Undoing Perfectionism

I imagine my younger self filling in a job application. Having gushed my way through the box offering me the opportunity to express my strengths, I am stumped by a great big box that is provided for me to disclose my weaknesses. Of course I know I could fill a whole side of A4 with my weaknesses, the key question I ask myself is, “What should I write to get the job and not flush it down the toilet?”

The internet is full of advice for how to fill this dreaded box. Obviously, useless to me since I am a PI (Pre Internet) and did not benefit from these pearls. One website article entitled ‘Good Negative Qualities to Say in an Interview,’ states, “You can even spin a negative trait into something positive with just a sentence or two. For example, you might say, "I tend to be a perfectionist, but that often helps when creating financial reports." Or, "I tend to be a people-pleaser, but that often makes others feel comfortable in meetings or high-stress situations."

Here is my problem: Perfectionism fills the weakness box really well, because whist on the one hand we know it is a weakness, on the other hand we sense that it is strength. As a church leader, I have reviewed hundreds of job applications and approved countless references. Yet even I am often fooled by the beguiling box that proposes the person I might employ will meet a perfect standard at the cost of their social life. Perfectionism is in fact an emotional health problem of great toxicity; it is rife in society and often celebrated in the church, isn't about time that we called it out of the shadows?

Stoeber and Childs argue; ‘Perfectionism is a personality trait characterized by a person's striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards, accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others' evaluations.’  When you read their definitions plainly you can see just how anti-grace perfectionism is, and yet you can also see how the gospel of perfectionism has taken root in our churches.

Matthew 5:8 is clearly a stumbling block for many Christians who interpret the instruction, “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect,“ as validation for their own perfectionism. Instead, the Greek word used for perfection; ‘teleioi’ means ‘complete’. Since we find our completion in Christ, who restores us from our sinful deficiency, it is not hard to see the intended meaning of the verse. It is obviously foolish to suggest that Jesus was implying that the sort of perfection the law required was attainable through human effort: After all Romans 3:10 states clearly, “As it is written: "There is no one righteous, not even one.” The pursuit of holiness begins not in our righteous acts but in our confessional hearts.

Ultimately unless we see perfectionism as the 'enemy of grace' that it really is, we will both suffer under its burden and be diminished in our experience of the love of God. As Anne Wilson Schaef said, ‘Perfectionism is self abuse of the highest order.”

This is just an introduction really, but hopefully it is enough to get you thinking about the power of perfectionism in your life. If you want to go further have a listen to the talk linked below and the accompanying slides:

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Will Van Der Hart, 20/11/2013