3 Ways Perfectionism is Holding You Back
- Thursday, July 31, 2014
As a recovering perfectionist, I keep uncovering new ways that this obsession has held me back. Until recently, I would have admitted to being perfectionistic the way someone might confess to being especially pretty: It’s harmless. It’s kind of cute. It’s just the way I am.
But perfectionism is a lot darker than it seems at first glance and not half as cute as I would like to think. It masquerades as a desire for excellence, but with a few important differences. For starters, a real desire for excellence doesn't stir panic when you miss one point out of a hundred. Excellence acknowledges the beauty in the journey; perfectionism is obsessed with the illusion of an impossible destination.
Perfectionism makes performance the measure, surpassing normal bounds of moral obligation and creating new, extrabiblical rules. Suddenly leaving a carton of milk to spoil on the counter is a moral failing. The empty toilet paper roll is a symbol for all that is wrong with humankind. How do these people sleep at night?
The habits that keep us entrenched in perfectionism take time to overcome, but with intention and awareness, we can learn to live with grace for others – and for ourselves.
Problem 1: We stop giving ourselves grace, stifling our unique growth and dishonoring God’s design.
Solution: Acknowledge that both your strengths and weaknesses are part of you. Instead of competing with the status quo, focus on becoming a better version of yourself.
As a kid in the church, I knew that I was supposed to extend grace to others when they did wrong things, but the idea of having grace for myself seemed outlandish. Am I not supposed to be my biggest critic? Shouldn’t I take the plank out of my own eye before worrying about anyone else’s specks? Who’s going to tell me I’m terrible if not my own inner dialogue?
One problem with focusing so intensely on your own flaws is that you stop seeing past them to your strengths – the ones you worked on and the ones the Lord saw fit to let you be born with. You dishonor not only your own accomplishments but the artistry of your Creator. I would have been so ashamed – and friendless – if I ever had directed one half of one percent of my bullying self-talk to other people.
Often when we demand some version of “perfection” from ourselves, we automatically subscribe to the definitions of perfection set for us by our culture – expectations made with the priorities of the majority, and not our individual gifts and obligations, in mind. These are hard to purge, and they sneak in without our realizing it. We can claim to others – and even convince ourselves – that we only want to be the best version of ourselves, but if the best version of ourselves suddenly equals thin and pretty (for women) or capable and tough (for men), we have to consider the looming possibility that we might be fooling ourselves.
Recruit some tough self-love and ask yourself the hard questions: Will I still feel okay if the best version of me contradicts the standards of my family or culture? Get specific. What if the best version of me writes folk music instead of symphonies, never makes the Dean’s List, never gets promoted, or still gets passed by elderly runners wearing funny costumes in a 5k, no matter how hard I train?
(Not that, ahem, I can relate or anything.)
We’ll all have our own customized versions of this. That’s the point.
Problem 2: Our perfectionistic insecurities hinder our relationships with others.
Solution: Kick the comparison game for good, and cherish the unique ways that your friends are making their own mark on the world.
While a mature, gracious desire for excellence celebrates individual accomplishments, perfectionism whips out a measuring stick. Deciding that no celebration is in order until we beat everyone else, perfectionism places us constantly in the fluctuating position of being either one up or one down.
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