sick) need to be in control, spells death to any sort of genuine contentment and pushes family, friends, and co-workers, away. Perfectionism sucks the air out of any room and throttles healthy relationships. And perfectionists are sadly unable to see perfectionism’s malignant imperfection.
Yes, its pride is stinky. But the real rot at its heart is the poison of fear, the soul-throttling terror of never being able to measure up, which leads to frantic effort—never ceasing, never resting, and, of course, never succeeding—to be completely in control.
In the final analysis, perfectionism is idolatry, and idolatry always fails. Since we are incapable of being in absolute control of our own lives—and were never meant to be—we fail at being our own gods. And since others were never meant to acknowledge us as their gods, we fail at forcing those around us to “have no other gods before us.” Bowing down to the true God is freeing; bowing down to a perfectionist is enslaving and utterly exhausting. Eventually, the slaves will revolt. The spouse has had it. The kids’ act out or get sick. The co-workers quit.
Based on miserable insecurity and fear, not on “high standards” as the perfectionist likes to suppose, perfectionism never works. “Good enough” will never be “good enough” under a perfectionist’s reign. No victimless malady, it will render both the sufferer and those who suffer the sufferer miserable.
And forget the myth that perfectionism is productive. Study after study has shown the truth one song-writer put into words: The way to write a really good song is to write a good many bad ones. Living life in a fear-based, frantic attempt to produce perfection really means not producing much at all (and certainly not enjoying the process).
Anne Lamott has written, “I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”
For Christians, the truth is even more serious. Perfectionism is a denial of the gospel, a slap in the face of the Savior, as perfectionists live and act as if they need no saving at all, certainly not as much as ordinary folks. But to accept Christ’s sacrifice requires admitting our utter inability to save ourselves. It’s only when we confess our powerlessness, weakness, and imperfection that he enables us to throw off the fear, futility, and idolatry of perfectionism, to embrace his deep peace and joy and live truly gracious lives in the sure knowledge that we are saved by sheer mercy and grace.
Maybe I should delete all of the above and just write (and repeat each hour) an eight-word anti-perfectionism creed: There is one God. I am not Him.
You’re invited to visit my website at http://www.CurtisShelburne.com!
Copyright 2017 by Curtis K. Shelburne. Permission to copy without altering text or for monetary gain is hereby granted subject to inclusion of this copyright notice.