The recycled perfectionist
Hi, my name is Sarah and I’m a perfectionist. These days I feel the need to name this trait in the manner of a confession; I know there will be others who consider themselves ‘sufferers’ too.
But it is true that perfectionism has (ostensibly) served me well. Why wouldn’t one strive to be as good as one can be? Surely aiming for top marks academically, faultless sermons, and the perfect sponge cake is laudable? It is quite tiring, though. Long hours of studying and sermon preparation with which one can never be quite satisfied are exhausting. (The quest for the perfect sponge is more fun.)
Perfectionism is toxic
Over the years I’ve become aware of a more sinister aspect to being a perfectionist. The expectations I have of myself aren’t very realistic, and result in disappointment when I fail to meet my self-set standards. It follows that my expectations of others aren’t very realistic either—I tend to make equally high demands of other people. Or I decide that they won’t do a job as well as I will, and so opt to do it myself. Perfectionism is insidiously toxic—and, like the seemingly attractive and yet oh-so-persistent and destructive Japanese knotweed, it’s very hard to get rid of.
It’s difficult to change. The trait is acquired early in life; the desire to please starts a positive feedback loop, which acquires its own energy and is self-perpetuating. Motivation to get things right is rewarded, thereby affirming the desire, and so on…as a means of avoiding criticism, it should be a perfect method! But the irony is that it never quite works – my ‘perfect’ is not yours, and particularly so if it is a fellow perfectionist, disguised as parent or teacher, who has spawned this need to get everything right in order to avoid the humiliation and shame of not quite being enough.
And so it seems, I’ve seen through perfectionism with its false promises of covering my inadequacies and insecurities. A far kinder plant is beginning to grow as I make space for it. That is grace, grace that the apostle Paul discovered when he pleaded for that thorn in his flesh to be removed. ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9).’ How hard it is for the perfectionist to grasp this concept! How wrong it feels to boast in weakness so that the power of Christ might dwell in me! (Surely it will result in more criticism…won’t it?) It is quite the opposite of the survival mechanism of striving to be good enough, and takes some discovering, relishing, and relaxing in.
The recycled perfectionist
But what of perfectionism? Even with the discovery of grace—that I am enough, through Christ alone—traces of the weed remain, stubborn roots that take time to pull out. But as it is in God’s Kingdom, I think that even toxic perfectionism can be recycled.
The Old Testament prophets plant seeds of hope for Edenic restoration of all things; I particularly love Isaiah in this regard: ‘The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing (Isa 35:1-2a).’ In the New Testament we discover that in Jesus the Kingdom has drawn near and is demonstrated in miracles and healings, giving a taste of what can be now, but also of what is yet to come in entirety. The author of Hebrews describes a longing for perfection when he speaks of those who died in faith ‘desiring a better country, that is, a heavenly one (Heb 11:16).’
I’m discovering the possibility of using my longing for perfection to lead away from my own attempts at self-justification. I want to refocus, from striving to get things right here and now, to looking forward to the new creation, to the new heaven and new earth (Rev 21:1). By God’s grace I am learning to pray in the face of the world’s imperfections, its tragedy and suffering, and my own weaknesses, that God’s Kingdom would come.
And so, could it be that recycled perfectionism makes Kingdom dreamers—those who long to live like the Kingdom is near? (And those who enjoy good sponge cake. Not perfect sponge cake.)