spiritual diseases: perfectionism
"Hello, my name is Nick and I’m a perfectionist.”
After god knows how many drafts of articles, essays and sermons where Id spend hours changing a sentence back and forth,
after wandering up and down the beer aisles trying to pick exactly the right beer to have with friends,
and after deleting and rewriting tweets upon noticing a spelling error or that it wasn’t quite as funny as I thought,
Im now able to admit it:
I’m a recovering perfectionist.
I say ‘recovering’ because Ive seen the light.
Ive been able to see that the life I thought my perfectionism would bring,
that life of giving perfect sermon after perfect sermon,
of that little blue checkmark next to my twitter handle because of millions of RTs,
and of being that friend who always brings the right beer for the right occasion,
this life that was amazing, fulfilling and abundant,
wasn’t anywhere to be found.
Instead all I found was a life of anxiety and frustration, and a lot of unfulfilling Saturday nights alone in my office.
Anyone know what Im talking about?
It makes me think of this ancient story from the Bible.
It’s a story - a myth, really - about two of the first humans - a man named Adam and a woman named Eve.
We’re told how God placed them in this garden called Paradise,
this place where everything was as it was meant to be,
this place, one would say, that was heaven on earth.
And God told them: ‘Help grow and expand this garden.
The only thing you’re not allowed to do is eat from a tree in the middle of garden, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.’
But one day as Adam and Eve were walking past that tree a snake slithered down it and said to them:
‘Don’t believe what God says. You should eat from that tree. Its delicious. Imagine the kind of life you’d have!'
Suddenly Adam and Eve were thinking about just how delicious life would be if they knew everything.
‘We'll be like God!’ they said to each other.
And so desiring that life more than anything, they took it and ate it.
But as soon as they ate it, they both realized they were naked.
Feeling this new feeling of shame and awkwardness, they made clothes of fig leaves and hid in the trees.
When God found out, God was sad and punished Adam and Eve by sending them out of a life in paradise and into a life of sweat, labour, and pain.
I thought of this story because while it’s a story about a lot of things, one of those things is a truth about human desire:
it's a story about how our desire can often lead us into the opposite kind of life than we think it will.
I mean, here’s Adam and Eve,
two people desiring to be more like God,
and so caught up in imagining the kind of life they’d have if they knew everything,
did the one thing they were told not to do,
they ate the fruit off the tree of knowledge.
And did they find the life they were looking for?
No. It was, in fact, quite the opposite.
And the writers of this story make this point quite hilariously:
If you’ve ever felt a fig leaf you know it’s as rough as sand paper.
Which is this really poetic way of saying Adam and Eve began a very uncomfortable existence or that they created a life that didn’t fit them,
which is only more emphasized in how the punishment they received for eating the fruit was a life that was anything but heaven on earth.
Adam and Eve thought they desired that life,
but in the very pursuit of it,
they ended up in a very different kind world and life than they expected.
We can see the same point being made in another story:
There’s this old parable Peter Rollins tells about this fancy lawyer who went duck hunting in Ireland.
He shoots a duck,
it falls into the field,
and goes to get it,
climbing over a fence to do so.
But a farmer sees him and asks what he’s doing, saying:
‘You're trespassing. This is my field. As far as I’m concerned that’s my duck.'
The lawyer threatens him ‘You want to challenge me? Im a lawyer. You can’t stop me!. I want my duck!"
And the farmer says ‘Oh really? Well, did they teach you the 3 kick rule in your fancy school?
We’ll do that to decide who gets the duck.
I kick you three times,
then you kick me 3 times,
and whoever quits first loses.’
So the young and strong lawyer looks at this old fragile farmer and laughs, saying ‘Sure. You know what, I’ll let you start.'
So the farmer kicks him between the legs,
then kicks him the side,
and the guy is in agony but knows he just has one kick left to endure,
and the farmer kicks him in the butt making him falls down into the mud and is just covered from head to toe.
And the lawyer stands up ready to go and win his duck but the farmer says:
‘Its okay. I give up. You can have the duck.'
Both the scripture story and the parable offer the same warning:
the things we desire the most,
the things that we think will solve all our problems and bring us great joy,
often end up being the things that leave us muddy, bruised, and broken.
And in this world and culture we live in,
not to mention within our own faith and spirituality,
there’s one desire we need to speak to,
this one desire we all encounter in almost every place in our lives and world,
this desire that,
just like that duck and just like that fruit can be so tempting and enticing,
but just like Adam and Eve and just like that fancy lawyer,
will lead us into a very uncomfortable and painful existence,
And that’s the desire to be perfect.
Usually when we use the word perfectionism it’s in job interview when they ask us that dreaded question of ‘whats one of your flaws’ and we coyly respond with “Oh, Im a perfectionist” and we feel all smug because we slipped in through the backdoor what we think is actually a strength.
Or we think of famous perfectionists like Steve Jobs, Martha Stewart and Jim Henson.
But what we talk about when we talk about perfectionism,
when we’re honest and real about it,
we’re talking about something that’s actually far more subtle, subversive, and dangerous,
something which manifests itself in all kinds of ways:
We’re talking about being seen as if we always know what we’re doing.
We’re talking about the crippling fear of making mistakes.
We’re talking having the right kind of body in the right kind of clothes with the right kind of stuff,
about the desire to be always ‘on.’
about knowing all the answers,
about the expectation to have the education, experience and wisdom of people 10 year our senior.
We’re talking about something that we even experience here in the safe walls of church:
It’s that impulse to never doubt,
to always doing the right thing,
to always feel a connection with God,
and to be just. like. Jesus.
Anyone know what we’re talking about?
Im sure we all do.
We’ve all struggled with that desire.
What we talk about when we talk about perfectionism, is at it’s most basic, the need to be, or at least appear to be, perfect.
And while striving to be good, and always be learning and growing is a wonderful thing to strive for, here’s what’s underneath that perfectionism that is so dangerous:
Perfectionism, as Brene Brown describes it, is:
that self destructive and oppressive behaviour that seeks to control something that cannot be controlled and seeks to obtain something that can’t be obtained.
What makes it so dangerous is perfectionisms inevitability to self implode because it desires the impossible. It desires to control the perception of others, something we can never control,
and it desires to obtain perfection, something that simply can’t be obtained.
And when it comes to a life of being human the way that Jesus teaches it,
there are two reasons why perfectionism is toxic:
First, and perhaps most importantly:
Perfection was never the ask.
To strive to be perfect is to strive for a life we were never asked to have.
The good news our faith has to offer,
the liberating truth it gives us,
is that we aren't meant to be perfect.
The only thing we are meant to be is human.
(“Oh, but what about that passage in the Bible that says we need to be ‘perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect’? Good question. From what Ive learned, the word for ‘perfect’ is better translated as ‘whole.’ What we’re to be are people who are fully human - people who are not earthy but also people who have the very Spirit of God coursing through them.)
Which is why the spirituality of Christ is a spirituality of grace and love.
It’s one of releasing us from the need to be anything other than who and what we are.
We can see this in this ancient parable about how a infamous rabbi named Zusya came to his followers with tears in his eyes.
They asked him: “Rabbi! What's the matter?
And Zusya told them about a vision he had:
"I learned the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life after I die."
The followers were puzzled. "Zusya, you are pious as Moses. You are scholarly and humble as Solomon. You have helped so many of us. What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?"
Zusya replied; "I have learned that the angels will not ask me, 'Why weren't you a Moses?’ or ‘Why weren’t you more like Solomon?'
They will say to me, 'Zusya, why weren't you Zusya?'"
It’s not about being perfect.
It’s not about being someone or something you’re not.
It’s about surrendering to the liberating idea that we are loved just. as. we. are. and that’s enough.
All we have to do is live into it and become, more and more, the person God created you to be.
and this one’s big for those of us trying to be in a partnership of any kind, exist as a family, and even be a church,
perfectionism is toxic because it takes away the one thing we each need to relationship: vulnerability.
Perfectionism leads us out of being willing and able to say ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I need help,’
and because it does that it leads us out of community and connection.
And because it leads us out of community and connection,
the life it creates isn’t just a lonely one, it’s a pretty bland and colourless one too.
At the heart of this spirituality is this idea that it’s in community - its in relationship with one another - that we become fully alive;
it’s there that we experience not only love and friendship and family,
but it’s there we can experience the experience of others,
it’s there we can go from black and white to colour,
it’s there we can go from apathy to sympathy to compassion,
and it’s there we can find the help, guidance, wisdom and support to keep growing, learning, and becoming.
So recognizing these are the consequences of perfectionism and that it leads us into the kind of life we were never meant to have,
what can we do when we feel ourselves fighting against it?
Im sure there are more but these are things Ive learned work.
In no particular order:
We can deal with perfectionism by owning our humanity.
Part of perfectionism’s sting is the shame it brings,
this shame which dictates our self worth by saying ‘You are what you do and how well you do it.'
And a good way to push back against that is by owning our stories,
by reclaiming our identity as perfectly imperfect humans,
and though sharing it,
through laughing at it,
through learning from it,
we begin to be able to say: "Im not perfect and Im totally okay with it."
Which leads into the second thing:
we can deal with perfectionism by cutting ourselves some slack.
One way we can do that,
and I’ve found these so helpful and be really helpful in some spiritual direction Ive done ,
is by whenever we begin to rumble with perfectionism and the negative self talk that goes with it,
asking ourselves these things:
Would I talk this way to and expect this from someone I love and care for?
What stories am I making up about myself?
And finally, there’s this:
There’s this old parable about an elderly woman who had two large pots, each hung on the ends of a pole which she carried across her neck.
One of the pots had a crack in it while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water.
At the end of the long walks from the stream to the house, the cracked pot arrived only half full.
For a full two years this went on daily, with the woman bringing home only one and a half pots of water.
Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments.
But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection, and miserable that it could only do half of what it had been made to do.
After two years of what it perceived to be bitter failure, it spoke to the woman one day by the stream.
“I am ashamed of myself, because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your house.”
The old woman smiled, “Did you notice that there are flowers on your side of the path, but not on the other pot's side?”
“That's because I have always known about your flaw, so I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back, you water them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate the table.
Without you being just the way you are, there would not be this beauty to grace the house.”
One way to combat perfectionism is to appreciate our cracks.
and to trust that its our cracks,
its our imperfections,
it’s our flaws,
that actually give things like love and grace the power they have.
Any of us who have been forgiven,
any of us who have been forgave,
any of us who have been picked up, dusted off, and set back up on our feet again know this.
These imperfections, these flaws, these wounds of ours,
they are ways that light, grace, and beauty enter into our world and lives,
And God knows we need some more light, grace and beauty in our world and lives.
May you desire not to be perfect, but to be you,
and may it be exactly the kind of life and world you are looking for.