If we are honest, there are elements of perfectionism in all of us. The scope of the issue may not be widespread or all-encompassing. But I would guess there are particular areas of where perfectionism lingers underneath.
A few examples:
- Overworking out of the fear of other people looking better than you
- Worrying if you have forgotten something because you don’t want to look irresponsible
- Over-preparing so that you never have to risk saying “I don’t know”
- Living in a persistent frantic mode because you have to keep all the plates spinning
- Placing expectations on people around you—especially children—because of the desire to maintain the right image
I could go on, but you get the point.
In the October 2018 edition of TABLETALK, Thomas Brewer provides some helpful thoughts about the root, expressions, and solution to perfectionism.
The Definition of Perfectionism
Perfectionism is dangerous on two different fronts. On the one hand, it is always easier to find someone far worse than ourselves. It’s easy to justify our obsessive, sinful anxiety in one area as we compare ourselves to someone else who seems “off the rails.” On the other hand, perfectionism can simply be the self-centered over-expression of being a good steward, making it sneaky and easy to justify.
Like so many sin issues, perfectionism is what happens when a good thing becomes a god-thing.
Here’s a helpful definition from Brewer:
Perfectionism isn’t simply striving to do well. Striving to do well is good, worthwhile, and commendable. The Bible calls us to it (Col. 3:23). If that’s what we’re doing, we’re not worried about what other people think, and we’re not judging ourselves for our poor performance. Perfectionism only arrives when there is shame involved.
Perfectionism is connected to shame.
The Root of Shame
Underneath our perfectionism is the desire to hide our faults. It started in the Garden of Eden, and it continues in the heart of every human being.
The root of perfectionism is…the fear of shame. Shame is the painful feeling that something is wrong with us. And the truth is, deep down, we know there’s something wrong with us. That’s why we try to hide it. We are like Adam and Eve in the garden, knowing something isn’t right…
It isn’t long until shame expresses itself through control.
The Issue of Control
Our response to this deep-seated shame is to work actively to control our lives—manage expectations, work hard, think things through carefully, double-check the numbers, etc. Control can take many forms. But, alas, it does not work.
How do we try to preserve ourselves from shame? Through control. Control allows us to adjust our environment so that everything is in it’s right place—at least according to us…If things are outside of our control, we can’t ensure our shame is hidden. Things inevitably go awry, and our flaws are exposed. We’re met with shame again. We’re reminded that we can’t fix things. We cannot hide…. Our own perfectionism, despite our best efforts, leaves us scared and ashamed.
What’s more, we become deeply frustrated—even angry. When perfectionistic control is thwarted, look out!
The Solution of Sovereignty
How can we battle perfectionism? One helpful weapon is to consider the sovereignty of Jesus—to remind ourselves that he took our shame and established his control over everything.
Christians have a long history of thinking about control. When we talk about being in control and controlling everything, what we’re talking about is sovereignty…This is what we wanted in the garden. We wanted sovereignty. Instead we got sin and shame…The good news, however, is that Someone else is in control, and Someone else has taken our shame away.
Did you know perfectionism was a theological problem? Realizing this can become the first step toward addressing the problem of perfectionism and its fruits of shame or control.
It’s only when we recognize God’s sovereignty that we’re able to begin the healing process. It’s only when we realize that God has taken upon Himself the shame that we so fear that we can take our first steps toward being released from the cycle of shame. The answer isn’t being in control and hiding our shame. The answer isn’t perfectionism. The answer is Jesus Christ.
Perfectionism grows in gospel-lite soil. To combat this precarious problem, we need to see our shame and desire for control as what they are: another attempt to live by our works.
So preach the gospel to your perfectionistic heart. Failure isn’t fatal when your sins are already forgiven.