"Have no fear of perfection -- you'll never reach it." -- Salvador Dali
"The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope." -- Tim Keller
Feeling Like a Failure
“I’m so bad at this.” I told my partner as we clumsily danced together. It was my first week at my friend’s swing class, and it wasn’t going well. “I’m terrible,” I thought. “I'm sure she’s probably thinking about how bad I am." I looked around to see the other couples smiling and laughing. "Everybody else seems so good and I feel like a failure.” I couldn't wait to get out of there and not come back.
The Myth of Perfectionism
“Yeah, I struggle with perfectionism,” I used to think. “But it’s only because I want to do everything with excellence? How’s that a problem?” That’s how many in our society think of perfectionism; a necessary evil that shows our commitment to doing good work. But it dawned on me: the idea of struggling with perfectionism is a myth. Nobody struggles with being perfect. Nobody’s bothered when things go perfectly: when the date goes according to your plan, when everybody loves your party, when you speak up in the meeting and your insight wows your boss.
Instead, what we actually struggle with is imperfectionism, when our imperfections break through our carefully crafted lives and we don't measure up to our expectations. We can't handle our imperfections, flaws, and weaknesses. Imperfectionism is the real reason you to hate yourself, to reject yourself, and to mentally beat yourself up day after day. Couching this as perfectionism covers up the real struggle: we can't handle being imperfect.
Why We Want to Be Perfect
We live in a society that's obsessed with perfection. From celebrity photoshops to our own retaking of photos over and over again to look just right (i.e. perfect), everyone wants to appear flawless. All of this builds out of the belief that perfection is not only attainable, but probable. And so we all act as our own PR managers, obsessing over cultivating the perfect image. We spend our days projecting perfection, hoping we can fool not only the people around us, but more importantly, ourselves.
Everyone wants to be perfect. "Look at that person," we think. "They're so perfect. They never have the flaws and discouragements that I do." To fit in, we all act as our own PR managers, obsessing over projecting an image perfect enough for us to be accepted by our communities. So we suppress our imperfections and chase the "perfects," the perfect grades, perfect performance, perfect looks, perfect job, and a perfect spouse, hoping that through these things we can prove our perfection.
But while we spend our days in public trying to portray perfection, we spend our alone time buried under the weight of our imperfections: our flaws and weaknesses, our guilt and brokenness. We wonder how we can be so messed up when everyone else is perfect. We assume it's just us, and we get to work, hoping that soon we'll be perfect enough, both on the inside and outside, to be accepted by the people around us.
The Allure of Perfection
We crave perfectionism not as an end, but as the means to get approval. Brene Brown, the shame and vulnerability researcher, calls perfectionism, “The belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame.” At it’s heart, perfectionism revolves around fear, fear of being rejected by the group for not being perfect enough. The struggle with imperfectionism is based on two hidden beliefs:
- If I'm perfect, then I deserve to be accepted.
If I'm imperfect, then I'll be rejected.
We all use perfectionism as a way to hide our flaws and ensure we won’t be rejected. One of the most clear ways perfectionism impacts your life is through dating. We look for the perfect person, and then try be their perfect person, This creates tremendous pressure to appear perfect, because we assume this perfect person wouldn't like me if I'm not perfect. This fear of rejection drives us to hide and cover and perform our way through life. We overwork, over exercise, and overanalyze every social interaction. Men and women generally do in similar, yet different ways:
Men seek perfection through success in athletics and career, think that if they project confidence, strength, and self-sufficiency, all pointing to being successful, then they’ll be seen as perfect.
Women seek perfection through appearance and having it all together, thinking that if they look the right way, wear the right clothes, weigh the right amount, all while balancing friends, family and work, then they’ll be seen as perfect.
And so we spend our lives trying to formulate a way to win the approval of our communities. But this leaves you in a state of worry, afraid that your imperfections will break through, creating shame, fear, and dread that everyone will leave you.
The Struggle With Imperfection
While struggle with imperfection affects everyone differently, depending on personality and the family and culture we grew up in. Below are some broad categories to help you discern where your underlying struggle with imperfectionism is.
You avoid anything you’re weak in: If you struggle with imperfections, you’ll only do the things you can do perfectly. You’ll avoid any activity or opportunity where other people could see that you aren’t perfect. This often means you’ll put off things you need to do, in an attempt to avoid the risk of imperfection.
You fixate on your flaws: no matter what goes right, you instead focus on the few things that didn’t meet your expectations. This fixation leads to self-hatred, where you beat yourself up for not being the perfect date, giving the perfect presentation, or looking perfectly.
You’re sensitive to criticism: we dread criticism, since it names our imperfections and makes us acknowledge their existence. We’d rather maintain the illusion of perfection than deal with our flaws. Performance reviews, feedback, and critiques cause us to become unsettled, afraid that we won’t be perfect. And if you feel perfect, you’ll freely critique others.
You’re hyper-aware of how others perceive you: we’re always aware of how other people view us. You’re always thinking about what other people are thinking about you. This affects you physically, causing you to do things like check your appearance in every mirror that you pass, but also mentally, wondering if people liked your story.
These four feelings don't identify the exact imperfections you struggle with, but they are the smoke that will help show you where the fire burns.
Fighting Through Imperfectionism
I ended up going back to my friend's swing class. I didn't want to, but three things happened to help me embrace my imperfections and to break through the fear and shame that surround them. Brene Brown uses the categories of compassion, connection, and courage to explain how we can fight through our imperfections.
Compassion: “I think you’re doing really well,” my partner said. “It’s just our first time anyways.” The compassion my partner showed me surprised me. Through her compassion, she gave me the space to admit it's okay to be imperfect. She reminded me that perfection is an unrealistic expectation for anything, but especially one you are just starting in. Her compassion then allowed me to show compassion to myself.
Connection: “Don’t worry, Luke,” some of the more experienced dancers told me. “It takes three or four times before you get the hang of it.” Healthy connection happens when we share our imperfections with each other, creating bridges that span the isolating nature of shame and failure. They remind us: we’re not the only one struggling.
Courage: After the first class, I was faced with the choice: do I go back for another class? I didn't want to, but I also knew that the only way to overcome my fear and the imperfection I felt was to walk straight into it. Courage isn't a feeling, but a choice to continue going forward to face your imperfections.
As you go through life, imperfection will always be a part of it, but it doesn't have to control you. These techniques are important through the risks and uncertainties of your twenties, and it's crucial to surround yourself with compassionate and courageous people.
The Ultimate Answer to Imperfectionism
While these techniques are helpful as you work through your imperfections, they still don’t get to the root of the issue. At its heart, your struggle with imperfection is an identity issue: we’re all afraid of being flawed. We’ll deflect, dismiss, or rationalize away anything that threatens our illusion of being perfect.
Every religion and culture is built on this yearning for perfection. Religious teachers and societal thought leaders both advance the same perfectionistic thinking: be perfect as I am perfect. All or none. Either perfect or shamed. So everyone gets to work, hoping to prove to everyone around them how perfect they are.
But Christianity is the complete opposite. Jesus says to you, “Let’s be honest. I know you’re messed up. I know everything you’ve ever done and ever thought, so you can’t fool me. But I love you and want a relationship with you so badly that I lived the perfect life that you couldn’t. The cross allows you to admit your imperfect, because I took away the punishment for your imperfections. You're no longer identified by your imperfect life, but by my perfect one.”
Here’s what makes Christianity so different: Jesus is perfect, but He’s not a perfectionist. Perfectionists shame and reject the imperfect, but Jesus does the opposite: His perfection allows you to admit you're imperfect. Before you can't get the unconditional love and approval you're hungry for, you have to put down your mask of perfection, and embrace the free gift of His perfection give to you.
"And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” Luke 5:31-32