Ask a Counselor: roll away the stone of perfectionism

by Kay Bruner on May 4, 2017

Years ago, I read that people are like trees: made to grow.

Sometimes, though, it’s like we’re planted under a big boulder, and that huge rock keeps us small and stuck, frustrated and trapped, unable to grow into all we were created to be.

The advice to therapists in this particular article was:  help clients roll away the boulders, and they’ll grow like they’re made to grow.

For my missionary clients, perfectionism is one of the most common boulders that blocks and traps the healthy, natural growth we’re all intended to enjoy.

Now, a lot of us will admit to being “a bit of a perfectionist.”

It’s almost a point of pride, like when you’re asked to identify a personal weakness in a job interview: “Oh, I’m a bit of a perfectionist.”

This signals to the boss that this is a great thing for him and his company, because he can work you into the ground and you’ll never stop because you’re “a bit of a perfectionist.”

It makes you the perfect employee, until it makes you completely crazy.

How many times do we see that story played out in our world?

I’ve lived it myself.

I think we’re lured into perfectionism because we believe its false promises:

  1. Perfection is possible.
  2. When I attain perfection, everything will be perfect.

Some of us are lured into perfectionism because we think God requires it of us.  We’ve heard “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48) without reading the context. (Check it out and get back to me!)

I can tell you, from both personal and professional experience, that these promises of perfectionism are complete lies. 

The truth is:

  1. Perfection is impossible. (This is the whole story of the Bible, y’all: we can’t, so God does.)
  2. Any small gain that we make toward perfection must be meticulously maintained. Perfectionism is an endless gerbil-wheel of performance. If we stop, it all falls apart.  Jesus offers rest for our soul.  Perfectionism does not.
  3. The longer we pursue perfectionism, the more we’ll lie to ourselves about the results we’re seeing. It’s the sunk-cost fallacy: we’ve invested so much that we can’t quit.  We’ll end up pretending, to ourselves and others, that things are so much better than they are, just to keep all the plates spinning.
  4. As perfectionism starts to take its toll, we’ll turn to self-righteousness and the denigration of others to create the illusion that we’re winning at the perfection game. Other people’s sins will become so much worse than our own. Maybe we can’t actually attain perfection, but at least we’re better than that loser over in the corner, blessherheart.

Here’s my best advice to perfectionists (including myself):

STOP IT.

Stop it before perfectionism buries you alive under that stone forever.

Paul Young says, “When you’re faced with fear, you only have two options: control or trust.” 

Perfectionism is all about us keeping control.

When we finally have the courage to let go of perfectionism as our savior, and to trust in Love instead, the strangest thing happens.

GROWTH.

LIFE.

PEACE.

And we find the ability to pour those things out of ourselves into the lives of others, knowing that we are rooted and grounded in Love, and Love will fill us endlessly, completely, fully.

We cease striving.

We know that God is God and we are not.

We know that God is God to others, as well, so we don’t have to try to fill that role when we can’t.

All the things we were hoping perfection would give us, grace gives us instead, without the terrible consequences to our mental health.

It’s like we were created to grow, or something.

Who knew?!

  • How many people know and love the real you?
  • How much pretending is required of you in daily life?
  • Where are the lies of perfectionism at work in your life today?
  • How hard do you need to work, to stay on the gerbil wheel you’ve created?
  • What’s the greatest fear that comes up for you, when you think about getting off the gerbil wheel?
  • How can you respond to that fear with trust instead of control?

Resources

Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul

The Search for Significance, Robert McGee

The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown

Tired of Trying to Measure Up, Jeff VanVonderen

Changes that Heal, Henry Cloud

photo credit

Print Friendly

About Kay Bruner

Kay Bruner was born in Buffalo, New York and grew up in Brazil, Nigeria, and the wilds of Kentucky. She and her husband have raised their four children in Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and currently reside in the great state of Texas. Kay is a Licensed Professional Counselor, and divides her work days between counseling and writing. She is the author of As Soon As I Fell and blogs at www.kaybruner.com. She is available for counseling at her office in Dallas or via skype for a reduced rate to clients overseas. For more information go to: www.kaybruner.com/counseling
  • Elizabeth Trotter

    Agreed. There is no such thing as a “little bit of perfectionism.” Like the yeast of the Pharisees, it pervades every part. I keep uncovering more areas of my life that fall prey to it. And every time, I literally say to myself, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?”

    I am so glad you wrote this.

Previous post:

Next post: