Here’s the truth …
“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters” (Colossians 3:23a NIV).
Ever walk by a row of crooked picture frames on the wall and feel the need to straighten them before you can concentrate on anything else? What if it’s not even in your own home? Do you fix it? Ever read an article and get so distracted by the missing commas and split infinitives that you miss the point of the content? If you said “yes” to the frames on the wall, even both times, I’d consider you normal. If you said “yes” to the last question, I’d put you in the unique category where I reside. I certainly don’t want to put a label on it, but I know darn well that it’s probably not appreciated by others that I have such a “gift” of a critical eye? Don’t get me wrong. We need editors who can sift through our writing and ensure that it’s readable. But I always take it to the next level. I expect perfection.
Lysa TerKeurst, author of It’s Not Supposed to Be This Way, says that she struggles with perfectionism as well: “I expect a perfectionism in me and in others that not even God Himself expects” (2018, p. 77). She says this while trying to explain her desire for a perfect piece of artwork to emerge from her hands during what was supposed to be a therapeutic painting night with her family. I can totally relate. No matter what I do, it needs to be perfect. And I am a control freak, so don’t bother to try to help me to make it more perfect!
Perhaps those of us who fall prey to perfectionism have taken Jesus’s words out of context: “But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48 NLT). Jesus tells us to be perfect in this verse only in so far as it relates to our dealings with people. We are to be kind, not just to those who are our friends but also to our enemies. Ironically, this kind of perfectionism eludes me! I am much better at being perfect at spotting the flaws in people, writing, and home décor!
Often, though, I do believe I am being loving when I expect perfection. I feel like we as a society have promoted tolerance for mediocrity when we should want more. Think about a salesperson who makes you feel like you are bothering her when you ask for help. Think of the waiter who brings you the wrong food but gets irritated when you send it back and ask for exactly what you ordered. Think of the student who put little time into an assignment but argues with the teacher for receiving a low grade on it, even though it was very appropriate that she received a grade that matched her effort. Many times, I believe I am actually being kind when I try to save people from a disaster by imposing my critical eye into their situation. Some are thankful; others are not.
So what should we perfectionists do? Is it appropriate to think that we can remove our perfectionism from our psychological makeup? I don’t think so. But I do think that we can temper our perfectionism a bit in three ways.
First of all, we need to ask ourselves if this is a line in the sand we wish to draw, or if, in the scheme of things, we can let this slide. I feel like we perfectionists do need to try harder to make some concessions, especially if there are bigger battles to be fought that are much more important. For example, was the salesperson rude enough to warrant a visit to the store manager or can you let that slide? Maybe you can kill the salesperson with kindness and gratitude for any help that she provides so as to soften her a bit instead.
Secondly, if we do wish to pick a certain battle, we need to preface our comments with the fact that we are fault finders by nature and not to take it personally when we bring up places that we think need improvement. And we should probably mention all the beautiful things we see before we zing people with the things we think need to be changed. It will help to temper the blow a bit.
Lastly, we need to do with situations we encounter exactly what Lysa TerKeurst says she did: “I could see the imperfections in my painting but not deem it worthless” (2018, p. 77). Too often as perfectionists, we scrap the entire effort, throwing out the baby with the bath water, the soap, and the washcloth! It’s like we are unable to see any good in something because of a few areas where there are weaknesses. There is still much to be learned from an article without the comma that was supposed to be there! The lack of a comma should certainly not be the reason to dismiss the worth that can be found therein.
I use grammar and punctuation because that’s my stumbling block to seeing beauty in a piece of writing. But we all have stumbling blocks that keep us from appreciating what someone has to offer. What about physical appearance? I am watching the series Anne with an E on Netflix and can easily see the beauty, inside and out, of the main character; she, however, looks in the mirror and can only see a face covered in freckles and bright red hair that she is convinced will be the reasons no one will ever love her. Are you able to look past someone’s appearance to his/her beauty within? Or do you find yourself staring at the blemishes or warts or nail fungus or whatever?
To the non-perfectionists who suffered through this post, I would encourage you to spare yourselves the blow given by a perfectionist in your life by following the advice given to the Ephesians: “Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are His dear children” (Ephesians 5:1 NLT). People are always watching us. We should be the best we can be: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters” (Colossians 3:23a NIV). If it looks like you are making a sincere effort, the perfectionists in your life might be appeased.
To the perfectionists, including myself, please consider this question: With whom do you most identify in the Bible? Perfect Jesus? Or imperfect Adam, Eve, Moses, Jacob, Elijah, David, Solomon, Jonah, Rahab, Esther, Naomi, Peter, Thomas, Paul, etc.? If you are more able to see yourselves in those imperfect people, then realize that others are better able to see themselves in imperfect you! After all, if we were already perfect, then we would not need a Savior. Let’s think about that the next time our critical eye gets all filled up with judgment!
… and that’s the truth as I know it!
TerKeurst, L. (2018). It’s not supposed to be this way: Finding unexpected strength when disappointments leave you shattered. Nashville: Nelson Books.