While researching countless definitions of the term perfectionism, would you believe that there is actually not a single definition in which perfectionism is seen as a positive thing? Miriam-Webster defines perfectionism as the doctrine that the perfection of moral character constitutes a person’s highest good. Another definition describes it as a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable. It is seen as a striving for flawlessness and setting high performance standards, often accompanied by self-criticism and constant concern regarding other people’s evaluations and opinions.
I have a perfectionist in my home. It can sometimes make homeschooling a battleground - even something as simple as pulling weeds. This one likes to quit before he gets started if it’s something he assumes he won’t get right the first time. Or he can get stuck on a worksheet for over an hour doodling cursive and picking at the table because to focus on something that might be a challenge is too exhausting to even attempt. Because of this, when I was at a recent homeschool convention I decided to sit in on a talk about the link between perfectionism and anxiety. I have listened to Colleen Kessler speak at previous conventions. She is a gem. She has so much to speak into regarding children struggling with anxiety, and as she broke down perfectionism she shared this helpful insight:
I expect myself to be perfect
I expect others to be perfect
Others expect me to be perfect
While trying to keep the baby quiet in the back of the seminar, and simultaneously being sandwiched in between what felt like 100 other women, I felt the soft and gentle rebuke of the Father in my own life. I have never once defined myself as a perfectionist. I have struggled with anxiety and the feelings of being unloved; I have battled through the stress brought on by changes of plans or things not being done quite up to my standard. But as I listened further I realized that for me, these were all evidences of perfectionism in my own life. Most often, however, I never expect myself to be perfect. In fact I often joke how completely imperfect and messy I often am! But I do have a tendency to expect others to be perfect. And the tremendous weight that others expect me to be perfect.
Why is that a bad thing? Who cares? Isn’t striving towards excellence a good thing?
But the reality with perfectionism is that perfectionism is never striving for excellence. The feelings and beliefs that come if either of those three manifestations aren’t achieved have literally nothing to do with the pursuit of excellence for God’s glory. The perfectionist, if willing to introspect just long enough to feel uncomfortable, often believes that if any of those things aren’t achieved, they are unloved. It means that there is a constant striving to be loved.
Therefore - as a perfectionist, I am waking up everyday, living a life feeling unworthy and unloved.
So I keep trying
And keep failing
And keep trying again
And keep failing.
I make another list. Eat a little less. Speak a little more kindly. Add a few more things to my plate. Serve a little harder. Commit to a little bit more. Add another book to my list. Clean a little deeper. Pray a little harder.
And I fail again.
And so the cycle goes for the perfectionist. It never ends.
Friends, perfectionism is an impossible goal.
But I just love to-do lists! I feel so accomplished making a list, and getting it done! I don’t rest well because I’m a perfectionist, you know.
Sadly, for us :), we play it down and chalk it up to how we are wired.
For the perfectionist, hear this loud and clear, and with all the love my heart contains: it is not “just the way you are wired.”
It is actually a form of self-rejection.
It is saying “I do not love myself (the way God loves me) therefore I must try harder.”
An interesting observation to be had, while Colleen was searching photos for her presentation she made mention that while browsing the word “perfectionism”, the most common image that appeared was a girl looking in the mirror battling an eating disorder. Seeing something completely different than what was true.
The problem with that belief, the one that tells us it’s just “how we are wired,” is that we are going against every single thing God has ever said about us, essentially declaring that He is wrong, and then holding others to a standard that not even HE holds us to. Perfectionism, (all the empathetic gasps and sighs) is actually grumbling that what God has provided, what God has enabled, what God has done in and through His son Jesus…… is not enough.
My heart breaks writing this. I am grieved that I have gone even a day believing that my ability to be loved is based on my performance. I am grieved that I have forsaken what God has said about me and instead put weight in what I am capable of doing. I ’m saddened that I have looked at my children and husband and expected perfection. I ’m heartbroken that when I look at my son battling with perfectionism, I have often been the one setting the impossible standard.
But somehow, this has become acceptable today.
Friends - dear and precious, loved by God friends…. God’s aim is and has never been perfection with us. His aim is always grace. God’s heart has never been unlovely towards you, it has bent over backwards to love the hell out of you!
You will make mistakes. And He still adores you.
You won’t get it all done, and He says come to me all those who are weary and I will give you rest!
You cannot ever be clean enough. Oh, but His son has done all the cleansing necessary.
So now what? Us perfectionists, we need a plan, right? :)
Well, I am sad to report, but the plan, is actually to stop doing.
It means to force yourself to rest.
Walk away from the pile of laundry.
It means to look at your half cleaned bathroom and tell your husband “thank you!”
Though everything inside of us is screaming “do more” it means setting boundaries on what you are willing to commit to.
It means to put the scale away.
When you make a mistake, you own it, and move forward in the grace of God.
You post it note scripture all over your house writing the words that you are loved, chosen, redeemed and made new in His sight. You write that God weighs the heart not your outward appearance.
It means during those moments when you feel your heart racing just a bit on the threshold of anxiety you cry out and say, “God, I know you love me. Let it be enough.”
Overcoming perfection is 1) only made possible by His grace and gift of the Holy Spirit in our lives; And 2) It is not a commitment to thinking about ourselves a little less. It is about putting Him on the throne far higher than ourselves. It's such a backwards battle, right? It is an obsession with trying to love self so much because we can't possibly accept someone else’s love for us.
If you are someone struggling with this, my prayer is that today is your day! Today is the day you come back to what God says about you and begin to believe it again. Or maybe for the first time. If you are battling perfectionism, may I make a request of you? Would you be willing to send us an email through our Contact Us? It would be a tremendous joy and gift to pray for you by name regularly; to speak God’s truth over your life and the lives of those around you.
Live loved today, dear one. God gave everything He had to demonstrate His love for your precious and purposed heart.