Breaking Out of Perfectionism

By Matt W. Sandford

Last time we identified ten signs of the perfectionist. And I suggested that there are two types of perfectionists, the ones who take pride in this defining characteristic and those who feel plagued by it. Obviously, my intended audience is for those in the second category. It is my opinion that perfectionists of both categories would benefit, however, those who appreciate their perfectionism would not likely be interested, because they value their world view very highly and believe that it makes them the best they can be. In fact, they may feel as if I am trying to undermine them, to steal something that they have come to rely on. They have come to rely on their perfectionism to direct them, to propel them to achieve, to protect them from failure and mistakes. Ah-ha, I think we have uncovered the sneaky culprit! For these folks, underneath the honoring of their driving perfectionism is fear; fear of not achieving a high enough standard. And now we are talking about shame.

You see, the one who propels the perfectionist is not someone whom perfectionists often believe is a helpful motivator or coach, someone who simply has their best interests in mind. Oh, no! Behind the curtain is really a force that is out to keep you in bondage. Behind the mask of perfectionism lurks shame. Shame is that voice inside you that tells you to do better and lets you know that you aren’t doing something right or good enough. But shame is more than that. Because shame does not believe that you will ever be good enough. So shame continues relentlessly reminding you to improve and correct and eliminate mistakes, but shame holds out a carrot, a reward of approval and satisfaction that will always be beyond reach. The goal is not really to make you better. That is the big lie. The goal, rather, is to keep you endlessly striving, but not to bring any real satisfaction. In fact, satisfaction is feared, because that would be akin to complacency. No, no, satisfaction is bad. Then you’ll get all lazy and you’ll stop trying to meet the standard and you’ll let down your guard and that’s when you’ll really mess up!

 This is a set up, a trap. The reason the perfectionist is driven to achieve is to feel good about themselves, but perfectionism will never let them feel good about themselves no matter how much they achieve. The second group, those who are suffering under the weight of their perfectionism, have found this to be true. In order to be free of perfectionism, one must confront and tear down the mask to reveal the evil man behind the curtain, shame.

However, once he is revealed, the battle is taken to a new level. For now, shame will likely shame you for having shame and explain in seemingly reasonable terms that now you must perfectionistically eradicate that! And so you take on the next unattainable task of performing yourself out of your shame. What a mind bender!

The answer lies in paradox. You will never perform well enough to satisfy shame. But, unlike your shame, I don’t say that to shame you, but rather to free you. Freedom is in giving up the fight. I do not mean that you give in to shame and agree that shame has been right about you all along and go into despair. Giving up does not mean that you are no good. Giving up means to give up your unrealistic expectations and unfair judgments and harsh berating of your mistakes. And the only way to do that is through the paradox of grace.

When you don’t achieve well or make a mistake, the perfectionist feels more that a twinge of regret. The perfectionist is wrapped in self recriminations and anxieties of all kinds. But grace comes in and calms the raging storm. Grace whispers that you are okay and accepted anyway. Grace reminds you that everyone makes mistakes, even big ones. Grace reminds you that you are more than the sum of your mistakes and weaknesses; that you do have wonderful qualities and have achieved very well before. Grace reminds you of times when you blew it before and everything turned out just fine and no one hated you or laughed. Grace reminds you that humans are flawed creatures and by design have limitations. Grace is the paradox that when you feel your worst, you find that you are not all bad and you are lovable even though you sometimes really mess up.

This is the grace that all of us have always needed. It comes to us through safe others and can be implanted in us. Ultimately, it comes from God, the one who knows us perfectly. The one who could judge us accurately because he knows our hearts. And paradoxically, the one who knows us the best does not judge or condemn, but rather provides the rescue from our failures and the power to love ourselves because we have been loved and accepted in our mess. Through Christ we can live differently, in freedom. This is the Gospel and it is good news!

P.S. - I fibbed when I said I wasn’t writing to the first category!


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