The Problem of Perfectionism

Dreaming of the perfect holiday? The one where everything comes together because of your hard work, planning, and, well...not burning the food?! The perfect holiday sounds amazing, but is it good for you? Perfectionism is on trial in this article.

Perfectionism has ruined my holidays in the past. Before this holiday season, I decided to reflect and share thoughts on the problem of perfectionism.

Thanksgiving 2015

Last Thanksgiving afforded me the opportunity to make a yeast dinner rolls recipe for my in-laws for the first time. The recipe I prepared was created by my own father. Virtually every person who has tried them over their years has raved about how wonderful they are. For weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, I joyfully advertised to my future dinner companions that I was bringing the bread that day, and shared my firm belief that everyone would love them. I was sure they would be a knock-out success, and bring heaps of praise from family and friend alike.

On Thanksgiving morning, I began my preparations for the rolls, which included a few hours for raising the bread twice. As I began pulling the ingredients out of the cabinet, I reached for the white flour, and made a jarring discovery, one that would set the tone for the rest of the day.

The bag felt a little light. Actually, it felt almost empty.

I had forgotten to pick up extra flour – the most important ingredient in the rolls, obviously.

Panicking, I immediately was overcome by a myriad of emotions and thoughts.

Should I try to make it to the store to get more? I’ll never have enough time to make these now. Why did I even try to make something for dinner? Did I really have to tell everyone I am making my “famous rolls”?

The lack of a few cups of flour threatened to ruin my entire Thanksgiving.

There would be no famous rolls that day.

After thinking for a few minutes, I decided to make the recipe by substituting over half the white flour with whole wheat flour. It might have made for a healthier option, but I knew it wouldn’t taste the same. It wouldn’t be the rolls I’ve come to love and brag about.

Arriving at the Thanksgiving gathering, I unceremoniously placed the rolls amid the growing pile of potluck offerings brought by other guests. Dinner came shortly afterwards, and I peered sideways at the plate of rolls being passed among the guests, privately embarrassed.

“I ran out of white flour this morning ,” I sheepishly announced to the entire table. “The rolls aren’t as good as they should be.”

“Really,” one person responded after taking a bite. “I think they’re pretty good!”

“They should be better,” I retorted, ignoring their compliment.

The rest of dinner was spent cringing every time I noticed someone bite into a roll and hoping that nobody would take a second serving. I couldn’t help but key in on a nearby plate where one of my rolls sat mockingly untouched after only a single bite.

Thankfulness, joy, appreciation of the moment: none of those thoughts crossed my mind.

Something as small as the difference between white and wheat flour turned my Thanksgiving from a moment of culinary glory to an endurance in self-consciousness.

But it wasn’t wheat flour that ruined my Thanksgiving. It was perfectionism.

Depending on who you talk to in society, perfectionism is seen as either a highly desirable trait of the successful, or the obsession of the high-strung. And for many people, perfectionism really takes hold around the holidays.

Get the perfect gift. Roast the perfect turkey. Have the perfect decorations. The list goes on and on.

When we think about the season from this perspective, the holidays become performance-based, an opportunity to display our prowess in a variety of domestic skills and tastefulness. You think everyone is looking – everyone is depending on you. Thanksgiving wouldn’t happen without you, much less Christmas.

There’d be no dinner, no celebration, no joy, no point to any of it – unless you perform and make it happen.

Believe me, I understand that it’s difficult to not become obsessed with perfection when it feels like judgment lies around every corner. It’s common to spend holidays with family that we might not see often, and thus feel that their entire perception of you is based on the small window of visitation that is afforded around the holidays.

But perfectionism, if allowed to dominate our holiday, or our life in general, will almost inevitably bring about ruin.

So I’m advocating that we all – myself included – really look perfectionism in the eye, and hopefully move towards a far better, and much more Jesus-like alternative: hospitality.

But before we think about hospitality, let’s try to get a little more centered around what perfectionism really is.

What drives us to perfectionism – and all the precarious risks and downfalls that accompany it?

I believe there are two sources of perfectionism.

The first route to perfectionism is fear; the fear of being misunderstood, rejected, mocked, or disappointing others.

The other path to perfectionism is envy. You want everyone to see you and want to be you. You want to look like you have it all together, that you and your family is the best, and are enjoying a better holiday than anyone else.

Again, I believe personally that perfectionism comes from either fear or the desire to be envied. In both instances, the outward appearance looks similar, but the root of both lies in nothing less than insecurity.

Because if we genuinely believe that we have to be perfect, then that means some significant part of us is completely unwilling or capable of dealing with the undeniable fact that you are not perfect.

Yes, you aren’t perfect. But perfectionism arises when we can’t cope with that fact.

The problem with perfectionism is that it actually offers very little reward. If everything goes magnificently, then what are you left with? Feeling great about your accomplishments – but for how long? An evening? A couple days?

But the risk – oh the risk of perfectionism is much greater. If perfectionism dictates that anything less than the absolute best is unacceptable – then that means that there are threats to your joy at every corner. If anything goes wrong – it’s all over. No matter how wonderful the rest is, that single failure has the ability to poison the entire well of success.

And see, perfectionism isn’t just a mindless vice – we actually believe that being perfect will achieve something for us.

What perfectionism will achieve for us is at the root of why it pervades our mind and directs our actions. Although it may be twisted and confused, we seriously hope that appearing flawless will create the results we most deeply desire.

So what are the motivations of perfectionism for you? Do you hope that critics will be silenced and turn away their glaring eye? Is it your hope that you can rest easy afterwards, with the knowledge that nothing fell apart on your watch?

Do you sincerely hope that being perfect will calm your fears and make you feel better?

Or perhaps there are other hopes at the root of your desire to be perfect. Maybe you want to be the center of attention. Perhaps you fantasize of family and neighbors having private conversations where they discuss how amazing your life is, and how they “just don’t know how they do it all!

Maybe your deepest desire is to invoke envy and jealousness.

I’m really not trying to be judgmental here, but I also don’t believe that there is any good in avoiding reality, or avoiding the always better options that God has in store for us.

Because God doesn’t want us to deal with our fears, or our desire to be envied, through perfection.

It’s God’s deepest desire for us to see Him as the only perfect entity in the universe. And through the acknowledgement of God’s lone position as the only perfect thing, we then might also accept ourselves as the imperfect, but still infinitely loved by Him.

That’s the enormous generosity of God’s love for us. He understands every minute flaw and mistake that we make, and yet, His love is overwhelming and endless.

In the arms of our Father, we find the source of a different and far superior alternative to perfectionism: hospitality.

Many of you are no doubt familiar with the Fruit of the Spirit. It’s the famous verse from Galatians 5:22 that lists love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control as positive characteristics of a Christian person. However, a passage that is often forgotten about when citing the Fruit of the Spirit is Galatians 5:19-21. It outlines a list of 12 sinful behaviors that serve as an antithesis to the Fruit of the Spirit.

Among that list of 12 are, “hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy” (Gal. 5:20-21). I don’t think you need to know much about ideal Christian behavior to recognize that this kind of behavior isn’t very Jesus-like.

Hospitality leads to the Fruit of the Spirit.

Perfectionism leads other people, usually ourselves first and foremost, into sinful behavior.

I know we always believe deeply that flawlessness will invoke love, joy, peace and goodness…but it just doesn’t work out that way, no matter what.

In order to help you digest the sinfulness of perfectionism, I created a chart for you to see the negative side of perfectionism and the positive side of hospitality.

Perfectionism Versus Hospitality

Dreaming of the perfect holiday? The one where everything comes together because of your hard work, planning, and, well...not burning the food?! The perfect holiday sounds amazing, but is it good for you? Perfectionism is on trial in this article.

I sincerely hope that you can see the sharp contrast between perfectionism and hospitality. Hopefully you will implore God on how you can move strongly in the direction of hospitality this Thanksgiving and beyond.

Perfectionism offers us nothing lasting. Nothing true.

But hospitality provides both you and your guests the opportunity to experience the love of Jesus, the Fruit of the Spirit and the tremendous peace of God.

And with that thought in mind, I just want to add one last thing.

I’m seriously thinking about making at least a few whole wheat dinner rolls this year. They’re actually pretty good, if you adjust your expectations of what they should taste like.

And it never hurts to have a reminder of where you need to grow, and remember all of God’s grace in the process.

Dreaming of the perfect holiday? The one where everything comes together because of your hard work, planning, and, well...not burning the food?! The perfect holiday sounds amazing, but is it good for you? Perfectionism is on trial in this article.

 

Aaron Waid

Aaron Waid

Aaron is a husband, father, theologian, writer, instructor, and musician.
Aaron Waid

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