I have battled various forms of perfectionism for most of my life.
In high school, my room was immaculate with each hanger equidistant in the closet. That later changed when I had a messy roommate in college. When living with a slob, one eventually succumbs to the inevitable, downward spiral of the uninhibited and carefree.
But the perfectionism still manifested in different ways. Overachieving. Strict standards of personal accomplishment. The best grades. Precise speech (in several different languages, of course). Perfect dress.
I think the first sign of it was probably when I was about seven-years-old. My parents had signed me up for soccer. I remember the first match. I had no idea what was going on and got a scorching sunburn. Instead of figuring out the game and applying more sunscreen, I retreated and gave up. I was too afraid of not succeeding again. I couldn't play perfectly, so I might as well not play at all. Failure was not an option, so I opted out.
MASKED FEAR OF FAILURE
Perfectionism is masked fear of failure, rooted in shame.
While we might be born with a propensity for shame, I believe it is primarily learned. We learn it at home, in the classroom, on the playground, or in the pew.
We can spend a long time trying to figure out how or why it came. Sometimes, it's just best to recognize that it did indeed come. Accepting it's reality in our lives is the first step to overcoming it.
SHAME IS DIFFERENT THAN GUILT
We also must recognize that shame is different than guilt. Guilt is when we feel bad about what we've done. A little bit is healthy. It causes us to change our lives. It reminds us we still have a conscience.
Too much guilt is toxic. It morphs into shame. We shift from feeling bad about what we've done to feeling bad about who we are. That's what shame is: feeling bad about who we are.
Guilt is connected to behavior. Shame is connected to identity. We feel fundamentally flawed, broken, or unworthy. We don't feel good enough, worthy enough, or lovable enough.
That's why I'm not a big fan of guilt or shame. It's over-rated. I recommend giving it up. Especially the Catholic guilt. Baptist guilt. Jewish guilt. Pentecostal guilt. Or the guilt from your mama. It's completely counterproductive to a healthy spiritual life.
STOP THE NEVER-ENDING CYCLE
Shame is challenging to heal. It takes time. Time to recognize it, and time to confront it.
Remember, perfectionism in our lives is a sign that shame is lurking below the surface.
Perfection is a compensatory, coping skill that will sound something like this: "I feel so bad about this thing so I have to be perfect and over-the-top in this other thing to make up for how terrible I feel about the first thing."
Perfectionism never works because we will always come up short. When we come up short, the feelings of shame then intensify, and we feel even more shameful. So it's a never-ending cycle.
For me, confronting and changing perfectionistic behaviors is key. Breaking myself of all-or-nothing, absolutist thinking is also important. Understanding that I am more than good enough, completely worthy, and unconditionally loved are also of paramount importance.
I endeavor to live in a perpetual state of grace, and that isn't always easy. Yet, it's always beneficial.
ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE
One of my favorite contemporary writers is Anne Lamott. She has the following to say in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life:
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it.
I love that. Perfection is our enemy. Shame is our enemy. They keep us locked in insanity. I have to remind myself of that when I start feeling insane.
Perfectionism (aka masked shame) will keep you from enjoying your life to the fullest, while others are having an awesome time.
Last I checked, none of us get out of this alive. So why not start giving up perfectionism and shame today? Your rigid standards make life difficult for those around you and ultimately are destroying the beauty of what makes you, you. But at the end of the day, you are the one who suffers the most from your unattainable perfection.
I dare you to spend a few minutes being imperfect. I challenge you to allow yourself to be human. Color outside the lines. Take a risk. Give yourself permission to mess up a little!
When we live in the place of grace, I'm not sure that we can ever entirely mess up. We are able to recover from most things in life. There's always sufficient grace to get us through.
I think it was intended to be that way all along. I'm just glad to know it now.