My definition of perfectionism has gotten a whole lot bigger.
I used to think that perfectionism meant looking good all the time, performing well at everything, and creating an impenetrable facade of, well, perfection.
As it turns out, perfectionism is a lot more about the self than anything else. It’s about perception, will, and inflexibility. It’s driven by all kinds of forces that are generally harmful when taken too far.
Coming to terms with my perfectionism was no easy task. After all, once admitting to perfectionism, one is no longer perfect. Ironic, isn’t it?
But, was I willing to confess my need to be perfect– really, to have my way– in order to experience more freedom? Can perfectionism be traded in for more joy?
As I continue journeying through marriage, through this confusing twenty-something season, and through life in my less-than-favorite city, I am realizing that perfectionism is best lost as soon as possible. And I’ve come to that conclusion through a series of revelations.
5 Reasons Why Perfectionism Steals Your Joy
1) Perfectionism is a socially-acceptable form of anger.
Is perfectionism bad? Its relationship to anger completely caught me off-guard, but I have realized it to be true. Perfectionism is driven by an anger toward anything less. When things don’t go my way, when standards are not met, when I’m disappointed, I respond in anger. Perhaps even wrath. The sin (yes sin!) of wrath is veiled by perfectionism, but the one who hurts the most is me. I no longer want to indulge my angry tendencies by excusing it with the desire for perfectionism.
2) Perfectionism hurts relationships.
Any self-aware perfectionist will admit to moments when it has brought pain to others. Perfectionism often sets unspoken expectations that our friends and loved ones (unknowingly) have to follow. Once unmet, those expectations become footholds for grudges that can last a long time– tick marks of wrongdoing unforgiven and unforgotten. I want to strive for deep friendship, but not perfectionism. Imperfect human beings like you and me must learn to love each other.
3) Perfectionism can’t see beyond the present.
Put plainly, perfectionism is an unwillingness for things not to go our way. Whether it’s planning a trip, getting ready in the morning, building a resume or having a difficult conversation, my need to be perfect keeps me from an open mind. If things don’t go my way, I threaten to myself, something drastic and terrible will happen. In other words, it’s my way or the highway.
Don’t we know, however, that the unexpected thing can often be the best thing? Haven’t we experienced the joy and freedom of acknowledging our surprise– that something turned out even better than we could ever have wanted? In the meantime, don’t we also know that through tragedy there is always the hope of moving forward?
4) Perfectionism encourages shame.
Perfectionism is often a tool we use to save our pride– because who wants to look stupid, incompetent, unattractive, unwise, or just plain bad? However, feeding our perfectionism means feeding our propensity to feel shame.
When our pride is hurt, we can go one of two ways: we can choose to be humbled and freed from the need to be right, or we can choose to be ashamed and angry about our missteps. Surprisingly enough, humility is the more difficult choice for most of us, because it means we actually have to relinquish our perfectionism. But, once relinquished, we are free to move beyond our mistakes, to keep them from defining us.
5) Perfectionism starts defining us.
With the need to perfect comes the need to be identified with whatever we are perfecting. We begin choosing to be defined by perfection– which can only, sooner or later, become problematic.
The best thing about leaving perfectionism behind is, I stop thinking that people expect perfection from me. Whenever I start a task, I tell myself, I’m going to work very hard on this, but no one is expecting it to be perfect. Whenever I make a decision, I know that even though I’ve considered the consequences, no decision is ever perfect.
As a result, perfectionism loses the battle over my mind and my desires. Then I can strive for greater, far more worthwhile things than perfection. And I can experience joy.
Why Perfectionism Steals Joy:
If you’ve made it this far in this post, then you know why I think perfectionism is damaging. But why does it steal joy, as opposed to other things?
In truth, nothing can steal your joy, but you can choose not to experience it. Perfectionism is the decision not to experience joy. It is the mindset that makes everything less than what it is, impossible to be experienced fully and richly. On the other hand, joy is deep contentment– not a fleeting sense of happiness– and it requires humility and freedom to hold onto.
If you’re a fellow perfectionist, I hope that you and I can find freedom from our need to be perfect, to be in charge, and to be without guilt or error. Because the fact is, we’re only fooling ourselves, and that act of denial is hurting us more than we know.
Letting go of perfectionism can lead to a fuller, richer experience of life and relationships without the stronghold of perfection. We can live without fear that we are less than perfect. We’re not perfect; we are enough.