Perfectionism is one of those things that seems like a good thing, but in reality it’s far from good. In fact, perfectionism destroys those who strive to achieve it. None of us is remotely capable of being perfect. And when we try to be so, it too often stems from pride and/or fear. Come learn why perfectionism is so dangerous not just to your writing, but to your spirit and peace.
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When we talked about self-doubt, we touched on the idea of perfectionism. But it’s such a common and damaging problem that we wanted to give it its own episode. As Christians and as writers, we want to pursue excellence in what we do. But where do we draw the line? What’s the difference between a healthy pursuit of excellence and an unhealthy striving for perfection?
Let’s start with a definition of perfection: Merriam-Webster says it’s “the quality or state of being perfect” such as the “freedom from fault or defect” or “the quality or state of being saintly.”
When we think of it that way, most of us are self-aware enough to realize we aren’t flawless, nor are we saintly. In fact, we’re often pretty darned far from it.
Yet, when I read in an article in Psychology Today called “9 Signs That You Might Be a Perfectionist” I was surprised by them. I mean, for sure I recognized some of those signs in me, because I already know that I struggle with perfectionism, but somehow I hadn’t necessarily connected those signs to perfectionism.
What does perfectionism look like in our lives?
- You have trouble delegating because you don’t trust others to do the job correctly.
- You often fixate on the things you messed up.
- You avoid or procrastinate doing tasks where you may not excel. For example, those of you who haven’t finished that manuscript some editor or agent has expressed interest in because you’re afraid the ending won’t be as good as the beginning, I’m talking to you.
- Or you don’t ever complete your manuscript because there’s always something “more” you can do to make it better.
- Your self-confidence depends on what others think about you and/or your book. It’s about your accomplishments, not your true worth in God.
Why is perfectionism a bad thing?
Perfectionism, and the things we do to attain it, can hold us back from being the kind of person and the kind of writer God designed us to be.
Another Psychology Today article talked about perfectionism being toxic because “those in its grip desire success, they are most focused on avoiding failure, so theirs is a negative orientation.” We live in fear of failure, of doing something wrong. Instead of in freedom. We covered this more in depth in the episode on self-doubt so go back and listen to that if you struggle in that area.
And yet another article defined perfection as…
- “The relentless striving for extremely high standards (for yourself and/or others)” that typically, to an outsider, seem unreasonable
- “Judging your self-worth based largely on your ability to strive for and achieve such unrelenting standards.”
It’s good to have standards, it’s good to have goals, because it helps you achieve things. But the article goes on to say, “…when these goals are either unachievable or only achievable at great cost, it makes it very difficult to feel good about yourself. This is when perfectionism can be problematic.”
An article from Western Seminary had this to say about the dangers of perfectionism: “When we strive for worldly perfection what we’re often actually striving for is to be better than those around us. Our pride and sinful flesh make us want to come out on top when we compare ourselves to others. Our insecurities cause us to feel shame and embarrassment when our comparisons reveal our inadequacies.”
What about “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect?”
The same article goes on to say, “It’s true that the Bible calls us to be ‘perfect as [our] heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matthew 5:48). The Greek word for ‘perfect’ here is telios. It means ‘brought to its end, completed, or perfect.’ So, to be ‘perfect’ in this sense is not how perfectionists so often imagine it. Rather, it is to be completed in Christ. Philippians 1:6 says that completion is the work of God. He created us, saved us, and is faithful to perfect us.”
What is the healthy pursuit of excellence, as compared to the unhealthy striving for perfection?
1. Recognize that pursuing excellence is about God—about serving Him well, about submitting ourselves to His work and refinement, about relying on Him to equip us for the work He’s asking us to do. Perfection, on the other hand, is about me—how I measure up compared to everyone else, how I never make mistakes, how I’m able and capable because I’ve worked so darned hard, and so on.
2. An article on DesiringGod.org has this to say about the healthy pursuit of excellence: “When we pursue excellence, we’re determined to do something as well as possible within a given set of talent, resource, and time limits.” Recognize that God has equipped you in certain ways. If you need to study to refine your skills, such as your writing, go for it. It’s biblical to work to refine ourselves. But the moment you start obsessing or comparing yourself to others, stop. You’ve crossed the line into perfectionism. When that happens, submit yourself to God, asking Him to let you see yourself through His eyes. And consider setting time limits and allow yourself to do the best you can in that amount of time—and then let it go and move on.
3. A healthy pursuit of excellence is understanding that perfectionism isn’t possible. Romans 3:23 says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Give yourself permission to not be perfect. You have to be willing to think about yourself differently.
4. Let go of control. That belongs to God. You can pursue excellence in a way that leaves results up to God. You aren’t the center of the universe, God is. It’s not about whether you do everything right, or do enough. It’s about your relationship with God and embracing His truth and grace. Trusting His grace. Knowing that He’s not surprised when we fail. He made us. He knows we’re not perfect. And He still loves us. In other words, make your focus about loving and getting to know God better. Not about being perfect.
5. A healthy pursuit of excellence means we work hard for the Lord, but we work out of passion rather than perfectionism. Colossians 3:23-24 says, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” Passion produces a good feeling, you view your work as challenging and rewarding. Perfectionism always leaves you feeling less-than. Inadequate. A failure.
6. Do your best, but make sure that’s marked by grace. Cultivate self-compassion, self-love. Matthew 22:39 says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Read 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 and put your name in there. For example, Karen’s love for herself is patient, kind…and so on. And then make sure you live all that out. You can’t show others patience when you’re not patient with yourself.
7. We need to find our value, worth, and identity in God, in being His child, in being created in His image, and in the perfect righteousness He gives us in Christ. Everything else is worthless. God wants us to delight in Him FIRST, and that overflows into delighting in the work He equips us to do. But if we’re not first His child, if we’re not first resting in His love for us, in the value He places on us, we’ll always be looking to others or the world or our achievements for our validation, and that will NEVER satisfy us, because we weren’t designed to work that way.
What is the only kind of perfectionism that matters?
God has called each of us to do the work and tasks He’s given us with excellence, but He’s also there to equip us, encourage us, and refine us as we go through the journey of becoming His child. But when we mistake perfectionism with excellence, we give the enemy a foothold to distract us, to discourage us, and to derail us from serving God. Excellence puts the focus on God. Perfectionism puts the focus on me. It’s pretty clear which one is going to lead me into a life of faithful service and peace. So lay your perfectionism on the altar of obedience and walk away. Leave it in God’s hands. Leave yourself in God’s hands. And rest in His provision, direction, and refinement. Let Him make you perfect in His sight. That’s the only kind of perfectionism that matters, and He’s the only one who can achieve it.
We want to hear from you!
Do you ever struggle with perfectionism? What helps you overcome it?