I’ve been called a perfectionist since about third grade. That’s back when I was ferociously memorizing multiplication tables faster than anyone else and acing spelling tests every Friday. Though everyone seemed to say the word with a certain nasally whine, I always responded with a genuine “thank you.”
I decided to embrace what I thought was “envy” of my self-described “valiant” pursuit of excellence. Through it all, however, I was still overlooking the truly negative heart of my perfectionism. I always thought I was doing well—pushing myself, bettering my routines, improving my intellect, my social skills, even my outward appearance. It’s natural I would pride myself on these things—when are we ever taught that self-improvement could be negative? Do we not collectively praise excellence?
But there are two main reasons that perfectionism is and has always been a bad seed; why it chokes rather than nourishes. The first is that its motivation is so twistedly borne of fear. The second is that what it produces is never results, or satisfaction, or love. It, again, is fear.
The Maria brand of perfectionism manifests as a desire to have “everything together all the time.” I want to be organized. I want to look good—well-rested, thin, healthy. I want to be in good financial standing. I want to be dependable at work. I want to be a good wife. I want to be good to my dog. I want to advance in my career. I want to have a meaningful relationship with God.
A lot of that has to do with wanting to look a certain way to other people. I’ve written on this before, but feeling envied, (or at least believing we are envied) makes us feel powerful. It confirms to us that we’re doing the right thing—if someone else wishes she were me, I must be doing something right. But more than that, I think this type of perfectionism stems from a simple, primal fear. It could be somewhat elementary, such as the fear of being laughed at, or it could be more heady, like the fear of regret at a later age, when some of our dreams might have fallen through their window of opportunity. It’s a fear of not being able to be labeled the way we want to be—beautiful, well-traveled, notable, loving.
Have you ever taken a breath and felt how truly crippling that type of fear is? This perfectionism, which we most-often deem a positive force of motivation, is only a cowardly reaction to thousands of lie-based fears. The Bible tells us that perfect love casts out fear—think about what that means. That kind of fear literally cannot exist in the same place as love! And if you’re spending all your time working; running from your fear of an idle day, chances are you don’t have much time to love. Ask your perfectionist self if she’s willing to sacrifice that.
The irony is, of course, that this type of fear can actually stop you from living rather than drive you on. It will produce not accomplishment, or meaningful growth—only paralyzed time and more fear. Maybe you fear not pursuing your dreams. Well, if your dreams include becoming a singer, an Olympic swimmer, a Senator and a stay-at-home Mom, and your perfectionism compels you to pursue all four, I think the chances are quite good you’ll wake up one day moderately versed in some of these things, but not accomplished at any.
That of course is an exaggerated example, but I am getting at a truth here. Your perfectionism might be telling you that in order to be worthwhile, or to earn your paycheck, or to really make a difference, you must build your list of accomplishments. But as you try to do that in an extreme, run-til-you-drop way, not only will you probably not accomplish much, I will wager that even what you do accomplish will be never enough. You might lose your 20 extra pounds, but you’ll want to lose 20 more. You might get a promotion, but it will only whet your appetite for the next one. Is this sounding familiar?
But wisdom has never confirmed to us that we must be famously multi-talented in order to make an impact. Think about the people in your life who have truly impacted you. Chances are, most of them will be unimpressive on paper. I could name my mom as a crucial factor in who I am. She stayed at home, raised a family and never really left northeastern Ohio. She’s not going to win a famous award for her motherhood; they’re not going to talk about her on the nightly news and she doesn’t ever see a million dollar paycheck. But without her there would not have been three more of God’s people; or the impact on countless others who have undoubtedly encountered God through her. Now who dare call her unaccomplished?
Though it might be difficult to part with our perfectionism, (more evidence, by the way, that it’s unhealthy) I want to encourage you to acknowledge its negativity. Really examine whether it’s producing fruit or only more fear. Have the courage to let go your desire to be the best, all the time, at all things, and let yourself re-settle into God’s priorities – first to love; second to learn to love more, and third, nothing. Jesus says his yoke is easy—and look at that simplicity: just love. In everything else, make sure you are first, loving. I don’t care what else you do and neither does God—who, by the way, is the ONLY one who will be actually, justifiably passing judgment on you and your “list of accomplisments” when your time is up. Would you rather hear “well-read” or “well-done, my good and faithful servant”?
And ultimately I want you to trust that the truly brave thing to do, friends, is to make choices. Decide where God is calling you to give your time and your passion, and let the other possible you’s, in all her perfectness, fall away—mourning nothing, for all you’ll be letting go of are paths that weren’t lit by God’s guidance.
Maria is a relocated Ohioan who loves a nice, warm Arizona January. She
loves to write, take long walks with her puppy and sing, and she is
amazed every day by the love God has for her, even when she doesn’t
comb her hair.