The Tyranny of Perfectionism

It’s been a while since I’ve posted or even written. Some of it has to do with the fact of a new chapter in life. I have been adjusting to a new schedule of full-time work and part-time graduate classes, while pouring into a new church community. Other hard situations have left me depleted of mental and emotional energy.

But these aren’t the only reasons. One stumbling block to my writing is overthinking. I think about all the possible topics I could write about, all the different aspects of a single topic, and all the possible directions I could take. I feel an overwhelming pressure to say everything that can be said on a topic. This affects my writing, slowing me down and sucking the desire and joy from writing. I feel inadequate to tackle subjects from such a vantage point. But recently as I forced myself to sit and write—and nothing else was coming to mind but my own feelings of incompetence and the overwhelming pressure of having to say everything and say it perfectly—I thought, why not write about that?

I recently wrote two posts about what it’s like for a person with scrupulosity to read Scripture (read part one and part two). This is a large topic, and it took me months to compose everything I wanted to say. Since I’ve published them, I’ve repeatedly thought of other aspects, perspectives, and nuances I could add to the discussion. The posts feel incomplete, and here’s the thing: they are. I cannot say everything that must be said on a topic. Moreover, I’m not expected to. As a finite being, I do not have exhaustive knowledge. The Lord knows that. And you readers, as fellow finite beings, know that.

This perfectionism seeps into other areas of my life. It’s why I procrastinated so much in college. It’s why I am so averse to making mistakes at my job. It’s why I agonize over any potential mishap in my relationships. This suffocating, crippling perfectionism is a common thread in many OCD strugglers, and scrupulosity is no different.

When people first think of OCD, they often have images of perfectionism that look like ordering physical objects. This is a stereotype that is only true in a percentage of people with OCD. However, perfectionism in the broadest sense is a common theme, even if it doesn’t play out in that particular way. Perfectionism may look like unrealistically high standards for ourselves, a high degree of self-criticism, the fear of failure, and even procrastination.

If I can’t be sure of doing something perfectly, then I won’t do it. If I fear writing a blog post because I know I won’t be able to say everything I want to say in exactly the right way, then I’ll avoid trying altogether. The high expectations I put on myself don’t allow me to be content with mediocrity. But the irony is that I can never do anything perfectly. There will never be a perfect blog post. But that doesn’t mean I have to disdain everything I’ve written.

Perfection taints my view of sanctification. Because perfectionism is all-or-nothing, I fear that struggling with remnants of stubborn sin means I’m not saved at all. Perfectionism feeds into the need for certainty, the tendency toward black-and-white thinking, and the over-conscientiousness so common in scrupulosity. It drives my desire for things to be “just so,” whether this is a prayer I pray, time I spend in Scripture, or an overwhelming peace, joy, trust, or assurance I expect to feel. If any of these fall beneath my unbearably high standards, I deem it as false or insignificant. But perfectionism is never enough. It is a tyrant that makes great demands, insists that you meet them, but is never satisfied.

Perfectionism reveals something about our assumptions of God and self. If I try to do things perfectly and even procrastinate over fear of failure,  I’m relying on myself for success. I desire control and even feel a false sense of it. Every sin, instead of an occasion for driving me deeper into Christ’s mercy and promise of change, is an unbearable blot. I agonize over past sins and am anxious about future sins. I am operating out of the assumption—conscious or not—that I can keep myself from sin, that I have the ability to attain perfection (or my version of it). No wonder I am so often discouraged, overwhelmed, and guilt-ridden, living under self-imposed judgment and frustration instead of the grace of God.

I impose my unrealistically high standards on myself and project them on God, so that I actually start to believe he demands perfection from me. Of course I don’t truly believe this, but it’s how I often behave. I’m frustrated when I mess up and assume this reflects God’s heart, too. My functional belief in these moments is that God is not for me, that his mercies aren’t new every morning, that all he feels when he looks at me is disgust, disappointment, or frustration.

There’s a mystery in that when God looks at me, he sees perfection because he sees his Son. At the same time, he sees my sin and failure; he’s not blind to it, and he’s committed to helping me fight it. But when it comes to my eternal security, my perfectionism neither saves me nor keeps me saved.

If we are insistent on perfectionism before we serve the Lord and others, we will never leave the cocoons of our own self-protection. The Lord does not call us to perfection, but to faithfulness. Of course, this can be hard to discern when our consciences are always accusing us of sin, failure, and faithlessness. But God does not demand perfection, and he is pleased with even little things that we may deem insignificant, insufficient, or imperfect.

What would faithfulness look like in your life? What might be a wise next step, fueled by Christ’s overwhelming grace for you, even in your imperfection? Even in this, your tendency may be to condemn yourself for any self-interest or self-dependence, but know that is not the goal. All of us, in our suffering, will be tempted to turn inward. God not only calls us outward, but he does so with an understanding of our suffering and gives the grace to follow him, one step at a time.

Self-reliance is certainly not the only factor at play in perfectionism—our bodies and minds suffer from the brokenness and effects of the fall, even if our hearts are active. Yet in a sense it doesn’t matter that we parse out every action, word, thought, or motive (we can’t anyway!). Be it sin, suffering, or a combination of the two—it is a fresh opportunity to turn again to Christ for new mercies. And if we turn, we will receive—even if it’s not the perfection we’re looking for.

8 thoughts on “The Tyranny of Perfectionism

Add yours

  1. I needed to read this. I struggle with perfectionism every single day! I love the idea that God does not call us to perfectionism, but faithfulness.
    Thank you Aubrynn, a very well written, thought out article.

    Like

  2. Well-articulated! As a writer and blogger, I, too, struggle with choosing and narrowing my messages. Hadn’t thought of it through a lens of perfectionism, but it’s an interesting thought. And though I am in a totally different stage of life than you, I have found that the pace never slows. Making time and space for writing is hard, even though it’s what I want to do most. Just said a prayer for you to continue to find that time and space and to feel the peace, grace, and sufficiency of God in the process. You have good things to say, and the world needs the encouragement of faithful Christian bloggers. Thank you!

    Like

  3. Generally good, thank you for writing! I am curious, though, (and I am not a perfectionist, nor am I OCD) how you would interact with verses like Matt. 5:48 – “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” I, for one, certainly DON’T think that we can achieve perfection in this life, and I also think we need to have a robust understanding of that. At the same time, God’s law demands perfection. Thank God for the perfection of Jesus Christ!

    Like

    1. You’re exactly right—God’s law demands perfection, but Jesus has been perfect in our place, so we no longer live under the law but under grace. We must be perfect—since we can’t do that ourselves, we must rely on Jesus’ perfect obedience to God and his death in our place.

      Like

  4. Thank you for writing this. It’s good to be reminded of these things. I struggle with OCD and take medication for it. I pray for you and all of the people out there who struggle with scrupulosity and OCD that we would just rely on the Lord’s grace and that He would deliver us from this, if it is His will. But, if not, then help us to just trust and change our way of thinking about things. Also to just continue thanking Him for everything He’s done for us and His love and faithfulness. Amen. May the Lord bless you all.

    Like

Leave a Reply to Aubrynn Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: