Five Things to Keep in Mind if You’re a Perfectionist

It’s not easy being a perfectionist. I don’t say that because I’m some kind of psychological and behavioral expert. I know it both from observation as a pastor and from personal experience: I’m a card-carrying member of the club (he says, to the shock of no friend or family member).

And if you have a bit of the perfectionist in you, then I’m guessing you didn’t need me to tell you that it can be challenging. You’re well aware that you’re liable to get frustrated with others—spouse/kids/coworkers/friends/person in the next lane/etc.—when your (rather high) expectations aren’t met. You know that you may get even more frustrated when you don’t meet those expectations. You’d like to be more encouraging, but your focus continually goes toward what needs improvement. You don’t always like to delegate things to other people because you’re worried they may not have the same standard as you do. You’d sometimes rather not get started on a project because you’re worried you can’t do it as well as you’d like. And you get discouraged when you can seem to get on top of everything that needs your attention. We could go on.

If that’s not you, then…what’s your problem? Don’t you see all the things that need to be fixed in and around you?

Just kidding.

Mostly.

But seriously, if that is you, it might be helpful to keep the following five things in mind:

1. Our weaknesses tend to be the flip side of our strengths. The same bent that leads to the grief mentioned above can also produce a lot of good things. It can make you care more when you should care more. It can fix problems and generally make things better. But since perfectionists tend to focus on the negative, this point can be particularly difficult to keep in perspective.

2. The world around you is not the way it’s supposed to be, and you can’t make it otherwise. The Bible is very straightforward in noting that human sin has thrown a considerable wrench in the gears of creation. We read that the ground is in some measure cursed, that all creation groans as in the pains of childbirth, and so on. Nothing works quite the way that it should. You car gets hail damage. Your yard gets weeds. Your air conditioner gives out. Your immune system fails to stop that nasty virus. To have an expectation that things should go smoothly around you is to buy into a promise you’ve never been given.

3. People (including you) aren’t the way they’re supposed to be, and you can’t make it otherwise. If the Bible is frank about the rest of creation being scarred, it is particularly insistent that every human being is broken because of sin. And when we add flaws to finitude, the results are regularly disappointing. Sometimes spectacularly so. To expect people always to do the right thing, always to live up to expectations, etc., is simply to disregard this fundamental truth. No, we shouldn’t give into cynicism (see #5 below). But we need to be reminded that sin, failure, and disappointment are all woven into human beings in this time “east of Eden.”

4. God is regularly patient and kind with imperfection. God has not, we should note, thrown his creation in the proverbial trash only to start completely over. And his response to his people’s failures was to send his Son to suffer and die on their behalf. Nor does he lose patience with us after he grants us new life; that is, when we still regularly blow it. No, the Lord is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love” (Psa. 145). When I find myself frustrated at anyone—my kids, that person behind the counter, myself—one of the best things I can do is to remember God’s regularly gracious disposition toward sin and brokenness.

5. Behind your perfectionism is a longing for something that will one day actually take place. The wonderful promise of the gospel is that God will in fact make all things perfect. Yes, Paul says that creation groans, but he also promises that it will be brought into the “freedom and glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8). You won’t experience it this side of Christ coming back, but if you trust in him, you will experience it. No more sin. No more tears. No more death or sorrow or mourning or pain (Rev. 21). Everything—finally—will be as it should be. And that will include you. By his gracious, transforming work, you will finally be what God intended to be all along. As C. S. Lewis once wrote:

To please God…to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness…to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son—it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is. (“The Weight of Glory”)

One Comment

  1. Judy Sheppard said:

    Ditto to all you said. I have been especially hard on myself. Praise God for mercy and grace.

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