Perfectionism and its Impact on Your Spiritual Growth.

The new year is well upon us. After indulging in the holidays, we are now inundated with ads for exercise equipment, diets, and self-help resources. If we have any bent toward perfectionism, then we may feel pressure to be the best in how we look and how we perform.

I became what I would call a “selective perfectionist.” My mother used to name my house the “hospital” because of my level of neatness and cleanliness. I completed one degree with straight As. I needed to excel at all that I did at work.

I am a three on the Enneagram. This type has a need to be affirmed and admired and to impress others. I hid my messes in drawers and tried to show the world that I had it all together, when really my drawers were a reflection of my inner state.

According to the work of Dr. Jeffrey Young, developer of Schema Therapy, we tend to direct our perfectionism in one or more of the following ways: by being compulsive, by achieving academically, or through status. Many of us were unable to express our feelings, needs, and neutral inclinations as children. Our parent’s love may have been conditional upon meeting their high standards. One or both of our parents may have modeled living out of very high and unbalanced standards. Our behavior may now be a way to compensate for feelings of being defective, socially excluded, deprived, or being a failure. Or, one or both of our parents may have used shame or criticism when their high standards were not met. We then develop perfectionism as a way of coping.

Long term, our health can suffer because of the extreme measure of daily stress such as overworking. Life can feel as if it is constant work and little play. Our whole lives can revolve around success, material things, or status. We can lose touch with ourselves and no longer know what it is that will make us happy.

So much of our energy is spent keeping life in order. We make lots of lists and have little time for creating or letting go. Our relationships with others can suffer because most of our time is spent working and trying to be successful.

Others may feel inadequate or nervous around us because they worry that they will not be able to meet our high standards. We rarely stop and enjoy the success that we have achieved. We just jump right on the next task to be accomplished.

We can feel overwhelmed because we are trying to accomplish so much. Our standards for excellence are so high that we may view many jobs as ordeals to get through. Procrastination may occur because our high standards make the task feel overwhelming, so we just avoid it.

All-or-none thinking is often a characteristic of perfectionist behavior. Perfectionists frequently believe that they are worthless if their accomplishments are not perfect. A straight-A student who receives a C grade might tell herself, “I am a total failure and stupid.” A person who overcooks the dinner might say, “I’m a terrible cook. I can’t cook anything well at all.”

We often have so many “should” for ourselves. I should have a manicured lawn. I should read the Bible absolutely every day. I should have the best-behaved kids on the block.

So, what do you do if you recognize your behavior in this description? Here are a few things that have been helpful to me in my journey:

  1. Recognize the source of your behavior. Perhaps process your childhood wounds with a therapist.
  2. Repeat this phrase several times daily: “Progress, not perfection.” Try doing a task at 85% rather than 100%. See that the world doesn’t end and life still goes on.
  3. Increase your playtime for the next week. Enjoy being in the moment and put some tasks to the side.
  4. Go for a walk with God, eat with God, or enjoy the sunset with God. Slow down. “Be” rather than “do.”
  5. Remind yourself that your worth is in being a child of God and not in your performance. Even if you were a couch potato eating bonbons all day long, God would love you unconditionally.
  6. Listen to your self-talk. How many times do you hear yourself saying, “I should, I must, I have to?” Ask yourself if there is a rule or a law that says I should, must, or have to do something? It is true that I should, must, have to stop at a stop sign? Yes. But, is it true that I should, must, or have to be on top of all current events? No. Ask yourself these questions and you will eliminate a lot of unnecessary stress.
  7. Remember that we are all fallible, correctable human beings. Only Jesus was perfect, and we are not Jesus. Give yourself grace when you fail to live up to your own high standards or make a mistake.
  8. Take on the attitude of the pie maker from Tara Austen Weaver’s Orchard House: How a Neglected Garden Taught One Family to Grow:

Kate McDermott taught pie making around the world; I had taken her class several years before. It hadn’t made me a baker, but it had given me some perspective on the art of pies. Mostly I had been taken by her attitude.

“I make ugly pies,” she told me. “They don’t have to look perfect.”

That day Kate had ably patched ripped piecrust, shoring up weak spots where the dough had been rolled too thin. She didn’t think it needed to be perfect. “Just fix any mistakes you make,” she said without concern. “It doesn’t matter.”

Kate’s approach was breezy and relaxed. She barely followed a recipe. “See how it feels,” she told me. “Trust yourself.” As I ran my hands through the butter cut into flour, I felt emboldened. Things didn’t have to be perfect. Kate seemed at peace with imperfections, her pies beautiful in their rustic uniqueness, no two ever the same.

Perhaps the secret was finding comfort in the way things were: a process of accepting rather than hiding.

The irony was that I liked it when other people let me see them as they truly were: less-than-perfect houses, disordered garages, overdue library books. The imperfections in my friends’ lives didn’t make me like them any less—they made me like them more. I felt more comfortable with the flaws in my own life, more intimately connected to them; it made me feel like family.

I knew this intellectually, but it was harder to apply. I might be able to appreciate rustic charm in a pie, to enjoy the comfortable clutter of a friend’s house, but I held myself to a higher standard—one I never managed to achieve. I just couldn’t give myself that same compassion.

But rolling out and patching the rips in my pie dough that afternoon, as Kate had shown me, I began to wonder if there might not be another way. And when I pulled the pie out of the oven, bumpy, irregular, burnished and glossy and smelling like raspberry heaven, for a moment I thought it was beautiful. My beautifully imperfect pie.

Remember that God reassured Paul that in his imperfection he could open his eyes to how much he needed God’s help. God told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I am praying that in 2019 you find another way. Not perfect, but rich with your own unique irregularities and promise.

Kathy Milans

Kathy has experience as an elementary educator, teacher trainer, adjunct professor, and has served as Family Resource Director for a major hospital. Kathy is a Kentucky Licensed Pastoral Counselor and is credentialed as a Registered Play Therapist/Supervisor by the American Association of Play Therapy. She is owner of a private practice, Path of Life Ministry, in Wilmore, KY.

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