From the Basement

April 22, 2010

On Perfectionism

There’s this great line in the song “Free to Be Me” by Francesca Battistelli. It says, “Perfection is my enemy.”

How true. How terrifying, how limiting, how crippling is that perfectionistic streak that runs through so many of us.

Lately, perfectionism has been blocking my writing. Obviously not on this blog – having a daily goal and a few people reading does a lot in the way of accountability. But there’s this story I’m writing that’s due in five days to an online exchange and I have had the assignment for months and I cannot for the life of me find the focus to finish the second chapter.

Perfectionism, so defined by Webster’s, is “a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable.” The question is, why do we hold ourselves to that standard in the first place? No one does something perfectly the first time. Heck, people don’t do things perfectly after years in a business – years of writing, of professional athletics, of making deals.

I have some friends who struggle with this. I have struggled with it – but I find that my struggle doesn’t usually focus on the goal of perfection. My struggle has been my own intense dissatisfaction with what I’ve produced, what I’ve written. It could be better. It could be a bestseller. Why can’t I write bestselling material on the first try? Why can’t I finish this story? – my perfectionism manifests itself in intense negativity. Usually, I can get work finished. But I have a passionate dislike for it. I say it’s the worst paper I’ve ever written or it’s the worst story I’ve ever written or…

You get the picture.

We cart around skyscraper-high standards all day, forgetting that the only way you scale that building is one inch at a time. The goal of moving an inch forward is a lot more reasonable than our desire to make a Spiderman leap to the top. Nobody can be Spiderman. Nobody can be perfect. Spiderman wasn’t perfect. So there you go. (Now I feel like the dad in My Big Fat Greek Wedding…)

We forget to break it down. Short assignments. Attainable goals with an eye to the finish line. And, ultimately, laying down our pride, our need to be the best, our need to prove something to other people, our need to prove something to ourselves.

In her book Do You Think I’m Beautiful?, Angela Thomas talks about how we carry around ash sacks full of regret, sin, and shame. We are doubled over with those sacks on our back, and there’s Jesus standing in front of us offering to take the burden, and we say, “No, no, I’ve got it – see, this is my sack of ashes. I’m comfortable carrying it. I’m used to it.”

And we’re really saying, I don’t know what I’d do if I had to stand up straight.

I think that perfectionism is like a sack of ashes. We carry it around with us every day – something that started as a bundle of expectation and dreams becomes weighted down by the disappointment of shattered hope, bitterness, self-loathing, and regret.

Perfectionism is self-flagellation on a daily basis. Really, it is. We will never meet our own standards. What does a first-time bestselling author do? Freak out about the pressure they now face – that they’d better write another bestseller.

Nothing is ever good enough. Nothing ever satisfies. Getting everything you want does not bring peace. There are oh so many examples of that in the world around us, and not just the rich and famous, but the people we know – co-workers, fellow students, bosses, people at church, people in our neighborhood, maybe even people we love.

The standard is not our own worldly concept of perfection. The standard is Jesus Christ and the example He set with His beautiful love laced with jewels of mercy, threads of passion, and the comfort of His peace. He calls us to lay down our lives and follow Him. Lay down your need for acceptance, and be accepted in His arms. Lay down your need for perfection, and become enamored by the perfection of your awesome Creator. He is enough when we are not. And we are never enough, so He is always enough.

When we rest in His arms, we can be at peace with ourselves. So often, I “strive” for peace – what a joke! I am trying, trying, trying to feel peaceful just for a minute when all I need to do is sit back and bask in the warm love my Savior, my lover, my comforter, my friend.

When we call Christ our savior, we are in turn called to show His love to others. And it is very difficult for others to feel that they could be loved by someone who holds themselves to an unattainable standard of perfection. When we hold ourselves to that standard – even if we don’t think we are inflicting it on other people… we are. How hard it is to love others when we never feel we can do it successfully. How hard it is to accept love from someone who is never satisfied.

Rest. Lay back in His arms. Accept His love for yourself. And then show it to others. Lay down your own standards. He is enough. He is always enough.

The chorus of Francesca Battistelli’s “Free to Be Me” goes like this

I got a couple dents in my fender

Got a couple rips in my jeans

Try to fit the pieces together

But perfection is my enemy

And my own, I’m so clumsy

But on your shoulders I can see

I’m free to be me

In the freeing, peaceful, awesome love of Jesus Christ, we are free to be ourselves. Free to write imperfectly, dance crazily, and love wholeheartedly. And that is news worth celebrating.

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2 Comments »

  1. So true – all of it! I can relate. This year, more than ever, I have discovered the benefits of setting small goals for myself on the way to reaching a greater one. It’s still difficult, but there’s also reason to celebrate accomplishing the smaller goals 🙂

    If you have anything that needs read, you know where to send it 🙂

    Comment by Emily — April 22, 2010 @ 5:39 pm | Reply

  2. I officially think you are the next Angela Thomas =) I mean it. God uses your words to touch places we often are not willing to go – what a blessing. Each time I read your blog, I am left thirsting for more… What a blessing you are!

    Comment by M — July 5, 2010 @ 7:21 pm | Reply


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