Being a perfectionist is great when I’m trying to get stuff done. It’s partly why I’m able to work as a freelancer; I am self-motivated and work hard to make my projects shine. I don’t like doing anything half-heartedly. I strive for excellence.
I don’t think I’m a high achiever because I want admiration (though that’s always nice)—I think I do it because I know I can. I’ve got certain gifts, so why not put them to use and let others benefit from them too?
Striving for excellence in everything I do has its benefits, but it also comes with its problems.
I don’t measure up
I put a lot of pressure on myself to get things right, even the first time I try something new. This can make me hesitant to try new things, especially in front of other people. Whatever I set out to do, I rarely feel like it’s good enough, whether it’s writing, art, music, or the other creative projects I invest myself in. Creative projects are tricky because they can always be improved, and therefore it’s a never-ending pursuit.
Work-related endeavors aside, the worst thing about perfectionism is its toll on relationships. Wanting perfection in my relationships causes me even more grief, because I beat myself up when I make a mistake that hurts someone else, and get emotionally destroyed when someone else makes a mistake that hurts me. I compare myself to other people who do things better than I do—that person is so much freer with their emotions than I am; that person is so much better at communicating than I am; that person doesn’t struggle with anxiety like I do.
In the past I have tried to hide my weaknesses instead of being honest about them, not vocalizing my needs or boundaries in relationships because I want to appear like nothing bothers me. I want to be the strong, stable one—the easygoing person that every friend, boyfriend, or family member would kill to have. But by trying to be that perfect person, I can actually damage those relationships; for one thing, “perfect” people (along with the fact that they don’t exist) are boring and can’t relate to other normal, flawed people. For another, relationships grow and strengthen through being vulnerable with each other.
Beneath the desire for perfection in ourselves can lie some deep vulnerabilities, like the fear of judgment, the need for control, the terror of abandonment, and feelings of inadequacy. To overcome those vulnerabilities requires accepting grace from ourselves, from others, and from Jesus, whose power is made perfect in our weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Others don’t measure up
Because I have such high standards for myself, sometimes I expect total excellence from the people around me, too. This wasn’t a huge issue for me until I was put in a leadership position, overseeing a variety of creative projects. During one such venture, people were working very hard but didn’t have the capacity to make the final project perfect like I wanted it to be. They were volunteers, not professionals. And with volunteers, you always run the risk of lacking skill, time, or both to achieve the perfection I tend to look for. My expectations were too high. This wasn’t a fair attitude to have towards them, and I realized I had let my desire for perfection almost get in the way of the importance of relationships; I almost dissolved a wonderful, close-knit community in my pursuit of “perfect.”
Grace is important for me to give to others. I don’t deserve it when I receive it, and that means I am certainly not justified in withholding it.
The church doesn’t measure up
One of the challenges I experience a lot in the church is the same one I have with myself — the desire to appear perfect. I think it partly stems from pride — pride in ourselves for choosing to believe what we think is right, and pride in our God, who is perfect, and wanting to reflect that so others can see it. It reminds me of my personal struggle. I can’t be perfect. I make mistakes. I’m human. And the more I posture and pretend to be perfect, the less grace and the more pride people will see when they look at me.
“But he gives more grace,” James says (4:6). “That is why Scripture says: ‘God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.”
Believing in a Savior who loves me doesn’t involve being perfect; in fact, it’s the exact opposite. Acknowledging that I don’t always have it right is actually comforting to those looking in from the outside, and it is a relief to me. By accepting grace and letting it pour out of me in return, I become God’s definition of perfect instead of my own, and that’s the perfection I want to strive for.