I tend to believe there is a perfect route in any given situation, and it’s up to me to find it. It’s easy for me to feel at peace when everything is going smoothly, and uncomfortable when it isn’t.
If I make a mistake, my automatic response is to torture myself by replaying the event in my mind, somehow hoping that can mysteriously fix it; while being worried about what’s to come.
Do any of you relate to what I’m talking about? If you do, chances are you also relate to more typical traits of perfectionists.
1. We Seek Control
It can be logical to assume that wanting to do the right thing all the time, is really just a sign of being responsible and wise. Well sure, that’s part of it. But there’s another side to the coin when taken to an extreme. When we feel a heavy unrest inside and a need to analyze everything to death in order to choose what’s best, we’re striving for control. We’re seeking safety, predictability and peace. We may also be trying to please God or those around us.
2. We Take Every Event Seriously
You know that phrase, “Don’t sweat the small stuff?” Well, that would be a great one for us to digest. After all, to a perfectionist, few things are actually small. That’s because we feel that every tiny event, every person’s opinion, can significantly affect us or those around us. Our behavior can even initiate a chain reaction that leads to the end of our life as we know it. At least, that’s how it feels sometimes.
3. We Feel Overly Responsible
Somehow, keeping everything together doesn’t fall on other’s shoulders, we keep that burden for ourselves. It’s our job to take care of those we love and it’s our job to take care of ourselves. Even when we pray and attempt to let go, we may easily slip back into depending on our own abilities. We even subconsciously think we are supposed to. Self-acceptance comes from doing the right things. So when we make mistakes—or what we consider mistakes—we judge ourselves for not doing better.
4. We Seek Approval
Being a perfectionist means we want to offer a certain presentation to the world, and even to ourselves. It may mean looking put-together or acting in ways that are admirable. It may feel like we’re constantly being critiqued, even if we know logically that we’re mostly critiquing ourselves. There’s a belief that if we show our flaws, others might look down on us. We may be looking for others to give us the total acceptance that is lacking inside.
5. We Minimize God’s Power
By being preoccupied with our own actions, God fades into the background. We place Him in the seat beside us as our co-pilot. This might be because, if we’re honest with ourselves, we assume we know how to direct things better or get them done more quickly. On the other hand, we might assume deep inside that God wants us to take responsibility.
So while we overemphasize our own abilities, we underestimate God’s—His abilities to care for us and those we love; to use or repair our mistakes.
Learning A New Way
Christianity brings freedom, but sometimes those of us who are Christians may even find ourselves feeling more urgency to be perfect. After all, we know the seriousness of sin, and we desire to please God. But this heavy, walking on a tight rope kind of existence isn’t what God wants for us (Matthew 11:28).
Fortunately, it’s never too late. We are perpetually invited to renew our thinking and feel differently as a result.
We can start by becoming fully aware of what we say to ourselves. The reason our perfectionist habits are so ingrained is because we’ve repeated ideas over a long period of time. Now we need to pay attention to those automatic thoughts and speak back to them.
For example, you can notice when you’re fear is way over the top, and say to yourself, “Has this ever happened before? If it hasn’t, why am I so worried about it?” Or if you’re feeling ashamed, remind yourself that it’s normal and OK for you to have weaknesses.
We need to realize that it’s OK to be imperfect. Just because something (or someone) isn’t perfect, doesn’t mean it’s not truly good, lovely and valuable.
Surrendering to the Current
We seek perfection in order to feel safe and liked, and be in control. But ironically, the more tenaciously we hold on, the more anxious and out of control we really are. That’s because the greatest stability and true “control” comes not from fearfully striving, but from peacefully trusting.
Psychologist David Benner creates a beautiful illustration of this fact in his book, Surrender to Love. He asks us to visualize a body of water and a person trying to stay afloat. They’re paddling like crazy, while their body is wearing out and they’re only getting closer to sinking. But what if that person didn’t try so hard? What if they believed the water could hold them? Only at that point would they release their striving and relax. And that’s when they’d lay on the surface and float.
There is a trustworthy current beneath us. When we have invited God to be our guide, we can believe He is carrying us. We can relax into His flow, knowing it is real and good. It has a purpose for where it guides us. It will get us through the rough spots and always hold us up.
What a relief that we don’t have to rely on ourselves as much as we think we do.
Of course, learning how to change our tendencies toward perfectionism isn’t easy. It requires shifting our gaze from what we need to do to what God is doing. It takes practice and the help of the Holy Spirit. But we can get better at it if we keep it a priority.
Simply, we’ve got to place more emphasis on having freedom than on being perfect. Because here’s the thing: We’re either going to feel as if we’re just getting by and barely holding it together, or we’re going to actually enjoy our life. The choice is ours.