As of late, God has been revealing to me in some not so subtle ways the true nature of Perfectionism and its steady companions, Anxiety and Depression. In the book Hurt People Hurt People, I read one sentence that brought many, many years of perfectionistic tendencies and anxious aftershocks to a clear point. On page 67 Dr. Wilson states, “The more chaotic and out-of-control a child senses his or her family to be, the more determined the child will be to become a skillful controller.” This statement grabbed my attention because I know this to be true of my own life, though I have never wanted to pin it down with words...that would be admitting it might be a problem.
Perfectionistic tendencies often start at a young age and can be an expression of something a child has internalized about the world -namely, that it is an unsafe place in need of constant monitoring and manipulation if peace of mind is to be achieved. The irony is that peace of mind is the last thing a perfectionist ever has. Perfectionism, surprisingly, has little to do with the need to be perfect, and everything to do with the need to feel in control, to feel secure, and to stave off the possibility of criticism from both self and others – in other words, a perfectionist strives to be a “skillful controller.” For the perfectionist, perfection means never having to feel less than, never being singled out for failure, and always being beyond reproach (notice the always/never paradigm). Perfectionists are sometimes even aware of their unrealistic and erroneous thinking, but find it difficult to correct such thinking without feeling as if something important is being conceded. After all, perfection means never losing, and that is surely a good thing, right? Further, if a desired goal is not met in exactly the way a perfectionist sets out to meet it, the end result is complete failure. There is no middle ground as mediocrity is a dirty word to a perfectionist.
One of the countless problems with perfectionism is that it seeks to eliminate reliance on God and instead fosters the sin of self-reliance (Gal. 3:3). The problem with self-reliance is that when everything falls spectacularly to pieces (and trust me, it will), perfectionists are left with only their self-imposed feelings of failure and worthlessness. If a perfectionist is a Christian, this is where God comes in, shaking his head, saying “and here we are again.” Thank God for Grace. Thank God for Mercy.
To further complicate matters, our society does not necessarily view perfectionism as unhealthy. In fact, it is often encouraged or considered cute and endearing, or worse, admirable. As responsible Christian counselors, it will be up to us to understand the extreme mental polarities inherent in perfectionistic thinking and the damage it can cause. The reason perfectionists become anxious and depressed is because, whether they admit it or not, they know they are not in control, and that they are laboring under a misapprehension. It’s worth digging around a little to find out exactly from where perfectionistic thinking stems, and to talk about how such thinking might be understood from a biblical point of view. A good way to help a client put their perfectionism into perspective is to remind them of their utter dependence upon God (Matt 6:25-34). Perfectionism robs people of the joy that only God can provide because it seeks to serve itself for its own sake, not the will of God for His kingdom’s sake. Perfectionism can destroy relationships, and places high priority status on things that, in the end, just plain don’t matter. Helping a client to put their perfectionism into biblical perspective not only gives them back their joy and dependence on God, but allows them the freedom to be a child of God again; imperfect, but perfectly loved regardless.