Saturday, August 15, 2015

To the Perfectionists

Dear Perfectionist,

I have something to tell you, and by extension, something to tell myself. You have many faces and many forms, and so I write this to:
  • the neat-freak who cannot stand a molecule of dust out of place
  • the perfectionist in disguise whose desk is in chaos but whose personal standards are sky high
  • the one who puts in countless hours in an effort to achieve the perfect ____ (fill in the blank: musical skill, writing abilities, sports performance, test scores, etc.)
  • the one who expects everyone else to hold the same high standards
  • the one who extends grace to everyone but themselves
  • and the one who's given up because they've failed too many times
You are a slave. You are chained to an ideal, a cruel master impossible to please. Day after day you strive to reach perfection. Or maybe you don't even call it that. Maybe in your mind, Perfect is known as Better. Whatever its name, you chase it relentlessly, but somehow it always eludes you.

You likely don't chase it in every area of life. Maybe you seek it in performance, but you're perfectly all right with a messy room. Maybe you seek it in your outer world--everything in its place--but less so in your inner world, where you give yourself room for mistakes. And quite likely it's an even more intricate paradox than that--your bookshelf might be organized alphabetically but your closet looks like a tornado hit it. You may hold strictly to an academic standard, yet not so much in physical fitness. There are infinite combinations, but if this letter is to you, there is at least one area in which you are enslaved.

Can I tell you something? I'm a perfectionist in disguise. My room is sometimes a group of little contained messes, with semi-organized piles of papers and books and things that belong together in some abstract way that only makes sense to me.

I think it should be cleaner.

When I sit down to write, I'm mostly okay with clumsy sentences, scrambled plots, and misbehaving characters in a first draft.

But I think I should write more, or faster.

Do I chase a state of perfection? Maybe. I don't know. But I do know I chase progress. Because progress means movement towards perfection, or if not that, betterment. If I wake up intending to get some good writing done, and I go to bed at night having written nothing because life got in the way, I don't like it. If I look at an area of my life and see no growth, it bothers me. Am I growing spiritually? Am I progressing as a writer? Am I getting better at my job? Are my relationships doing well? If the answer is ever no, that must mean "try harder."

Those are the chains I struggle to break. Yours may look different.

This slavery is sneaky. It's not constant misery. Sometimes you do achieve something you're happy with (at least somewhat), and so there's a measure of success, of satisfaction. It's a carrot dangling in front of your nose, a taste of the glory you'll feel when you finally reach that perfection in full. But when you stumble, your own whip comes whistling down to tear your back.

You could have done better.
You should have done more.
You shouldn't have said that.
You failed.

Bleeding, you drag yourself up and try again. The worst part about this enslavement is that most of the time, you're not aware. You don't realize you hold the whip; you don't know you're bleeding out. You have moments of self-awareness, but those usually end up in more lashes, because goodness knows you shouldn't be so hard on yourself. (And down comes the whip again.)

What drives you? Why do you so badly desire that perfection? Do you know?

Like so many other things, the answer is rooted in fear.

Fear of failure, of rejection, of not being loved. Because if you're good enough, they'll love you, right? If you press on and work harder, do better, they'll accept you. You'll have a place in the ranks. You'll mean something. You'll be worthy.

If you do better, God will love you.

Is that the lie you've believed? Because trust me, though your mind may balk and say, "I know that's not true, I know God loves me no matter what," your heart might tell a different story. Mine has. And trust me when I say that your heart can hold so tightly to that belief, that it thickens and tightens and wraps a chain around your neck. And for the longest time, I had no idea that iron grip was there.

Breaking those bonds takes a journey. It's a process of discarding the old and knowing the truth that sets you free. I wish the English language had another word for know. The kind I mean isn't with your head--it's with your heart. You may mentally acknowledge that you are loved, but do you know it? Do you completely and utterly believe it, to the point that you act like it? Is that truth so rooted in you that any word to the contrary can't penetrate your heart because you know how very wrong it is?

If you've never heard it before, or if you've heard it a thousand times with deaf ears, listen now.

You. Are. Loved.

Did you know that if you stopped trying, if you let it all go to pot and let your life fall into shambles, that fact would not change one iota? I know you can hardly wrap your brain around that idea, so try instead to wrap your heart around it. Shut your brain up for just a moment. If you never did another thing for God or for anyone else, He would still love you just as much as He does right now. Your value to Him would remain unchanged. Can you see that? Can you start to?

Once you're grounded in love, perfection isn't necessary. Instead, you can strive for something much better: excellence. Do the best you can with what you have, and leave it at that. Keep going, keep improving--to stop is to stagnate--but don't ever attach the pursuit to your identity. Give yourself grace. God does.

With love from:
A Recovering Perfectionist A Person of Excellence


  1. Oh my! Instead of "Dear Perfectionist" this should say "Dear Christine". Wow. Did this hit home!

    I am a perfectionist to the highest degree. Pretty much the whole list of types of perfection describes me. I'm an insane neat-freak, an over achiever, always hard on myself, and often just don't even try because I know I'm going to fail so decide to not even bother. And it IS a trap. It's such a prison I've locked myself in, and I know it, but I still keep clasping those chains around me and dragging them around. I do crack that whip over and over and over again, telling myself to be better.

    I think I needed this post. Now, I don't think I'm a perfectionist to feel loved. I've never doubted God's love for me. But I LOVE how you pointed out that no matter who we are or what we do our value to Him never changes. That's so powerful.

    I don't know why I'm so hard on myself really. I think it is fear, fear of being worthless. But God doesn't think I'm worthless, and that's all that ever matters.

    I really don't even have the words. This post was beautiful and struck such a chord, I'll be pondering it for days to come. Thank you for being such a blessing, Tracey. <3

    1. *hugs you*

      I so understand what you're saying. It's a hard trap to escape, even when we *know* what we're doing to ourselves. I guess I'm still figuring out what it takes to fully break free of that mindset.

      Hmm, I just realized another possible reason driving perfectionists (not necessarily you, since I have no way of knowing that, but a type of perfectionist in general)--what if some of us are perfectionists in order to love ourselves? I think that may be partly true of myself...

      So, so true. ^_^

      Thank YOU for the blessing you are! <3 I'm so glad it touched you.

    2. Actually, that was the exact same conclusion I was coming to myself! God loves me, my family loves me, my friends love me. So why am I so hard on myself? Because *I* don't put any worth on myself. It's not the people around me, it comes from within. *I* feel worthless to my own self, and I think I try to make myself perfect to fix it but, well, that's impossible.

      I think if we focused more on how GOD sees us than how we see ourselves, we'd escape from these prisons we put ourselves in.

      Wow. This has seriously got me thinking. See what a blessing you are? It really helps to talk these things out with people, it brings on realizations when we discuss them. You're the best. <3

    3. Wow. Everything you just said. I'm just sitting here blinking and going, "Yeah, that makes a lot of sense now." Ah, m'dear, the blessing is shared because *I* am realizing things through our discussion. <3

      That right there--that's the key. Seeing ourselves through God's eyes is SO very important. And when I really truly do that, suddenly I can be confident and humble all at once. What I think of myself doesn't matter anymore, because HE thinks I'm of infinite worth.

  2. Timely post. Thank you.

    Not only do I relate to this and need this....I think we have a good character study here.

    1. You're so very welcome. <3

      I think this would be an appropriate character study for about half of society. XD Or not--just a whole lot of people I know, including myself.

  3. This is so true, especially in related to writing, thanks for this post, I'm glad I stumbled across it.... I am to scared to write.... I have to force myself, yet I badly want to write.. yet my words don't turn out as I want them... they are not good enough... or so I tell myself.

    1. Oh, you're welcome--and I'm glad you stumbled across it too. (Hello and welcome, by the way! I love meeting new commenters.) You're right, perfectionism is so inhibiting when it comes to writing. It sucks the joy out of it. But it's amazing when you can forget those impossible standards and just *write* without worrying about the result. (That's what editing is for, but there again perfectionism can get in the way...) You can do it!

  4. Wow, I hate to admit it but yes, this all of this. I am a perfectionist in the worst way possible, I rate myself on everything, physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Then of course I berate myself for my failings. I am a procrastinator too, so I have a hard time getting the all the things done, that I put on myself. So then I end up hating myself for all the things I couldn't accomplish.
    Anyways, thank you for writing this, I needed it.

    1. It's ironic, isn't it? Admitting perfectionism can go against those very tendencies.

      It's such a journey, this shift of the heart...a journey I'm on myself. But I know you've got this! And you're so very valued and loved, Skye! There's nothing you can do or not do to change that fact. <3

  5. Wow...Thank you so much for this!

  6. This really hit home with me. I struggle with perfectionism and not feeling good enough almost daily. Thank you for this.

    1. Hang in there--you're for sure not alone in that feeling. I'm glad this encouraged you. ^ ^

  7. It's funny how when you start to live like you know in your heart that God loves you, no matter what, your insecurities and the fears you cling to so tightly begin to melt. Accepting that God loves me how I am right now, even if I don't do all the things I tell myself I have to do to be 'good enough' is going to take long time, and it's a journey best made with friends to help along the way. So thank-you for posting this! It was very timely, and I hope we can encourage each other as we move forward as loved 'persons of excellence'. :)

    1. Yes, and that's why perfect love casts out all fear. (Something I've been relearning a lot lately.) Friends on the journey are such wonderful things! :) We're in this thing called life together!

  8. What a great post. You wrote it so beautifully; it really hit home.

    Sometimes it's so hard to recognise the fact of God's love, but you're right; not doing so chains you up and leaves you broken and hurt. There's an old saying which I like to remind myself of a lot: "for every look within, take ten at Him." Every time you want to obsess over yourself, or your own standards ... look outside yourself, and think about God's love for you.

    PS Tracey, thank you for your lovely comment on my blog!

    1. Thanks, Emily! I'm glad it touched you.

      Oh, I love that saying. I hadn't heard it before--thank you for sharing! Because perfectionism IS so inward focused. It's not healthy. We need to remember to look up a lot more often.

      P.S. You're welcome! :D

  9. This is so beautiful and well put! Every word spoke straight to my heart - me being on a journey from perfectionism to excellence. Thanks for this Tracey!

    1. Thank YOU, Wynonah! We shall make that journey together. :)