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.

Stop Being Perfect, Start Being Holy

Written by Janel Breitenstein, USA

I remember a time back in high school, running hard after God. I thought if I could have one thing in the world, it was holiness. Maybe it sounds to you like it did to me: Intently focused on God. Uber-spiritual, even.

But looking back, I actually think what I wanted was to be perfect.

I am some form of a perfectionist. WordPress says I revised my last blogpost no less than 13 times. I am often obsessive, in fact, in my attempts to please people. (One of my friends laughs because when she arrives at my house, I always run to place a hand towel in the bathroom—all because she asked me for it on one occasion.)

This year, about two decades after my high school quest, I finally realized this: The only reason I wanted to be a perfectionist was that I detested my own failure. But I didn’t hate sin and weakness in me because it grieved God; I hated it because I thought I was better than that. It was a chip in my façade, a chink in my armor. I didn’t hate sin because I loved God; I hated sin because I loved myself. I loved my own achievement, my own goodness, my own . . . righteousness.

Maybe you’re wondering: Is there anything wrong with wanting to be perfect? Doesn’t God say to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”? Shouldn’t we have zero tolerance for our weakness and sin?

But you see, my craving to be unchained from weakness was cleverly cloaked in the right lingo of “holiness.” And the god of my quest was myself. Insecurity oozed around my failures. It leaked out when I didn’t meet my ideal. My husband pointed out that pride and insecurity are actually the same sin. Both place my sense of value—or lack thereof—in my ability to achieve my goals on my own.

When I don’t meet my ideals, I feel inferior and insecure. When I’m meeting my standards? I’m on top of the world . . . and likely feeling a bit superior. Neither pride nor insecurity is based on God’s acceptance of me or His value of me, apart from what I bring to the table.

But now, I have started to see holiness less as being free of wrong and weakness. I no longer believe that it strictly lies in the perfection of my outward behavior. After all, my heart’s kind of a rotting onion: the further I peel into knowledge of myself and God, the more underlying junk of my own is flayed open.

American Pastor and author J.D. Greear writes: “There are only two kinds of religions: those that teach you to obey in order to be accepted; and those that teach that you obey because you are accepted. In every story . . . from the Bible . . . God confronts attempts at self-salvation.”

Jesus earned my verdict. He says I’m accepted. I’m cleared. American pastor and theologian Timothy Keller writes that in Christianity, “the verdict leads to performance. The performance does not lead to the verdict.” When I accept Jesus’ verdict of “innocent” for me, God says to me what He did for Jesus: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

Rather than motivated by fear—of failure, weakness, not being accepted—holiness is now motivated by faith that I am unconditionally, overwhelmingly loved, accepted, and thankfully not in control. It means I’m no longer trying to save myself. Instead, I’m allowing God to save me. My holiness flows from acceptance rather than insecurity.

Rather than strict control of my outward performance, holiness now feels like an act of worship, a jealousy for my life to be only His. True holiness, I think, has God as its source and object; perfectionism has myself as its source and object. You could say my behavior now emerges (yes, through self-discipline) from a genuine love for God, rather than a feverish clawing for His acceptance.

This means that when I really bite it bad—snapping at my husband, say, like I did the other night—I don’t have to be devastated because I acted like a “bad wife”, or because I behaved in a way inconsistent with my good character. If my mouth speaks out of the overflow of my heart (Matthew 12:34), I need to acknowledge that this is who I am: a sinner. I can confess to my husband without trying to blame-shift or deny or justify my tacky talk. I can ask his forgiveness. And I can lay my head on the pillow knowing that God’s changing me from the inside out. But my worth can remain super-glued to Jesus’ verdict for me in God’s courtroom.

Honestly, His performance is a lot more reliable than mine. My ability to achieve seems to melt away in the presence of that kind of perfection. Ultimately, I’m less and less focused on me and my rather sketchy (hand-towel-deprived) performance.

Holiness is, in fact, an utter reliance on performance—on perfection. Just not mine.

God is Not a Perfectionist

“Another morning and I wake with thirst for the goodness I do not have,” writes the American poet Mary Oliver. This was a line that resonated with me for several years.

For the longest time, I wrestled a lot with guilt and shame. I wanted badly to walk right before God, but I felt I was failing Him all the time, and no matter how much I told Him I wouldn’t sin in the future, it wouldn’t be long before I fell into sin again.

I tried to deal with these unwanted feelings by being a perfectionist. I thought that if I just did and said all the right things, people would approve of me and like me. I felt I needed their validation to assure me that I wasn’t bad, and that I was good enough.

Once, I shared with a group of Christians that I felt life was an unending and exhausting pursuit for a goodness that always eluded me. The group leader said, “You can either hold on to God’s Word or hold on to your feelings.” Over the years, I saw the truth and wisdom of what he said.

God is Not a Perfectionist
One day, many years ago, this truth occurred to me: “God is perfect, not a perfectionist.”

Perfectionism says, “Every single thing must be perfect and good all the time, and any flaw—however tiny—would cause the whole thing to be imperfect, and therefore, ruined.”

I realized that if God were a perfectionist, He would have instantly wiped out humanity the minute Adam and Eve sinned, because He would not have been able to tolerate any flaw existing and persisting in His creation. He would have created us with no room for choice, because that would eliminate any room for error. He would be a controlling, micro-managing God, unable to permit any possibility of imperfection.

However, God is not like that. Instead, He is “patient with [us], not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). He gives us the dignity of the freedom of choice, even though there’s no guarantee we will always use it to love Him.

God isn’t intolerant of mistakes. True, perfection is an ideal we are to aim for (Matthew 5:48), but God knows we won’t get it right all of the time. What He values is our devotion and desire to keep trying to walk right before Him.

God Looks for Devotion
We all admire King David as the man whom the Lord Himself described as “a man after [His] own heart” (Acts 13:22), but his life was far from perfect! He had committed adultery and murder, and conducted a national census in disobedience to God.

I remember being struck by what God said about David’s heart being fully devoted to Him (1 Kings 11:4) and how “My servant David. . . kept My commands and followed Me with all his heart, doing only what was right in My eyes” (1 Kings 14:8).

Seriously? Even after all David had done?

It occurred to me in that moment that God sees perfection very much differently from how I see it. I would not even have come close to saying anything like that about David’s life. And yet that’s how the Lord sees his life.

Although David’s life wasn’t perfect, he was willing to confess his sins before God each time he sinned (Psalm 51; 2 Samuel 24:10). That was a sign of his wholeheartedness to God, which God valued.

God Looks for Desire to Walk Right
To be sure, no one is sinless. 1 John 1:8 says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” The Word of God tells us plainly that everyone has sinned. If God were a perfectionist, this would have disqualified all of us once and for all from being accepted by Him.

However, the Word also tells us to “walk in the light, as He is in the light” (1 John 1:7). How is it possible to acknowledge that we will fall short, yet still be able to walk in the light? I believe this is only possible because God makes provisions for us to get up and walk right with Him again when we fall.

It’s like being a runner in a race. The runner may fall several times, but just because he falls, it doesn’t mean he’s disqualified. He can still get up and keep running to finish the race. I believe God values our desire to keep getting up and running towards Him.

God Forgives Us through Jesus
We can get up again after falling only because there is forgiveness in Jesus Christ. The Bible assures us, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

In the past, I always struggled with accepting God’s forgiveness. When I fell into sin, I felt guilty, condemned, and worthless. I felt so much shame that I didn’t dare or want to approach God because He is holy and I felt tainted. But whenever I hid from God—like Adam and Eve did when they sinned—that always caused me to backslide for a period of time.

I have since learned that the first place I need go to when I sin is actually “God’s throne of grace,” so that I can “receive mercy and find grace to help [me] in [my] time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). It is there that I can find relief and freedom from my guilt.

Hence, whenever I fall into sin now, I immediately go to the foot of the Cross, at which I can receive total forgiveness by Jesus’ blood. Instead of trusting in my own feelings, I choose to believe in the reality of God’s promise that when I confess my sins to Him, God, in His faithfulness and justice, will not only forgive me but also purify me from all unrighteousness, making me “clean” and “whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:7).

God is Always Good
Because of this, I am continually filled with gratitude to the Lord. What kind of God would sacrifice His only, beloved Son for you and me because He wants to be our Father? (2 Corinthians 6:18) That blows me away each time I think about it.

I will not always make good choices, but I can anchor myself on the truth that God is always good. In response to shame, which says, “There is something wrong with me,” I remember that because of what Jesus has done on the cross, the Father has accepted me in His beloved Son (Ephesians 1:6 (KJV)), lavishing His great love on me, His beloved child (1 John 3:1).

In response to guilt, which says, “I’ve done something wrong,” I remind myself that there is always forgiveness of sin by the blood of His Son. Now that I am a son of the light (1 Thessalonians 5:5), though I may stumble from time to time, I know that the Father of the heavenly lights (James 1:17) gives me grace to keep walking better in the light.

Therefore, I can say with the Apostle Paul, “I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).

So I no longer identify with the line by Mary Oliver. Sure, there are some days when I still struggle with trying not to counteract my shame and guilt issues with perfectionism. But as I grow in this journey, I am now more able to say: Every morning, I wake with thirst for God, who is always so so good to me (Psalm 42:1).

ODJ: Stop Painting Your Bucket

August 21, 2016 

READ: Colossians 2:1-10  

So you also are complete through your union with Christ, who is the head over every ruler and authority (v.10).

A friend who worked for a Christian organisation was known for his perfectionistic work habits. One day as he was finishing some work on a backhoe, a large piece of excavating equipment, he began preparing to paint its large metal bucket. This was an unnecessary part of the job, as the fresh paint would scrape off as soon as the backhoe began digging into rocky soil. As my friend raised his spray gun for the first coat, his boss called to him, “Don’t paint the bucket!”

My friend put down his spray gun, but he couldn’t let the idea go that he hadn’t finished the job. All through the night and into the next day, he wondered why he felt it was so important to paint the bucket. Then it came to him. Later, he went to his boss and said, “When you said ‘Don’t paint the bucket’, what you were really saying is that I shouldn’t find my value in my perfectionism. My value doesn’t lie in my work, but in Jesus.” His boss slapped his desk and exclaimed, “Yes, you got it!”

The only thing that can ever satisfy in life is Jesus. He’s the fullness of God; and if you’re a believer, you’ve been made “complete” in Him (Colossians 2:9-10). Who you are is who you are in Jesus (v.2). Full stop. We can’t add one bit of worth to what we already are in Christ. And it’s a sin to try.

How many of us need to stop ‘painting our buckets’?

We pin our hopes for security and significance in accomplishments that can’t provide either. We think we’ll be satisfied if a certain person will go out with us, if our toddler will behave or if we get that new assignment. The reality? We already are a “new person” with a “new life” in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17).

C’mon, don’t paint that bucket!

—Mike Wittmer

365-day plan: Luke 17:20-37

Read Phil. 3:8-9 to see where true worth in life can be found. 
What is your bucket? What does it mean for you to stop painting it today as you find your value in Christ alone? 

(Check out Our Daily Journey website!)