Confessions of a Recovering Perfectionist

Hi, I’m Raphael, and I’m a recovering perfectionist. I’ve been a perfectionist for as long as I’ve lived. My earliest memory of my perfectionist tendencies was when I was four or five years old. After trying unsuccessfully to assemble Lego bricks into what I had in mind, I smashed the whole thing out of frustration and disappointment with myself.

God surfaced to me that perfectionism was a problem in my life when I was working to complete my final year project in my last year as an undergraduate student. I wanted so much for my thesis to be perfect that I began putting a lot of pressure on myself. Soon, the pressure became overwhelming and I went into a mild depression. That’s when God began to speak to me about my perfectionism. Since then, God has continued showing me some things that are driving my perfectionist streak and how I can choose healthier ways of functioning.

 

Fear of Rejection

Shame has been a constant struggle in my life. Shame slithers up now and then and hisses at me, “There’s something wrong with you. You’re not good enough.” It almost always catches me unawares and sucker punches me with its lies. Because of this, I’m often afraid that others would reject me because I’m not up to mark. I fear being a disappointment to others.

Over time, God has shown me that it was my shame that has been driving my perfectionism: due to my (often unfounded) fear that people would reject me if they found out I wasn’t good enough, I would try to present them with my best efforts—whether it’s in interpersonal relationships, tasks I’ve been assigned at work, or ministry opportunities God has given me—so that I could earn their acceptance and validation. When I obtained their approval and praise, I’d feel better about myself and, for a moment, I’d be assured that I’m actually not as unworthy as I thought.

However, shame would then steal up to me again and whisper, “You see, they liked you only because of what you did, not for who you are. If they knew what you’re really like, do you think they’d still approve of you?” Whenever I believed these words, I’d allow shame to drive me again to perfectionism, so as to ward off the fear of rejection. It was a vicious cycle.

In this way, I’ve often tied my sense of self to the work of my hands. I’ve found myself striving for excellence, not purely out of love for God and people, but from an anxious desire to quell my insecurities and shore up my self-esteem.

 

Black-and-White Thinking

Something else God wanted me to address was an unhealthy thought pattern I had that fueled my perfectionism: black-and-white thinking, also known as all-or-nothing thinking. I would see life in extreme—only positive or only negative—terms. For instance, if something I did wasn’t one hundred percent as successful as I’d envisioned it, I’d immediately see it as a total failure. Or if someone complimented me, but also included some criticism, I’d perceive that the person actually had an absolutely negative perception of me.

Because of this black-and-white thinking, everything I did was a high-stakes endeavor that permitted no room for failure. I felt I had to reach for perfection in whatever I did. Even if my attempts were almost, but not quite, perfect, I’d perceive them as utter disappointments.

God revealed to me that, whenever I equated my work (what I do) with my worth (who I am), my perfectionism would feed procrastination in my life. I often delay starting a task, because what I want to accomplish appears to me to be an incredibly risk-filled activity. My false belief would say, “Produce the perfect work and you will be rewarded with love and validation, which would elevate your self-worth. But fall short in any way and you will suffer disfavour and disapproval, which confirms that you’re not good enough.”

And so, my fear of failure—so deeply connected to my fear of rejection–would lead me to put the task off; as long as I don’t start on it, I won’t be risking rejection. But the flipside is that procrastination undermines my aims of perfection. If the task is not even produced at all, it guarantees failure. (Ironically, I procrastinated for two months on writing this article!)

 

Knowing My Belovedness in Christ

Because the root of my perfectionism is a false sense of shame, God has to continually assure me of His love for me and how He sees me.

One day, I asked God what He thought about me during a prayer meeting. I received an impression of a waterfall. I wasn’t sure what exactly to make of it, until four days later. As I was listening to a sermon by UK pastor Sam Allberry, my heart almost stood still as I heard him say,

For eternity, the Father has been pouring His love into the Son—there’s been this eternal Niagara of love from the Father to the Son—and Jesus says as we come to Him, as we become united to Him, we begin to step with Him under that same love. . . . That’s the reality. Jesus is saying [in John 17:22-23] the Father has loved us, even as He has loved His own perfect, eternal Son. (emphasis mine)

I knew then that the picture of a waterfall was God’s way of reminding me that He loves me, and the measure of His love for me is as abundant and extravagant as the love He pours into His Son.

Wow. I was floored beyond words.

Since this is true, then surely, the voice of shame has no hold over me. I may not be perfect, but I’m handpicked and beloved by God (Ephesians 1:3-6). I don’t have to chase after perfection to gain the acceptance of others, because I’ve been eternally accepted by Christ (Romans 15:7).

God also told me to stop struggling and striving, and to just rest in Him. He assured me that His delight over me will never fade, nor can it be haggled for. He reminded me that He was pleased to give Himself to me even before I knew Him, and that my worth is not to be bargained for, but it’s an unchanging thing that He—the God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8)—has bestowed on me.

 

Valuing Growth Over Perfection

As for learning how to avoid all-or-nothing thinking, I’ve had to take note of how God sees perfection. Even though King David committed adultery and murder, and conducted a national census against God’s will, He said that David’s heart was fully devoted to Him (1 Kings 11:4). God characterized David as a man who kept His commands and did only what was right in His eyes (1 Kings 14:8).

This was extraordinary to me. I realized that while David wasn’t perfect, he readily confessed his sins to God whenever he was convicted of them (2 Samuel 24:10). It seems that God’s idea of perfection isn’t so much a life without sin, but a heart that’s willing and eager to come clean and be made right with Him.

This new paradigm helps me to avoid seeing my life, or the lives of others, in black and white terms. It tutors my eyes to see as God sees. I understand better now that God’s grace permits room for mistakes in my life. When I’ve fallen short in any one area, it doesn’t mean I’m a total failure. Rather, His grace empowers me to keep getting up and running with perseverance the race that’s set before me (Hebrews 12:1-3).

In light of this, God taught me to value growth over perfection. I’ll never forget the day when I read this verse: “For by one sacrifice [Jesus Christ] has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Hebrews 10:14; emphasis mine).

I must have stared at those words for several moments. The Bible was saying that as a Christian, I have been made perfect in the eyes of God! I still have to work out my salvation through pursuing holiness (Philippians 2:12). But what an astounding thing it is to know that God doesn’t look at me as a wreck who can’t get his act together. Rather, He sees me as having been “made perfect forever” because of Jesus’s sacrifice for me!

This knowledge frees me up to value my growth journey in God, rather than having to feel ashamed for falling short of His standards. Before, whenever I obeyed God for fear of being rejected by Him, I had no joy in following Him at all. Christianity was all duty and obligation to me, a heavy burden around my neck.

But now, I’m learning more of what it means to obey God because He loves me and is pleased with me (Zephaniah 3:17; Psalm 147:11), and I want to love my Father back (John 14:15,21). I know His grace is sufficient for me in my failings (2 Corinthians 12:9), and nothing I do can change the way He sees me as His perfect, beloved child.

While I’m still working on my perfectionism, I’m more able to let Christ’s love—instead of shame or fear—compel me in the way I live. I know now that, in Him, I don’t have to be perfect to be loved and accepted. Instead of being bound by a life of perfectionism, I am free to live out of God’s perfect pleasure in me.

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