I have never thought of myself as a perfectionist. If you ask Jack, as I did last night, he would agree. Anyone who has seen my study, my closets, my handwriting, my bedmaking and present wrapping and vegetable chopping would give the same answer. I’m often saying or thinking “Just about,” “Close enough,” “That will do.” So this summer when one of my brothers made an offhand comment about how I was a perfectionist. I ignored what he said and went on my merry way.
Then this week I came across an article by Jim Taylor about the dangers of perfectionism in children who are competitive ski racers.* [Chalk up another point for the glories of the internet.] I read the article and replaced ‘children’ with myself and ‘skiing’ with my line of work. To my amazement and chagrin, the shoe fit like Cinderella’s glass slipper,[though in this case I think a better footwear analogy would be seven-inch stilettos].
“Perfectionistic children are never satisfied with their efforts no matter how objectively well they ski, they punish themselves for the smallest mistakes, and dwell on their failures rather than reveling in their successes…
…Children connect whether they are perfect with their self-esteem; being perfect dictates whether they see themselves as valuable people worthy of love and respect…
..Children don’t have to be perfectionistic in every part of their lives to be considered perfectionists. They only have to be perfect in areas that they care about… “
That was when the bells started dinging loudly in my head. I don’t really care about cooking, housekeeping, or legible penmanship. But I do care about my work, deeply, passionately, completely. The trouble is that a synonym for ‘writer’ is ‘a person who constantly is rejected.’ There are days when my answer to “what do you do for a living?” is “receive rejection letters.” And that ends up being a pretty big problem if you’re a perfectionist who takes success as the measure of your self-worth.
Like a good coach, my manager side does its best to take care of my creative side. I have my coping strategies and my pep talks and my emotional salves to apply to a bruised psyche. But there are times when my creative side succumbs to despair and self-condemnation and hopelessness. I trudge along in a miserable cloud of defeat.
Escaping the cloud
Recently in my time with God, I’ve been going through a rather random list of Bible passages that talk about who He is and what He does. As it happened, the day after I read the article on perfectionism and considered how I’ve tied my sense of self-worth into my performance, I came to Romans 8:1-17. It starts “There is no now condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Or as Eugene Peterson puts it in the Message translation: With the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, that fateful dilemma is resolved. Those who enter into Christ’s being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death.
Of course, Paul was talking about sin, not work performance. Because Jesus died for me, I no longer have to worry about the things I do against God that really do merit condemnation [and death]. But if that’s the case, neither am I condemned for my personal failures in areas not covered by God’s moral law. God has never withdrawn His love from me, regardless of what I have done–or what I haven’t accomplished. He doesn’t become cold or distant when I mess up for the 1853rd time–this year. He doesn’t resent me coming to Him yet again for forgiveness, or help or guidance. I’m reminded of Jesus telling the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.” That means I can put down the stones I want to throw at myself for my non-moral failures.
A well-loved child
I think at the heart of this issue is whether I accept myself as a child, with God as my father. If I’m a hired hand or a servant, I will feel the need to earn my keep, to prove myself. If I accept my spiritual parentage, I can have a childlike trust in my Father’s love and acceptance and affirmation. I can go to Him for comfort when I’m feeling frustrated or in despair about my work. I can trust Him not to condemn me, loathe me, or accuse me. I can ask Him to tell me again why He loves me and how He has gifted me and what He has in mind for my life. When I finish a task or a project, I can go to Him and ask “What’s next Papa?”
I can take my eyes off myself and instead focus on Someone worthy of contemplation. Instead of dwelling on what I’ve achieved or haven’t achieved, I can think about God’s perfection, including how perfectly He loves me.
Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s Spirit is in them—living and breathing God! Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life. Focusing on the self is the opposite of focusing on God…
But if God himself has taken up residence in your life, you can hardly be thinking more of yourself than of him…When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life…
So don’t you see that we don’t owe this old do-it-yourself life one red cent. There’s nothing in it for us, nothing at all. The best thing to do is give it a decent burial and get on with your new life. God’s Spirit beckons. There are things to do and places to go!
from Romans 8, The Message