December 20, 2017
When I was in school, I was a poor student all the way up until I went to seminary, where I was a straight ‘A’ student for the first 3 years. It started as a point of pride for me, then it became a challenge to maintain it, and finally it made me miserable. I had done so well that I was afraid of messing it up. I reached a point where I obsessed over grades and put in excessive hours on papers just trying to maintain my perfect record. I eventually encountered a class that I struggled with, and, after several difficult tests, finished with a ‘B+’. I was frustrated and angry at my inability to finish perfectly. Afterward, I was kind of relieved and began to enjoy my education more because I decided that it didn’t matter if I finished with a 4.0 or a 3.9. It really wasn’t going to make a difference in the long run. There are a few areas in life where I struggle with perfectionist tendencies, and my experience is that it seldom makes me happier or improves my quality of life. The kind of perfectionism I am referring to is not the sort that pays extra attention to details or strives for excellence out of the sheer joy of being good at it. Rather, it is the sort of perfectionism that makes folks miserable. I’ve met folks who are ashamed to have visitors in their homes because no matter how clean it is, they still worry that it’s too cluttered or who beat themselves up over their weight because they cannot manage to look like the airbrushed models on the covers of magazines or who torture themselves over minor public gaffes that bring them embarrassment, even if the social missteps are unnoticed by anyone but themselves. Sometimes perfectionists become so overwhelmed by the insurmountable tasks in front of them that they freeze up and can’t work at them, instead opting to be miserable over their own perception of their failures. Perfectionism is the tendency toward self-abuse over any failure to meet an impossible standard. It is sometimes a product of overstrict parents or relationships that require individuals to earn love, rather than being given it unconditionally. There are all sorts of things that bring about perfectionism, but typically it is like living on a treadmill: you work and work, but never make any progress and seldom feel satisfied with the job you’ve done. Most folks who deal with perfectionist tendencies grow exhausted and miserable under their own expectations, but never realize that they are the only ones expecting them to live that way. Many folks living with the burden of perfectionism would benefit from dealing with it with a counselor or pastor, but can’t bring themselves to do it because it involves acknowledging to another person that they have flaws. This means that the first step in dealing with perfectionism is simply admitting that we aren’t perfect and aren’t ever going to be. It sounds easy, but many folks would rather do anything in the world but admit to being flawed. There are a number of different strategies for dealing with perfectionist tendencies once an individual accepts that it’s a problem. They’re all impossible until the first step is taken.