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The toxic effect of perfectionism

Renew/ Attitudes
Perfectionists often have a hard time understanding God’s love, grace, and forgiveness towards us, because we feel like we haven’t done enough or been good enough. A deeply imprinted inner script convinces us that, “Anything less than excellent is not good enough.” Sadly, perfectionism obstructs our relationship with a God who loves unconditionally.

 

Other ideas that torment perfectionists include:

  • “I have to excel at everything I do.”
  • “I must always be in optimal condition.”
  • “It’s important to analyse how everything can have done better.”
  • “I expect all work to be done without error.”
  • “It’s not good to ask for help. (This may mean I am not perfect.)”
  • “I find myself stuck sometimes when things can’t be made perfect.”
  • “I prefer to work on my own so that I can control the outcome satisfactorily.”
  • “If my children don’t do well in school, I will be seen as a bad parent.”
  • “It is a good thing to point out other people’s mistakes because they need to know.”
  • “I often find myself disappointed with other people.”

All forms of perfectionism are linked to past experiences of rejection or unrealistic expectations. Perfectionists cope with some inner sadness or “badness” by focusing on making their outer worlds beautiful and good. Thankfully, there is very good news for perfectionists who are willing to renew our minds based on God’s truth.

Neither be lazy – or perfectionists

The Bible warns us against being slack and encourages us to do all things diligently and joyfully for God’s glory.

Proverbs 13:4 ESV  The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied. 

Colossians 3:23-24 ESV  Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.  

God, however, does not require us to do things perfectly. Our Heavenly Father knows that only He is capable of scoring perfect A’s in everything. Here are some points about God’s perfection.

  1. God’s character is perfect | Deuteronomy 32:4 ESV  “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.
  2. God’s ways are perfect | Psalm 18:30 ESV  This God—his way is perfect; the word of the Lord proves true; he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him.
  3. God’s Law is perfect | Psalm 19:7 ESV  The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple;
  4. God’s peace is perfect | Isaiah 26:3 ESV  You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.

God only calls us to love and sacrifice perfectly

Many people fall for the lie that we need to score A’s in order to qualify for our Heavenly Father’s approval. This is a lie. God knows we are incapable of becoming perfect like Jesus without His Holy Spirit.

Hebrews 10:12,14 ESV  But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God… For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.

If we look into the Bible, God’s Word states two things we need to be perfect in – God expects us to aim to be in perfect in love and sacrifice. He does not ask us to be perfect in our tasks or achievements. Perfectionism is a corrupted form of what God intends for us because it is not driven by love nor sacrifice. Rather, it is driven by fear.

Matthew 5:43-46,48 ESV  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? … You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 19:21 ESV  Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

In God’s eyes, we only get F scores when we fail to follow God’s standards and commandments, not when we fail to perform up to human standards and commandments.

Thankfully, God will redeem our failures and imperfections when we invite Him to. He does not, however, automatically replace all our F grades with straight A’s. That would rob us of the opportunity to learn and mature as believers. Even if we only get as far as B or C or D scores, God still celebrates with us. All God needs us to do is to simply stop going back to our F scores, and allow Him to teach and discipline us, as any loving and perfect Father would. 

Hebrews 12:6 ESV  For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”

Romans 8:29 ESV  For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.

Some ways we rebel against God’s Word through perfectionism

The world God created was “very good” before sin entered it. It will be restored to being very good again when Jesus comes back again. In the meantime, we all have to put up with the messiness and pain of an imperfect world. 

Genesis 1:31 ESV  And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Sin, however, is not the failure to make all things very good. That is God’s specialty.

Sin is the failure to obey God’s commandment to love Him and love people, arguably the two areas that perfectionists struggle with considerably because we tend to fixate on ourselves.

Matthew 22:36-40 ESV  “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

1. Unconditional love and grace

We will have difficulty loving and being gracious towards people because our perfectionistic fears will push us to evaluate people and outcomes. At some point, they will (naturally) fall short of our standards.

1 John 4:18 ESV   There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.

2. Judgments and evaluations

Judging others becomes instinctive and second-nature to us. Perfectionists pride ourselves in being able to catch people in their weaknesses. We don’t truly understand what it means to not judge others as the Bible commands. Also, see Judgment and the abuse of wisdom.

James 4:11-12 ESV  Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?

3. Lack of grace and forgiveness

We expect other people to have the same (high) standards as us and we find it hard to forgive them for missing “very good” targets. This does not mean we encourage laziness and irresponsibility. Instead, we need to extend grace and love to others for their non-malicious shortfalls.

We also become highly critical of ourselves and may not even know how to forgive ourselves for our own mistakes. In general, we struggle with forgiving as Jesus has forgiven us.

Ephesians 4:32 ESV  Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

4. Inability to form unconditional relationships

With our constant need to evaluate standards and people, we disable ourselves from loving other human beings authentically and unconditionally. We fail to see that we all fall short of true glory – God’s.

Romans 3:22-23 ESV  the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

People do not feel safe or comfortable around us because they feel judged. Our children feel like puppets we use to serve our need for achieving high personal standards. Sons and daughters feel rejected, even though we care intensely about their wellbeing. Our spouses withdraw emotionally from us and turn to other sources of comfort and acceptance. Often, this leads our family members to unhealthy addictions in order to “escape” from the pressures we place on them.

5. A focus that’s outside of God’s will

Perfectionists tend to focus on the details and miss the bigger picture. It is hard to differentiate between what is important and what is not, because getting everything “right” is important. This causes deep anxiety and stress, not just for ourselves but for those around us. We lack the ability to humbly turn to God for His supreme wisdom about which battles to fight and which to let go of. Our anxieties keep us focused on what we can do.

1 Corinthians 3:19 ESV  For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,”

6. Procrastination

Because of a fear of failure or rejection, perfectionists are hard pressed to make snap decisions. We are driven by the need to evaluate all possible loopholes or potential problems before we feel secure enough to move forward. When God calls us to do something, our fear of failure keeps us hesitating and prevents us from seeing that God will take care of all the things we cannot do on our own.

2 Timothy 1:7-9 ESV  for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.  Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began,

7. Temptations to judge God

Most devastatingly, perfectionists are prone to chase after worldly standards and miss God’s standards. Our focus is on looking good before people and feeling good about ourselves, blind to the fact that everything we have striven for is an abomination to God.

Luke 16:15 ESV  And he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.

When God doesn’t make things perfect for us, we are tempted to judge Him for leaving things in a messy state, even though He might have perfect reasons for doing so. If we are not careful, perfectionists breed a mentality that worships our own views more than God.

Steps in overcoming our perfectionistic patterns

Perfectionism can be un-learned at any age. It is never too late to receive God’s restoration. What matters the most is that we submit our ways to God so that He can guide and mature us as His children.

Matthew 21:28-31 ESV “What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’  And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” …

It all starts with addressing the roots and releasing our inner fears and judgments to God. Then will our hearts and minds be healed and restored, and therefore have the ability to truly extend and receive acceptance, praise, and love without fear.

1. Identify the root and come clean with God

Our perfectionistic traits usually began somewhere in our childhood. In the process of identifying the root/s, we may find that we are still holding on to resentments about things that happened long ago. We are likely to have also formed judgments about certain people that we need to repent of and release to God. There will probably be more than one person we also need to forgive – and that may include ourselves. All these involve inviting the Holy Spirit to heal us at the deepest level of our souls.

Kindly refer to The importance of emotional healing

Ephesians 4:31-32 ESV  Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

Childhood fears and disappointments Coming clean before God
1. Were we raised by critical or demanding parents and authority figures?  Forgive them for failing to submit to God and raise us in godly ways. Extend forgiveness to them for raising us with fear, rather than fearless love. Repent of judging them and cursing them.
2. Did we receive confusing messages about what is good enough?  Forgive those who showed us double or confusing standards.
3. Were we around highly volatile or emotionally manipulative people?  Forgive those who created unsafe environments for us growing up. Repent of judging them and cursing them.
4. Were we punished severely for simple mistakes?  Forgive those who have been unkind towards us. Repent of judging them and cursing them.
5. Did we receive an overt amount of praise as a child?  Forgive those who showed us favouritism and moulded us into relying on people’s praises.
6. Were we only praised when we performed outstandingly?  Forgive those who did not model godly love to us or appreciate who God made us to be. 
7. Was there a time that we felt inferior? Forgive those who made us feel inferior and renew our mind about our value in God’s eyes. Repent of judging them and cursing them.
8. Did we make an inner vow to be outstanding, in response to some rejection or bullying?  Repent of and break our inner vow in Jesus’ name. Repent of judging others and cursing them.
9. Are our parents or guardians also perfectionists or high-performers?  Repent of idolising human beings, following their ways over God’s. Break generational curses in Jesus’ name.

Most of all, we need to repent of preferring our own ways over God’s ways, particularly when His ways are not ideal in our eyes. We cannot exalt our own wisdom over God’s and think that God will still bless us for doing so.

1 Corinthians 3:18-20 ESV  Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.”

2. Beware of our triggers and thought patterns

Unlearning perfectionism is a journey of day-by-day renewal.

Perfectionists tend to surround ourselves with other perfectionists. Once we come clean with God and receive His healing, we need to beware of people around us who may continue to tempt us to go back to our old ways. It is important for us to submit to God’s guidance daily.

We may want to write a list of situations where we may be tempted to fall back into striving for perfection and consider how we are to respond differently in the future.

Romans 12:2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

3. See the persons before the plan

One important aspect of renewing our minds is to value people more than the outcomes. Outcomes are not permanent or eternal, people’s souls are. Perfectionists need to turn to the Holy Spirit and ask Him for new eyes to see and love others as God does, rather than try to mold them into something we desire. We must encourage people to conform to the image of Jesus Christ, not our images.

Romans 8:26-29 ESV  Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son…

4. Learn to rest in God

God calls us to rest in Him. The stresses of the world can wear us down. When God created us, He set a time-out mechanism to ensure that we can remain spiritually healthy. As we learn to be still and rest in God, we find ourselves being able to hear from God and receive His wisdom for our lives.  We do not have to decide what is best because God Himself will show us what that looks like. Ultimately, it is His opinion that matters the most, because He is able to see into eternity, we cannot. See Choosing to be still.

Matthew 11:28-30 ESV  Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Exodus 33:14 ESV  And he said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

5. Allow God’s glory to shine through our imperfections

We can celebrate that we are all born with imperfections because it is through our imperfections that God’s glory is most evident. God always helps us perform miraculously well when we submit all our ways to Him. And we can even get to bask in His praise, acceptance, and love. That is an A score with eternal credits.

2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV  But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

 

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