Hi, I’m Amy and I’m a perfectionist.
I’ve spent years in recovery, and I’ve made tremendous progress, but I think I’ll probably always suffer to some degree under the warped belief that my value comes from what I can do and what I do is never quite good enough.
Merriam-Webster tells us perfectionism is “a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable.” Psychology Today calls it “a one-way ticket to unhappiness.” Perfectionists, they claim, “desire success,” but “they are most focused on avoiding failure, so theirs is a negative orientation.” Perfectionism drives people like me to focus on the little things, the negatives, the things that aren’t, well, perfect. This orientation drives high achievement, but also discontentment. Self-doubt. And a faithless self-focus that discounts the role of the Holy Spirit’s work in and through a person.
Sounds pretty messy, right? It is. And if you’re a perfectionist you know this. But ironically, perfectionists are the people who often appear to be the least messy because they’ve usually mastered the ability to control the things that project their image to the world. What’s going on underneath that image, though, is not pretty. It’s a roiling mess of tangled snakes, constantly writhing into new positions and resisting our efforts to bring them into straight-line order. Perfectionism is relentlessly demanding and constantly nagging, sometimes creating a kind of tunnel vision that sees only what is wrong, only what could be but never is.
It gets worse. When perfectionists like me get tired of picking away at ourselves without the desired results, we sometimes turn our focus to perfecting the world around us. Even though we tend to have more grace for others than for ourselves, when the spotlight that usually shines on ourselves gets bumped and beams into the face of someone else, it can get pretty harsh. Misplaced irritation, judgment, and criticism we really intend for ourselves are deflected onto others.
Yeah, it’s ugly.
Like I said, I’ve made a lot of progress in this area, thanks to the gracious work of Jesus in my soul, his persistent and insistent unconditional love for me, and the help of loving people like my husband. As I have grown in my acceptance of Jesus’ love for me, for who I am, not what I do, I have found a new level of skill in extending grace to other people. But I still have relapses, like I did when I attended a women’s conference a few years ago, as part of my job.
Let me set the stage by telling you a couple of things about me. I’m not generally comfortable at women’s gatherings because I tend to feel as if I don’t fit in. I also don’t like large crowds. Two strikes.
The day in question had been an anxiety-filled day of travel, in which I had found myself tangled in rush-hour traffic, stuck in an excruciatingly slow line to get through airport security, running from one end of O’Hare International Airport to the other, and almost missing my flight—then sitting on the plane and leaving half an hour late because the plane’s parking brake got stuck after we pulled away from the gate. After I landed, rented a car, and found my hotel, I was frustrated to learn that most of the dryers weren’t working in the hotel laundry, so my room wasn’t ready. So I sat in the hotel lobby and stared at the front desk, waiting for the sign that my room was available and I could rush up to get ready for an interview I had scheduled with a woman who would be speaking at the conference. When I did get to my room, I hurried frantically through getting ready, but I was still a few minutes late to the interview.
After the interview, I rushed my way through a disappointing dinner and made my way to the opening session of the event. I was tired from a week of work, getting over a cold, worn out on adrenaline from the day’s stress, crabby, resentful, missing my family, and outside my comfort zone. Walking in, I was not ready to exude grace to everyone I met.
As soon as I got there, I started noticing all the stuff that bugged me: even though it was a women’s conference, a prime opportunity to feature the gifts of women, all the members of the worship band and the opening speaker were men. There were typos on the big screen. For some reason, I was irritated by groups of women in the audience, wearing brightly colored matching T-shirts I assume were purchased for the occasion. I was annoyed when one of the speakers started addressing us as if we needed to be coddled. And I found I had unwittingly chosen a seat with an obstructed view so I couldn’t see all the words to the worship songs onscreen.
I stood and sang anyway, and I knew or was able to guess at the words to most of the songs. And as I sang, I began to worship sincerely. Suddenly God softened my heart and brought my attention to my nitpicking attitude. Then he gently showed me my own mess—the one I was projecting onto everyone else. I was riddled with adrenaline from my daylong anxiety. I was frustrated with myself that I had not been able to deftly handle all the challenges of the day. I was embarrassed that I had been late to the interview. I was trying to avoid looking at my own weakness, awkwardness, fragility.
In a moment, God reminded me that I find it hard to accept & overlook others’ flaws because I’m not comfortable with my own. And then he reminded me of just what I needed to remember: that there is nothing I can discover about myself that will surprise him. Nothing that will cause him to finally turn away from the ugly nature of what he sees in my heart. No point at which he will give up on me. And nothing about me that he can’t change, use, or forgive.
Look it up on Bible Gateway. The Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 8:38–39 that “nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” I’m pretty sure the “nothing in all creation” includes the ugliness in me and my consistent failure to perform to my own standards.
As I felt God nudging me to open myself to him and his assurance of love for me, my perspective began to change. I went from focusing on the shortcomings and strangeness of my surroundings to thanking him for his redeeming work in and through imperfect people—including his promise that he can do the same in and through me. I remembered that I was looking through the eyes of someone who needs and has God’s grace.
I began to notice the women around me in a way I hadn’t. I saw them all as people experiencing Jesus’ love, needing it as much as I did. I saw them as people Jesus loved, in spite of their imperfections: young, old, rich, poor, overweight, out of style, working too hard to be in style, wearing way too much makeup, eating-disorder-thin, strong, weak, some of them just finding Jesus, some enjoying the intimacy that comes from walking with him for decades. I started looking past their imperfections to what we had in common—Christ in us.
Then I stood with thousands of women and sang “Amazing Grace” in a decidedly imperfect voice, surrounded by the imperfect voices of my spiritual sisters, our focus on a perfect God. We opened our imperfect hearts to God’s grace, and the result was beautiful. God’s kind of beauty. The kind of perfection only his work can achieve.
As I left the conference that evening, I thanked God again for his grace toward me, despite my imperfection. I reminded myself—as I have so often—that a hunt for perfection is futile. I’ll never find it in myself. And yet, because of the grace of Jesus, I already have it. God has forgotten my sins and forgiven my flaws, and because of him I actually am good enough.
© 2015 Amy Simpson.