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3 Ways Perfectionism is Holding You Back

3 Ways Perfectionism is Holding You Back

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.

If the standards you’ve created are based on being better than everyone else, feeling good about everyone else’s successes gets tricky. Their success jeopardizes your status, and if your jealously guarded status means anything to you, you’ve got two options: put your friends down or hustle harder to get better than them again.

Your third and last status-based option is to decide that if you can’t be first place you might as well not play the game. You can stop contributing.

If none of these sounds appealing, you can let real life pry out of your stubborn, little fingers the impossible dream of being the best all the time and just contribute. You can stop checking your progress against anyone else’s, and the only person you can worry about beating is who you were yesterday.

I believe in testimonies, accountability, and healthy competition, but when the comparison game leaves your own value as a person in the balance, it’s time to kick your performance-based worries to the curb and embrace healthy, stable self-esteem. Only when you stop obsessing about your status can you be free to share your real, raw self in safe relationships.

We’re all imperfect. And people already know it. Any investment in some false projection of ourselves only holds us back from letting our real selves be seen and known – and truly loved.

Problem 3: We can’t stand to do anything badly, so we don’t do anything.

Solution: Get over it, even if you don’t feel over it, and just do it.

Land that high dive on your face. It’ll feel awful, but it’ll be good for you.

When it comes to most decisions in my life, I’m like a little kid waffling on the edge of a pool. I stall painfully for time – calculating the depth of the pool, taking the temperature with my toes, reapplying sunscreen for an hour and stopping for a corndog – only to squeeze my eyes shut and take a running, ugly leap into the water, screaming like Tarzan.

It’s quite freeing.

Nothing runs us right into our fear of failure quite like taking a chance we don’t feel ready for. It’s exactly the reason why I’ve spent much of my life keeping risks at the minimum level required for human functioning. I was determined that I wouldn’t learn my lessons the hard way. It’s done a lot of good things: for instance, it’s kept me focused enough to get through school and helped me sort through my doubts before I’ve made serious decisions.

But by not wanting to learn anything the hard way, I learned this the hard way: You can either take a chance on doing things, or you can take a chance on not doing things. There is no other option.

My obsession with doing my best all the time has terrified me and held me back from doing good things – pursuing jobs I won't be good at right away, entering a 10k, writing letters to a friend in grief – and, consequently, made me a less adventurous and helpful person.

When my fear of failure outweighs the real consequences of my not acting, when “I can do better” becomes “I can’t stand to fail,” I know I’m in dangerous territory. Perfectionism is, at its core, a fear of being flawed, of being found out, and when I get there, my creativity is shot and my stress levels are through the roof, whether I’ve confessed that to myself or not.

I know now that the only cure is grace, friends, and something completely embarrassing, like signing myself up for a something I’m terrible at – a class, a sport, a race – or brewing an unwholesomely large pot of coffee and sitting up all night writing something utterly unpublishable.

Find your (safe, moral) risk and take it. Your growth, and your willingness to let your real self be seen, known, and a little embarrassed, will be worth it.

Taking the Plunge

This is a hard thing to say in some Christian circles. Sometimes introducing the idea of having grace for weakness flips the “cheap grace” (a la Bonhoeffer) alarms in our brains, and people cry foul and talk about slippery slopes and the importance of discipline and calling sin sin.

Discipline matters, and so does grace. As my friend put it one day in a coffee shop (where my profoundest thoughts take root), “Eden is in the middle of the road.” I would love never to fail again, but I’m going to – and it’s going to be in about one minute – so what am I going to do when it happens?

I believe that some of our perceived weaknesses are actually sins – failures to live up to God’s expectations – and that some of them are just failures to live up to others’ expectations. With that in mind, I believe that some of what we consider weaknesses are actually strengths; they’re part of the mystery of God’s making all kinds of people and weaving us together as one big beautiful body that transcends time and culture.

In order to reach our potential, individually and together, we need to walk this road better, to treat each other with excellence, to push each other on toward becoming the people we were meant to be – but we need to do it all with grace.

Emily Maust Wood is a freelance editor and fitness coach. She lives with her husband and shelter dog, collects old books and broken things, and worries about where her running shoes come from. Charmed by the idea of restoring an old home, she chronicles the adventure at lacorbeille.wordpress.com.

Publication date: July 31, 2014

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