Overcoming Perfectionism Amidst the Process
You should know, and you may find it ironic, that you’re reading an article on overcoming perfectionism from a Class A perfectionist.
If anything, I hope it makes you feel less alone, less crazy, more understood, and more capable of overcoming its downsides. Because perfectionists are already harder on themselves than anyone else, so when others put their flaws in the spotlight, it’s crippling. Worse than crippling, actually—it is suffocating.
Perfectionism is built on fear and control, although those are the last two things any perfectionist would admit to struggling with. When they begin to take root, they trick us into thinking mistakes cannot and will not be made.
We think: “Fear? Control? Who, me? No way. I’ve got this.” (As the pit of our stomach clenches and churns.)
We think again: “I am strong. Capable. Infallible.”
Strong, yes. Capable, yes. Infallible? Not so much.
We have to learn to cultivate a relationship between perfection and grace. Through grace, we can accept our mistakes, our shortcomings, and all of our less-than-perfect moments without the undue resistance and justification they often entail.
We can free ourselves from the chains of self-imposed, unrealistically high standards, people pleasing, and approval-seeking. We can refuse the captivity of our own harsh judgments by choosing honor and forgiveness instead.
Otherwise, the need for perfection quickly turns to a state of oppression as we create patterns of “all-or-nothing” thinking.
Perfectionism says crazy things like:
- I ate a cookie, so my whole day of healthy eating is ruined.
- My blog doesn’t look super professional, so I shouldn’t share my love of writing.
- I always seem to disappoint my family/friends, so I should just withdraw from being in relationship with them.
- I made a pretty sinful mistake yesterday, so I couldn’t possibly be seen standing for my faith today.
- I didn’t get hired after my first job interview, so I must not have what it takes for that career field.
- My size (x) jeans don’t fit me right now, so I’m no longer attractive.
- I can’t run as fast as I used to, so I don’t even bother working out anymore.
- My room/house/apartment is messy and small so I can’t invite anyone over.
- My hair, makeup and wardrobe aren’t trendy or polished enough, so I don’t want to go to that party.
- I’m not the best, so even my best is unworthy.
If reading the above thoughts is making you cringe, it’s because unfortunately, these lines of thought really do exist in our minds!
I can’t even begin to tell you how many times the thoughts in my own mind have ranged from irrational to ridiculous on a daily basis. They often later become laughable, and usually when shared and admitted to in the company of close friends and loved ones.
What I’ve come to realize is that as much as perfectionism allows me to be successful, an achiever, and a true competitor, it also creates an unrealistic, unreachable distance between myself and those around me. I end up separating myself from the genuinely connected relationships I so crave. In my attempts to get everything just right, I end up creating more work, anxiety and disdain than necessary.
If that sounds exhausting, well, it is.
Words and phrases like: “If only I could be/do/have (x), then I’ll (x).”; or “I should do more (x), I should be more (x).” are the red flags of perfectionism.
They’re not nearly as powerful as affirmative statements like “can, would, will, or did” and they don’t exactly communicate a faith-filled confidence.
They imply we must somehow measure up before we could ever be accepted, which creates a wedge in our relationships—to God, to others, and even to ourselves.
But we are relational beings and "we get the best out of others when we give the best out of ourselves” (Unknown). Notice it says best self, not perfect self. At any given moment, people just want you to give all you've got, and be prepared to see it through, whatever the outcome.
People want to be around people who "show up"—as they are. The masks and the mandates are what kill us. Because sometimes all it takes is a bit of bravery, an open heart, and a bit of compassion to break down one another's walls.
According to writer and sociologist Brene Brown, shedding light on our shortcomings and imperfections makes us real, and still very much worthy of love and belonging. The less we try to make everything perfect, the more we realize how little we'd change about what is.
Even in the process of becoming:
- We can embrace things for what they are, not what we think they should be.
- We don’t have to be held captive to life of proving, pleasing, and perfecting.
- We can listen to our gut instincts, striving for excellence, but not for perfection.
- We can know when good is good enough.
- We can be humble enough to ask for help and let others know, “I need you.”
- We can be less focused on bringing our perfect selves and more interested in bringing our whole selves.
- We can be less concerned about what people might not like, judge or disagree with us on.
- We can become less worried about what we’re going to say next and more interested in hearing what others have to say.
A few years back, I was told that what gives sunsets and sunrises their beautiful, colorful glow is actually pollution. Perplexed and full of disdain, I think I froze for a second. Coming from someone who has always described a view of the horizon as God's pure artwork, I was speechless. Scientifically correct or not, I couldn’t get the concept out of my head.
After much contemplation, I finally thought to myself, "Okay, fine. So what if it is pollution?"
Because if it takes an imperfect thing like pollution to color our world and paint us a picture of beauty, who am I to stop it? The irony is, amidst the dirt and excess of pollution, our attention is actually given to the clarity of the colors in the sky. So it might not be perfect or totally pure, but it is still purifying.
Through grace and forgiveness, we can learn to see beyond our flaws and imperfections, too. We can stay focused and persistent—just like God is after the purity of our own hearts. Truly, He’s the only one capable of perfecting anything and He’s forever making all things new. Now that is something worth fully surrendering to.
[Photo by Juliette Kibodeaux.]