"Everyone who belongs to the Truth hears my voice…" (John 18:37)

Perfectionism and the Pursuit of Excellence

Many years ago, when my daughter was about 10 years old, she decided to enter an Easter colouring contest. The prize was a gift certificate at a nearby shopping mall, and as she had her eye on a music box there, she set about the task of colouring her Easter bunny with special care. Unfortunately, she just couldn’t seem to get it right, and in a moment of intense frustration, she whited everything out and decided to start again. But that’s when things went sideways. The white-out did cover up her work, but it adhered to the wax crayon in such a way that it was impossible for her to colour over it any more. Her bunny was greyish white and looked a little lumpy. As far as she was concerned, the whole thing was a complete and utter disaster. We knew how much the contest meant to her, though, so we convinced her – even though she was reluctant – to mail her picture in anyway. You can imagine her surprise (and delight!) when she got a phone call a few weeks later to tell her she had won the contest because her entry was so original!

The Pursuit of Excellence

Most of us believe it’s important to strive for excellence; we want to do our best, and we try hard not to make mistakes. But there’s a difference between the pursuit of excellence (which is healthy and gratifying, and helps us be the best we can be) and perfectionism (which destroys our sense of self-worth and our confidence in ourselves and our abilities).

Those who strive for excellence accept that they are human and realize they’re going to make some mistakes along the way. After all, we’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). When it comes to sin and making mistakes, it’s not a matter of ‘if’ we are going to mess up, but ‘when’. But those who pursue excellence aren’t afraid of making mistakes; instead, they see ‘failures’ as opportunities to learn, change, and grow. Their positive attitude is attractive (and contagious!), and it gives others the courage to also want to try to do their best.

Perfectionism

Perfectionists, on the other hand, are all about results; they pursue an idealized vision of ‘perfection’, and anything that falls short of that goal is simply ‘not good enough’. Because of this, they may experience stress and anxiety, procrastinate, have trouble finishing tasks, and give up easily. “Why should I bother practicing my violin,” my son used to reason, “ if I’m going to mess up my performance anyway?”

Perfectionists are hard on themselves. They live in a world governed by ‘shoulds’: I should have been more patient; I should have woken up on time; I should have known better. They are constantly evaluating themselves and their efforts – and always with a negative spin. Perfectionists agonize over the smallest details, and it can sometimes take them three hours to do what they could have done in 30 minutes. They are constantly going back over things, ruminating on past mistakes, and making tiny changes in an effort to try to make sure everything is ‘just right’. Perfectionists think less of themselves if they get 99 instead of 100% on a test, and they think they ought to be equally talented (or successful) in everything they set out to do. Sadly, they sometimes miss out on a lot of fun because they avoid trying new things out of a fear of failure and the risk of making mistakes.

God – or ‘God-like’?

Although many of us fall into perfectionism at times, it’s not part of God’s will for us. If we look deep within ourselves we may, in fact, discover that there is a subtle form of pride at work in this behaviour. For, in a certain sense, when we refuse to acknowledge the limitations of our human nature, we try to be God – the only One who is perfect and never messes up. But, you might argue, doesn’t Scripture tell us, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48)? Taken out of context, we might be tempted to interpret these words as a demand that we (should) be perfect – Divine – just like God. But God created each one of us in His own image to be human, and He doesn’t expect (or want) us to be anything other than what He has created us to be. Simply put, to be human is to be “very good” in the eyes of God (cf. Gen 1:31).

When St. Matthew speaks of perfection (in Matthew 5:48), he uses the Greek word, teleios. In this sense, “a thing is teleios if it realizes the purpose for which it was planned or created.”1 For example, a knife is teleios if it cuts well, and a winter coat is teleios if it keeps us warm. But what does it mean for us to be teleios? Matthew 5:48 makes clear that Christian holiness consists not in aspiring to be God, but to being God-like. And, as scripture scholar William Barclay notes, “the one thing which makes us like God is the love which never ceases to care for [people], no matter what [they] do.”2 Because God’s love for us is not based on our own perfection, but on His, “We enter upon Christian perfection, when we learn to forgive as God forgives, and to love as God loves.”3

“Then Peter came up and said to him, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven’.” – Mt 18:21-22

Unlike us, God doesn’t care if we colour outside the lines or if we get a less than perfect mark on a test; He won’t reject us if we miss out on a coveted promotion or fail to live up to our image of what a ‘perfect’ follower of Jesus should look like. Jesus could have chosen ‘perfect’ disciples; instead, He picked uneducated, unsophisticated men who would later abandon and betray Him – and, of course, we can’t forget that He also picked us. Yet no matter what we have done (or failed to do), God looks on us with eyes of compassion. He sees our weaknesses and our vulnerabilities, and He loves us just as we are – in our imperfect humanity.

 

God’s Idea of Perfection

God’s idea of perfection is love, and if we are going to love like Him, we need to not only love God and others, but also ourselves. Perfectionism can lead us to suspect that others are looking at us with the same critical eyes we cast on ourselves, and these kinds of assumptions can make it difficult for us to feel accepted by others – as well as by God. But God’s love for us is unconditional; there is nothing we could ever do to merit His love, nor anything we could do that would make Him love us any less. God does not love your ‘perfection’; He loves you; though we are imperfect, God loves us perfectly.

God created you in His image out of love, for love, and He intended (and needs) you to be who you are, just as you are, with all your unique qualities and characteristics. As the prophet Isaiah reminds us, “O LORD, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou art our potter; we are all the work of thy hand” (Is 64:8). There is no one else like you, and no one else in the world who can take your place.

When we consent to being who God meant us to be, we open ourselves to experiencing the deep inner peace and joy that comes with self-acceptance, resting in the truth of who we really are as opposed to who we desire to be. We, the clay, do not argue with the wisdom of the Potter (cf. 1 Tim 9:20-24), but, trusting in God’s love, we are content to rest in His promises: one day, we shall all be perfect, just as He is perfect. As the apostle, St. John wrote in his letter to the Church at Ephesus, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. … it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn 3:1-2).

Sharon van der Sloot

 

A Prayer for Perfectionists from St. Thérèse of Lisieux

“May today there be peace within. May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be. May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith. May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you. May you be content knowing you are a child of God. Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love. It is there for each and every one of us.”4

Footnotes:

1 Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon, Urgings of the Heart (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1995), 75.

2 William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956), 175, 177. Quoted in Au and Cannon, Urgings of the Heart, 75.

3 Ibid.

4 St. Thérèse of Lisieux, “Prayer for Perfectionists,” available from http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/beyondblue/2009/02/prayer-for-perfectionists.html; Internet; accessed 27 September 2017.

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