Perfectionism and Christianity
After writing my last article (which took me 3 weeks due to my own perfectionism), I started contemplating how perfectionism impacts so many Christians. When counseling with people, I often give them an Emotional Concept of God test that was developed by Abiding Life Ministries. The whole idea behind this test is that we run to God with our head knowledge (what we learn about God in church) but at our worst, in our emotions, we run away from Him. It asks questions like, “When I think about being with God, I feel…”, “When I have to trust God, I feel…”, “When I think about God, I wish…”. These questions really reveal our beliefs about who we believe God to be.
I believe one main reason we run away from Him is that we feel we don’t measure up to God’s standard of perfectionism. Matthew 5:48 says “Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This verse is the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount where Christ ups the ante on religious people who feel like they’ve arrived at a perfect religion. “To lust after a woman is to commit adultery with her… To be angry at a brother is the same as killing him…” Can anyone attain to that level of perfectionism, let alone attain the call to be humble at the beginning of his treatise? I believe the irony is that so many try even though Christ’s whole point in the sermon is to prove we can’t. In seminary there were many individuals I met who honestly were in pursuit of this perfectionism of behavior to get God’s acceptance.
I love God’s sense of humor and often find myself laughing about the rules I live by. From my rules for self-acceptance to rules for the ways I’m to do simple things like brushing my teeth. To some degree I think that this sermon has become the rules to which “good” Christians live by. Like perfectionism we allow this standard to reinforce unrealistic high expectations of our behaviors and secondly beat ourselves up for all the mistakes we have made.
One of my favorite revelations I’ve had about this passage is that it is not the Sermon on the Mount but the Life on the mount. Jesus wasn’t saying that in order to gain God’s acceptance we must do these things. No, no my friend, what He was saying was because of God’s acceptance based on my new identity in Christ, these things are now what are natural to me. I am perfect because Christ is my life!! It doesn’t “feel” like I’m perfect and many of my behaviors don’t seem to agree with this truth. Here’s where God is breaking my rules and helping me redefine who I view Him to be.
To be continued.
“Put on your happy face”, “Second place is the first loser”, “I must not make any mistakes”, “This is all wrong”. Sound familiar? How about the message “I’ll never be good enough” no matter how successful, beautiful or wealthy I am. Are these the sayings that motivate you, or are they really the sayings that bring you down? If any of this hits close to home, more than likely you are a perfectionist. “Now hold on” you might say, “a perfectionist is someone who has to have everything straight or in order.” Some might call that obsessive compulsive. You might argue, based on that definition, you are not a perfectionist. “You should see my room and my car, I have last month’s McDonald wrappers floating around every time the window is rolled down.” Well let me tell you, being orderly is not the only type of perfectionism. There are in fact, many shades of perfectionism that can cause depression, anxiety, anger and relationship problems.
The more I work with people, there seems to be an underlying idea that things need to be different than they are. This often stems from unrealistic high expectations; one of the key ingredients to perfectionism. I believe these expectations are tied closely to the rules of our culture or ideas passed down to us from significant relationships. If you had parents who constantly belittled you, or were perfectionists themselves, then the message you probably got was, “I’m not good enough until I’m perfect.” If you’re in any sort of relationship with a perfectionist, it can be draining because no matter how hard you try, your attempts are never good enough. The ironic thing is if you ask what they are expecting, they have a difficult time defining it.
The second ingredient to perfectionism is the inability to let little mistakes go. So many people I meet have an internal lists of all the things they and their love ones have done “wrong”. “Wrong” is a relative term, again, usually linked to our unrealistic expectations. A perfectionist is driven by this fear of failure. On a scale of one to ten, the mistake might be a one to others, but to a perfectionist it is a 10. It is important to understand and believe that we really do learn from our mistakes. This is a hard concept if everything you do is “never good enough”.
These ingredients are combined, and then manifested in many shades. A moral perfectionist has a strict set of “rules” to live by and feels unforgivable if they fall short. An emotional perfectionist has to always be happy. A relationship perfectionist believes if you really love someone you will not fight or be disappointed by the other person. A physical perfectionist has to have the perfect body. The perceived perfectionist is always worried that others perceive them as having it all together. A performance perfectionist feels that to be worthwhile he/she must succeed in everything he/she does. And of course there is the classic Obsessive-compulsive perfectionist who has to have everything in its right place. There are many other shades of perfectionism and all forms create a sense of defeat because no matter how hard we try, we are running from failure.
If you are a perfectionist, there is hope! By redefining your life and the way you look at things, you’re not doing less quality work or lowering your standards. In fact you can alleviate the self-imposed stress by seeing the way you learn is from your mistakes and by having some realistic expectations about what it means to be human. By focusing on the positive, letting go of the idea that your worth is determined by your accomplishments, cultivating a real sense of pleasure in your life, and challenging destructive thought patterns, you have some new ingredients to a healthy pursuit of excellence.