Perfectionism: A Performance Trap?
Perfection: the state of being complete and correct in every way. (Cambridge Dictionary)
Perfect: Having all the required or desirable elements, qualities, or characteristics; as good as it is possible to be. (Oxford English Dictionary)
“As good as it is possible to be.”
If someone were to follow you round at all points in your life, and before you ever undertook a task, whispered in your ear: “This better be as good as it is possible to be” – How would you react?
How long do you think you could put up with it, before turning around and telling them to mind their own business?
Would you think they’re wrong? Is it okay to make mistakes?
Or, would you just go along with it? Is it no different to what you tell yourself already, and therefore you can’t see any issue? Perhaps this person is just verbalising what’s been going on in your head for years?
A Culture of Perfectionists
And here in lies the problem.
Is the idea of perfection so intrinsically built into our culture; particularly one of academics and higher education, that we struggle to see there’s a problem with this mentality?
Has it become so normal to regard anything less than perfection as ‘failure’ that when you read these questions, it’s hard to remember any different?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge advocate for education and academics on the whole. I wholeheartedly value and appreciate the opportunities I’ve had to learn, to deepen my understanding, and to develop further my interests and passions. But I can’t help but sit and question what it’s cost to get me here, and what it’s costing the generations of students who are growing up through an education system that demands higher and higher standards.
Aspiring to be the best you can be isn’t an issue. The issue comes when you’re striving at the expense of what your best is. There’s a very, very fine line between working hard, and working too hard.
I don’t remember when the drive for perfection started for me. I don’t distinctly remember it being something I was told “you must do x, y and z” in order to achieve. Maybe it was something internal? But whatever it was, that feeling and drive was only fostered throughout my school years.
I briefly touched upon this in my letter ‘Dear 16-year-old me…’ – but grades somehow came to define how I saw myself. That pressure, that failure I felt any time a grade slipped even just a little, wasn’t healthy, yet I allowed it to rule my thoughts for years.
In an education system that is based around getting the best grades, a work environment where it’s hard to ever switch off fully, or a culture surrounded by social media telling you how you should look, act and feel – it’s not hard to see how easy it is to get ruled by the ‘best of the best’.
But one day, it’s all going to come crashing down.
When the Pressure of Perfectionism gets Too Much
One day, you’ll realise how unattainable perfection is, especially when you’re striving for it 24/7.
One day, you’ll realise that if you let it, there can be a real freedom in admitting that you’re not perfect.
One day, I hope you’ll discover that we’re not meant to be perfect.
If perfectionism is something you struggle with, I hope these revelations come gently, without having to have a crash and your world-view disintegrating in front of you. I hope that this is something you gradually come to realise as you learn more about yourself, the world around you, and the person who created you.
Because ultimately, that’s what it comes down to.
I am not perfect, because I was made by a perfect God.
I do not have to be perfect, because I was made by the only perfect thing, God.
I will be made complete when I one day meet my creator, and only through what HE has done, will I be made perfect.
Disentangling the Myth
I’ve talked a lot about perfectionism in terms of education and academics here, but in reality, if you’re prone to perfectionism, the likelihood is you’ll apply it to all aspects of your life. For me, a real battle with this was (and is, I’m still learning, and that’s okay) applying it to my relationship with God.
“Perfectionism is all about performance”
Perfectionism is all about performance. Forgetting about academic perfectionism, striving for perfection in all aspects of life is a sure fire way of failing, and falling short. (Ironically, this is the one thing that perfectionists hate the most.)
When it comes to my walk with God, and understanding Christian faith, wrapping your head around the idea that there isn’t ANYTHING we can do to earn God’s love, or earn our salvation is really hard to do. Especially when we live in a world that is driven by achievements.
It boils down to the concept of grace. This is something I really struggle to understand and comprehend – partially because it’s divine, but also because it’s just SO foreign to the way I think and how my brain is wired. I always feel as if there’s something I must do to earn, or deserve God’s love – yet here’s something of an eye opener.
When I say “I don’t deserve God’s love”, what I’m actually saying is, Jesus’ death on the cross wasn’t good enough for me.
How prideful is that? Reading that, and having that realisation was a massive wake-up call. Often, ‘I don’t deserve it’, can stem from humility, or a real lack of self-worth. But instead, it’s more prideful, and somewhat an example of false humility.
When Jesus said “It is finished.” (John 19:30), He meant it. There’s nothing more I can do (or anything at all for that matter), that would make my life deserving of God’s love, yet He loves me anyway.
God loves us despite our flaws, despite all we’ve done, and despite the fact that we will fail each and every day. It is in our weaknesses that His power is made perfect. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
I can forget this countless times, yet He still loves me. And if I can remember to come back to this truth – the feeling of failure, and slipping up – the feeling that so often the world has as expectation, that’s somehow different.
Putting it into Practice
It’s all well and good talking about this, understanding the theory, and eventually hoping to believe it (heart and head knowledge.) Part of this comes down to putting it into action – or, as someone at Church said, “putting the posture in behind the prayer”.
What does that look like, especially in a world that is driven by perfectionism?
For me, instead of focusing on a ‘checklist of how to be a good Christian’, which is looking at rules and not grace, I need to be seeking Jesus and a relationship with Him. There aren’t rules in a relationship, it’s just me and God. If I have a desire to know God more, and know Him deeper, then everything else will gradually fall into place.
At the heart of it all is simple faith, and a heart for God – if I’m going to know Him more and love Him more, I need to get to know who He actually is personally.
Perfectionism will probably continue to rear its head at times – but I’ve got a basis to remind myself of what’s more important.
Grace isn’t logical. Grace doesn’t fit right with our brains, especially those who are inclined to perfectionism. But grace is what it is. We may not understand it, but I’m willing to say ‘yes’ – because the pressure’s off me.
Grace isn’t logical. But Grace is life-giving.
If you ever want to chat more about this stuff, let me know.
Love, Han x