You Have the Right to be Human: What my Wife and Kids are Teaching me about Perfectionism
I am a through and through perfectionist—just now I even confirmed that it’s not “through-and-through” with hyphens! Whether I should blame nature (was I created this way?) or nurture (I was the oldest child after all) is irrelevant.
Why can’t I just let things go?
How do I make peace with the fact that I’m driven to make all things right—or if I can’t do that, at least point out what’s wrong—in a world full of human error (which includes my own!)? I can’t even write this post without nuancing my comments with parentheses!
Perfectionism has its benefits and is even necessary at times. In my previous career, I was an aviation mechanic and served in the D. R. Congo as a missionary with Mission Aviation Fellowship. Believe me, if you plan to fly, you want a perfectionist doing the maintenance!
In fact, perfectionism is even fostered in aviation since numerous servicing items require a “double inspection” before being signed off. But even despite that, I would regularly torque up a bolt and not a few seconds later ask myself, “Wait, did I just tighten that bolt? I know I did, but I better double check it anyway.”
When leaving the house for a trip or to run an errand, I do the same thing. I’ll lock the door and then dutifully get back out of the car to double check that I locked it unless I can recall for certain the turn of the key and the sound of the deadbolt slamming shut. But this is understandable because I don’t want my belongings stolen.
However, I naturally project my expectations of perfection on others who for reasons I cannot understand do not share my passion. (Should I be embarrassed that I even rearrange the dishes in the dishwasher because I know I can get more in when efficiently loaded?)
Pushed to extremes, perfectionism becomes hurtful to others, especially when combined with my other personality traits, such as being thorough, analytical, and attentive to detail. It can be demoralizing for me because most of the time, I don’t intend to be hurtful.
On more than one occasion I’ve hurt my wife by (objectively, of course) mentioning things that were not done “right” or that were left in-process on a given day. “I found the back door unlocked again.” Or, “why are there toys on the kitchen sink?” Or, “do we need to store these things right in front of the back door?”
The Dynamics of Perfectionism in Our Family
Some of these questions on their own are fairly innocuous. But, in the context of each of our issues, self-doubts, and inadequacies, they can be toxic and harmful.
We have four children at home and most of the time the things I find “out of order” are the simple result of juggling so much activity all at once (and I am also a significant contributor to the chaos). Truth be told, my wife does an admirable job of caring for our bustling house while also managing to work part-time—only, she rarely hears that from me; I’m tuned into another frequency.
Now that I’m aware of my tendencies, I try not to say anything right away. This is great, except when I’m in a foul mood and my self-restraint is out of order—I say something in the wrong tone, at the wrong time. Ugh. If I were really making headway on this, I wouldn’t say anything at all and just help out. I’ll get there eventually.
When it comes to our family rhythms, my wife tends to live very much in the moment and I, unsurprisingly, am a planner who considers every mitigating factor and consequence of present actions on the future. We make different choices for different reasons—she’s thinking about the present and I’m thinking about future consequences. So, I stew about what I knew was going to (undesirably, from my vantage point) happen.
Then, there’s the kids. “I literally just told you to lean. over. I don’t want to clean food up off the floor or your shirt. Really?!?” This, just minutes before I send one of 40 scattered toys flying across the floor because I’m tired of walking on them… yes, I know the song… “clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere…”
How I Could Respond: Two Easy Roads
There are at least two easy roads I could choose:
1. this is my identity, so deal with it;
2. or, perfectionism is actually Biblical—Jesus says in Matt 5:48, “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (NET).
As for the “identity argument,” which is so common today, I can attest that I tend to respond to life in a certain manner. On the other hand, I can also affirm that playing the identity card would be a cop-out for dealing with my strength/dysfunction.
The Biblical argument sounds amazing, even empowering! While much more could be said about Matthew and the Greek word (teleios) behind the English translation, “perfect,” at least two things must be kept in mind:
1. the call to be “perfect” is given in the context of loving enemies, those who epitomize imperfection from our vantage point!
2. the Greek term means something more akin to “maturity” or “wholeness,” not “error-free” or “flawless.”
Both of these easy roads (besides being flawed) place me in a posture of power in which others are forced to submit to me or my ideology or both. Is there another road? How do I respond to my perfectionist tendencies while at the same time embrace my own and others’ humanity?
A Difficult Road: Adopting a Posture of Submission
There’s a big difference between perfectionism with things, such as in aviation, and perfectionism with people. When it comes to people, I project an impossible standard on others as well as myself. In short, I do not allow myself or others the right to be human.
Why I do this is complex. Nevertheless, as I have reflected on my perfectionism over the years, at least one significant reason stands out: control. When I’m in stressful situations with people I can’t control, when there are dynamics outside of my influence, or unknowns that I can’t anticipate suddenly appear, I compensate by focusing my energies on what is under my control.
For example, if my boss or co-worker doesn’t do things quite right, I can subconsciously take that out on my children by requiring them to keep an immaculately tidy room or micromanaging their day-to-day behavior. Perfectionism is my attempt to set right the wrong things outside of my spheres of control by controlling the things within the sphere of my influence.
Submission to others and to God requires that I let go of the desire to control and allow people (and myself) to be human. It is uncomfortable to do because I must first own my limitations and dysfunction. But it is also liberating because I can release my frantic grip on the bigger issue(s) whatever they may be and invite God to work in the midst of my fears.
So, in my struggle with perfectionism, here are some practices I’m leaning into.
- Identify when and where perfectionism occurs. Simply being aware of the issue is the first step. Once I recognize that perfectionism is deforming myself or others, I can choose to respond differently. I submit to others around me, such as my family, co-workers, and friends by asking them to let me know when they see I’m being perfectionistic.
- Give everyone the right to be human (or expect imperfection in myself and others). When perfectionism controls my thinking and behavior, it is because I expect perfection in myself and others. This posture sets me up for failure and disappointment. By contrast, honoring my own humanity and that of others around me frees me from the oppressiveness of perfectionism.
- Empathize with others in their context. Any time my “irritated meter” is pegged, it is because I’m focused on what should be, rather than what is. By extension it also means that I give no thought to the circumstances in which something came to be. Ironically, whenever I haven’t met the expectations of others, the context of my “failure” is extremely important in my mind, but for some reason it doesn’t apply to others when my expectations haven’t been met.
- Focus on what is as opposed to what should be. This is repeated because it’s so important. When I chew my kids out for spilling a drink, dropping food on the floor, or anything else, the deed is done—hence the proverb “don’t cry over spilled milk.” The most I accomplish by doing this is heaping on guilt or shame depending on how I go about it. Instead, I submit to others by entering the situation with love and grace.
- Act before speaking. This is the harder road. Not only do I bite my tongue (which as I just noted doesn’t have anything positive to add to the circumstances), but I share in the burdens of others. Perfectionism allows me to point out others’ failures while remaining detached. By contrast, submitting myself to others by joining in where they are allows me to concretely demonstrate love.
Little Steps of Progress
The other evening, my wife told our middle child to wait for help as she was getting the table set. He, of course, continue to attempt to fill his glass with the nearly full juice bottle, which was too heavy for him to manage. The inevitable happened—the cup spilled everywhere.
Having heard this from the other room where I was occupied and not being the least surprised that he didn’t listen, I would have normally doubled my wife’s fussing and really laid down the law. As I was mid-sentence of doing just that, I chose a different response (praise God!).
Earlier in the day, we had read an uber-basic Children’s Bible to which I added lots of missing detail. As we looked at story after story of “bad guys” (he’s into superheroes and understands this analogy well), when I got to Jesus and was explaining his life, I said this:
“Jesus came not to beat up or put the bad guys in jail. He came to touch their heart, mouth, eyes, ears, hands, and feet and to tell them that they no longer have to be bad guys.” As I shared this, I touched each body part of my five-year old and ended by saying, “Jesus wants to change you and me too!”
The Lord brought this to my mind and lowered my voice. As walked toward my son, I said, “Do you remember our story today, how throughout each page there were bad guys who wanted to do what they wanted to and not do what God wanted?” He nodded in affirmation. “Well, that’s what you did just now. You didn’t listen to Mommy but did what you wanted.” He was tracking with me.
We also pray the Lord’s Prayer daily, so I asked, “Do you remember how we ask God to forgive our sins as we forgive others?” He again nodded. “Well, Mommy and Daddy forgive you and Jesus wants to help you not be a bad guy or do the things that bad guys do.” He was clearly, touched and we connected in a grace-filled, life-giving way. He still knew that what he did was wrong. The difference was, he wasn’t crushed by my perfectionism this time.