BCC Staff Note: You’re reading Part 2 of a three-part BCC Grace & Truth blog mini-series by Amy Baker on perfectionism. You can read Part 1 here. These posts are adapted by the author from Picture Perfect: When Life Doesn’t Line Up. Copyright © 2014 by Amy Baker. Used by permission of New Growth Press.
The Perfectionist’s Self-Assessment
Yesterday, we met Taylor, a perfectionist whose high expectations create pressure and stress for everyone around her. And while Taylor causes stress in everyone around her, what you might not realize is that she too feels unrelenting stress every time she approaches a new task and she knows she places tremendous pressure on herself to avoid failure.
The fear of failure can easily consume her, often causing her to lay awake in bed at night thinking about everything she needs to do so that she won’t mess up. Her fear of failure often pushes her toward irritability, and those around her would probably describe her as controlling, inflexible, and impatient. But even though Taylor invests heavily in not failing, she rarely feels as though her investment has yielded a high return. When she’s done with her latest project, whatever it may be—from cooking dinner for company or launching an initiative at work—Taylor is hardly ever satisfied. For every one thing that went well, Taylor can usually identify twenty things that weren’t right. When Taylor perceives she hasn’t lived up to the perfection she demands of herself, she then beats herself up as a complete failure and berates herself as a loser who can do nothing right.
Taylor has learned several defensive maneuvers to try to cope with all of this stress. Her fallback strategy is to try harder, believing that more effort will allow her to achieve her goal. But, although she doesn’t realize it, this puts her in a repeating loop with no acceptable exit. Her desire to be picture perfect means that she is always trying to reach her goal through her performance. When she falls short of the high standards she has erected, she concludes she is a failure and wallows in misery. This ends with a resolve to try harder, greater effort on her part, falling short, more misery, and a renewed resolve to try harder. Because she never reaches the perfection demanded by the performance-driven standards she has erected, she has no way out of the loop other than to quit.
Many perfectionists do end up quitting in some, if not all, areas of life. When you can’t keep your home as spotless as you would like, you might quit by abandoning chores and allowing things to pile up. If you can’t get all “A’s” you might just drop out of school. If a job becomes too demanding or you make a mistake at work, quitting might seem like the best option. Or, you may procrastinate on projects out of fear of failure—putting them off because you don’t think you can get it exactly right. Taylor however usually just keeps looping back through the cycle.
A Distorted Perfection
Yet with all the tension that accompanies her perfectionism, Taylor is reluctant to abandon it. She still desires to be picture perfect. In a distorted sense, Taylor’s desire reflects her original purpose. She was created to display “perfection.” From the very beginning, God’s purpose has been that men and women would reflect his image, that they would radiate the glory of a perfect God, their Creator and Friend. Sadly sin has turned what was once a glorious mission into a source of tension. Sin has also caused us to come up with our own definition of perfection, a man-centered definition that often focuses on performance and outcomes that glorify us, not our Creator.
Why would wanting perfection leave you angry, frustrated, discouraged, or hopeless? The obvious answer would seem to be because others don’t share your standard or because you fail to achieve the perfection you desire. But if we go beyond scratching the surface, this answer no longer makes sense.
If we truly valued perfection, we wouldn’t quickly become angry and frustrated; those aren’t “perfect” responses. Nor would we be controlling, inflexible, and impatient. Those aren’t right or perfect responses either. So there’s got to be something more going on than simply a desire to do things perfectly.
We’ve got to start asking questions, “What do I mean by perfect or right? Why do I want these things done perfectly? What makes perfection important to me? Where does God fit into all of this?” These won’t necessarily be easy questions to answer. Uncovering desires can often be difficult. It’s also difficult because the answers aren’t the same for everyone. But wouldn’t you like to be free from nitpicking, paralysis, self-hatred, and irritation? Wouldn’t you like to be free to enjoy and accept others even though they don’t do everything right? Wouldn’t you like to be free to move forward despite your own mistakes and fears of not being right? God can change those things in you, but it doesn’t happen by magic. Change begins by looking closely at what is going on under the surface of those feelings and behaviors. It all starts with what we want—our desire life.
Because of sin, good desires become warped and twisted. When you look closely, you can often see that wanting to be excellent doesn’t come from a heart that longs to show others the beautiful perfection of God. Instead that desire shrinks and the focus becomes self-centered. You find you want to do all things with excellence because you want others to think highly of you; you want to look good to others or feel good about yourself. You want to have things under control so that nothing can hurt you.
God’s desire for Taylor is much different (and so much better) than what she wants for herself. He wants to make her like his beloved Son (Romans 8:29). He wants her to have rich, full relationships where she shares with others the grace and mercy she has been given as a dearly loved child of God.
As Taylor begins to understand that the frustration and discomfort in her life comes not from the failures of others or even herself, but from her response to those failures, she can turn to God with her true failure: replacing God at the center of her life with her own desires for perfection and control. As she turns away from her own desires and turns toward God, he will begin to help her function as he originally designed humans—to display his image and his glory. This will be a process and there will be many failures along the way, but God will not desert Taylor. When he begins a good work, he carries it on to completion. He will do the same for you.
The Rest of the Story
In Part 3, we’ll discuss the remedy: exchanging a heavy burden for a light one.
Join the Conversation
How could you use this root analysis of perfectionism in your life and ministry?