The Tyranny of Perfectionism (and 6 ways to conquer it)

I spend my days thinking about FOCUS alumni – speaking with them, listening to them, and leading the charge in developing ways the Church and FOCUS can help them live out the call to be authentic disciples and make disciples of all nations.

In over two years in this role there’s one struggle that seems to haunt most alumni: perfectionism.

I’ve seen hundreds of alumni battle the various and sometimes sneaky symptoms of perfectionism. Work, prayer, apostolate, community, parenting, even in carefully crafted Tweets and Facebook statuses can be hotbeds for perfectionism.

Today I will be defining perfectionism, helping you identify it in yourself, and offering some easy simple ways to address it.

What is perfectionism?

You might think perfectionism is a good thing, biblical even (“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” Matthew 5:48) but when you read the definition you realize just how messed up it is.

Perfectionism is a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable, especially the setting of unrealistically demanding goals accompanied by a disposition to regard failure to achieve them as unacceptable and a sign of personal worthlessness.

You read unrealistically demanding goals, failure as unacceptable, worthlessness and a light comes on about the true nature of perfectionism. It is a trap. Perfectionism is the lie that we can somehow earn our worth. That, my friends, is certainly not biblical.

Obviously, it is good to strive for excellence and to grow to your potential, but any time you view goals, especially unrealistic ones, as a way to prove your worth you are on the fast-track to the perfectionism danger zone.

Perfectionism is striving for worthiness or to earn love by accomplishing goals or avoiding failure. But we can never earn love – especially not the saving love of Christ. Plus, if we wait until we are perfect or the perfect scenario arises before we do something, nothing will ever get done.

My own battle

Two years ago I was being tormented by the tyrant of perfectionism. It was bad. My to-do lists were pages long, my calendar was booked with coffee dates and obligations, and I worried incessantly about what might happen if I let just one thing slip or couldn’t be a best friend to every person in my life. And I wasn’t happy.

The problem was this – I just couldn’t give up that feeling of satisfaction I experienced when I would accomplish something or receive an accolade. I sensed that I couldn’t keep this frenzied pace for long, but I had a major dilemma. My worth was totally wrapped up in this lie that if I could just squeeze out one more perfect project, make it to the top of one more person’s list of favorites, and above all not say or do the wrong thing, I would be worthy of love and acceptance.

It drove me to exhaustion. I just couldn’t keep that pace anymore and like I said, I wasn’t happy. With a lot of support from my closest friends I finally admitted that I had a problem, and began the journey of salvaging my life back from the grips of perfectionism.

Not everyone’s struggle with perfectionism involves a fear that they won’t be loved; there are other motivations for perfectionism. At the root however, perfectionism is often a disguise for insecurity of some variety.

What to do?

1. Acknowledge the temptation.

Whether or not you struggle with it, it’s important to know that our culture is wrought with chronic perfectionism. It seems to be bred into our American souls. You don’t have to look very hard to find examples of this.

Especially if you’re striving for sainthood, Satan can convince you that you will become unworthy of God’s love if you aren’t perfect. Beware of unrealistic goals and even start asking, “am I doing this thing or striving for that because I’m trying to prove my worthiness or cover up an insecurity?”

2. Accept the reality of failure.

It’s ok to fail. I know it doesn’t feel like it, I know you don’t want to, but really it’s ok. You can fail and still be loved, you can fail and still be worthy of love, and believe it or not, failure can actually be a good thing. When we fail we are given the opportunity to affirm the reality that we are human “beings” not human “doings.” Failure also gives us the chance to ask for help and to rely more fully on God and others.

3. Meditate on God’s love for you.

All of John’s writings are anecdotes for perfectionism. They are brimming with reminders of God’s love for you and all of the ways that He proves that love. Spend some time reading John’s gospel or his letters and even write down a favorite verse, put it in your wallet or on your computer screen and let it remind you that you are worthy because God believes that you were worth dying on the cross for.

4. Honor and celebrate your successes.

This one might seem counterintuitive, but I can tell you from experience it works. A key contributor to my severe perfectionism was my failure to take the time to fully acknowledge my successes – especially those things that I knew I was particularly called to by God. I would do something, check it off my list, and rush to the next. There was no time for reflection or gratitude.

When we practice reflection and gratitude we punch that demon of unworthiness in its face, and we begin to see that we are worthy because we are loved by God, and He is allowing us to participate with Him in this life.

5. Set realistic expectations.

Remember that part of the definition about setting of unrealistically demanding goals? Well setting those unrealistic goals can quickly set us into a tailspin of perfectionism. I see this especially in people’s expectations for their prayer lives.

Many alumni have an underlying belief that if they can’t pray for a whole hour in the chapel each day it’s not worth praying. Why not try praying 15 minutes at home on your couch? It’s certainly better than not praying at all. There is no way we can have the strength to live our call as Christians if we are not praying. And if we aren’t willing to start small how will we ever grow?

6. Pray.

OK, to pray and to “meditate on God’s love” seem pretty similar. But I think it bears repeating that we must immerse ourselves in God’s perfection in order to be healed of our perfectionism. Spend time praying (even if you have to start with 5 minutes) in gratitude for God’s love and mercy and asking Him to show you how He sees you. This can be powerful. Try standing up and just allowing Christ to gaze upon you with His eyes of love.

Here’s to basking in the glory of God’s love and for accepting our worthiness rather than trying to earn it by being perfect! You are in my prayers.

The FOCUS Team
The FOCUS Team
The Fellowship of Catholic University Students is a Catholic collegiate outreach whose mission is to share the hope and joy of the gospel with college and university students, inspiring and equipping them for a lifetime of Christ-centered evangelization, discipleship and friendships in which they lead others to do the same.

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