My Miseducation About Perfection

If I’ve learned anything it’s this:  It is not enough to realize that I had a difficult childhood. I must find out how this dysfunction affected my personality and behaviors so that I can be my authentic self.

I’ve written about perfectionism before, and yet as I go on in life,  I see more clearly the dangers of this insidious disease.  I’m reminded that the wrong type of perfectionism comes from damaged homes and false signals.  Some people bring this wrong mindset into their life and into their spiritual walk.  Years ago while participating in a married couple’s class at our church. The question on the floor was what is it that your spouse does that irritates you and how do you cope with it.   A minister’s wife got up and said, “Oh my husband is perfect.  He doesn’t do anything to irritate me.”  At first, I thought they were joking, but they weren’t.  How can that be?  Is he a clone?  Is he in a coma?  I couldn’t comprehend this at all. What had gone wrong there? Did she expects people to buy that?This person actually thought this statement was a good one.  It made her marraige look perfect.   But actually it made it look like she was being dishonest.  Anyone who’s been married or invovled in a serious relationship knows that the time will come that you will irritate one another, precisely because no one,  and I mean no one is perfect.

I asked a therapist-relative of mine about what drives a person I knew that seemed extremely controlling.  What is wrong with people who need to control everything so that they project a perfect image? Some people seem obsessesed with how they look to others. After I gave a description of the person’s behavior patterns, she read this person like a book. She didn’t even know her, I did,  but she knew the symptoms and was familiar with some of the causes.  She stated that usually when people have dysfunctional upbringings where everything is chaotic, they tend to want to control their environment.  That usually means controlling everyone around them and everything being in its place.   She said she saw this most often in children of alcoholics and drug addicts, or those bounced around in foster care.  Chaos can breed a hyper-focus on order and control, which is just the opposite of what I thought.  I thought if a person is a perfectionist then it’s because someone taught them to be that way, but no. Dysfunctional kids develop their own coping mechanisms from the chaos that surrounds them.

If I’ve learned anything it’s this:  It is not enough to realize that I had a difficult childhood. I must find out how this dysfunction affected my personality and behaviors so that I can be my authentic self.

There’s a good perfectionism and a dangerous type of perfectionism.  There’s perfectionism that shames us and one that lifts to higher heights and achievement.

Dr. Brené Brown, research professor, and expert on shame clarified it the best: She states that:

Perfectionism is a destructive belief system that fuels this primary thought:  If I am perfect I will avoid embarrassment, blame, and judgment.1

She further noted that healthy striving is SELF-FOCUSED (how can I improve myself) while perfectionism is FOCUSED ON OTHERS, what will they think?

 Proverbs 23:7a says “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he…”

Sometimes to grow, we must examine where this thinking comes from and how it worked its way into our lives then we can truly heal.

Perfectionism and Religion

Although we talk about religion and spiritual awareness in this blog, I must say that this disease did not start with my religious practices and choices.  It only made matters worse to be in an overly controlling atmosphere that just spoke of the judgments and following the dictates and rules of our sect.    I remember the unsaid message of my childhood.  If you want to be accepted in life, you have to be the image.  You have to do things correctly to be approved and good enough.   Internally this translated into never being good enough, no matter how hard I tried—at everything.  I had my successes from just the sheer effort.  I was in the top 5% of a class of 600.  I won the Brown University Book Award for communication as a Junior and listed in who’s who of American High School Students and a National Honor Society recipient.  Extremely accomplished.  Yet, I tried hard because I didn’t want to be a disappointment.  I was sent the message that If I can’t brag about your accomplishments, then you’re not good enough.  The result was that as a young adult I was striving to be approved and accepted.  I noticed this pattern in others in my religion, some were young people from troubled homes who needed acceptance and needed to feel like they belonged.  I was no better. My house was disturbed as well.  So when it came to the rules of my religion, it was easy to fall in line.  I was a chameleon.  Just tell me what I have to do, and I’m on it.  This attitude won me a lot of awards and approval but the trick was, it was never good enough on the inside.  No matter how well I performed, I felt like I’d done nothing.  The message of my religion was if you follow all their rules correctly, submit to your Pastor, come to church whenever the doors open, obey the pastor, and most of all don’t cause him any trouble, you’re an excellent Christian.

Brené Brown is right.  The disease of perfectionism causes you to focus on what other’s think, their opinions of you and whether you’re acceptable in their opinion.  It causes you to hide your wealth and gifts all in the effort to keep others happy.   You tend to not entirely concentrate on what God wants for your life.  Only what THEY say God wants. How many Christians blindly follow the dictates of their religion without studying these principles on their own?  I’m sure plenty.  I did it as well.  You tend to not even bother having your own spiritual mind or walk, religious traditions have decided for you what you should do with your time, family, marriage, job or career. Of course, this is all based on traditions that support their image of a good Christian. And yet, it’s often only a method that’s been developed to produce a copy of the perfect Baptist, Methodist, and Catholic or name any other denomination of Christianity.

The solution is to turn around from perfectionist thinking.  As a Christian, you have to realize that perfecting holy living is a process and an ongoing conversation  between you and God.  To indeed live your life under God’s guidance is to live as he intended. The goal is not to just be a faithful church member under the direction of a denomination or group whoever that may be in your life.  Don’t concentrate on what others think you should do with your life or what they thought you were going to do. Concentrate on your spiritual life and enjoy the everyday moments God gives you with friends and loved ones.  Perfect or not, they are your moments, for your life.  Embrace imperfection.  God never expected us to do anything but love him with all our hearts and gaze on the only perfect one—Jesus Christ.

Feel free to comment below.

1from the Gifts of Imperfection by Dr. Brene Brown

Author: Renee

I am an author and a retired minister. My passion is helping others find their sense of self and identity after so many years of losing my own. So often we go to church and are still not aware of our disconnection with our true selves. The person inside that God deeply values. My husband and I have been married for over 30 years and have 3 children. I love gourmet cooking, swimming, all kinds of music, and political and religious discussion- the two things my mom said never to talk about at the dinner table.