Paralyzing Perfectionism

by - 4:55 PM

I struggle with perfectionism…the type that is pervasive and sometimes paralyzing. Now before you write me off as "type A," one who seeks to be "better than" others, or just a freak of nature - please hear me out. And take time to evaluate your own heart, as you read. For I believe there are many more closeted perfectionists among us.

According to the Counseling Center at the University of Illinois, many college students struggle with perfectionism. I mention this fact because I have recently re-entered seminary and am taking a full load of classes [#thestruggleisreal]. Here, they list the following questions to help students diagnose the problem:
1) Do you feel like what you accomplish is never quite good enough? 
2) Do you often put off turning in papers or projects for school/work, waiting to get them just right? 
3) Do you feel you must give more than 100 percent  (though that's technically not possible!) on everything you do or else you will be seen at best as "mediocre," at worst - a failure?

According to Marshall and Mary Asher's biblical counseling resource, The Christian's Guide to Psychological Terms, the perfectionist may be characterized by the following:

  • Believes that tasks are "all or nothing," "success or failure"
  • Has unrealistic goals
  • Fears losing control
  • Feels guilty over things he thinks he should have done
  • Feels depressed because he could not accomplish everything
  • Panics when things do not turn out the way he thought they should
  • Worries about what others think of him
  • Is intolerant of other people's standards
  • Judges his self-worth by his performance
  • Receives criticism poorly
  • Compares himself to others


If you are like me, you will have checked "yes" for at least one of these. 

According to Merriam-Webster, the medical definition of perfectionism is as follows:
A disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable; especially the setting of unrealistically demanding goals accompanied by a disposition to regard failure to achieve them as unacceptable and a sign of personal worthlessness.

Some strive for perfectionism in a way that they go "whole hog" - completing everything 100 percent. And some of these folks (not all!) can end up being bound by workaholism, eating disorders, OCD, etc...due to the degree that they give in to their perfectionistic tendencies.

My particular brand of perfectionism, however, surfaces as a paralyzer through my vice of choice: procrastination.

I procrastinate completing tasks because I want to do them only when I have enough time to do them absolutely right. Please allow me to illustrate: 

  • I am often down-to-the-wire on deadlines at work, because I put off writing case notes until I have the "time" to write them as detailed as I want them to be.
  • I often leave chores around the house undone because (let's face it) there's never enough time for perfection in a lived-in home…and if I can't get something as organized as I want it, I might as well not even try.
  • I will often go days (nay, weeks!) without blogging because I feel like I won't have the time to craft a "perfect" post.
  • I hinder my own walk with Christ because I long to study something in-depth, from cover to cover. Again, time constraints come in, and I put off starting because I feel I won't finish the study/memorization/etc. in the way that I want.

Notice any trends, here?

I want…I wantI WANT! 

I have come to realize that my struggle with perfectionism is sin, plain and simple. It is selfish arrogance of the highest order. 

According to the Ashers, perfectionism has pride at its core. The perfectionist believes "his way is the correct way, wants people to think highly of him and his accomplishments, is consumed with thoughts of self, and wants to control everything." 

I need to relinquish control to Christ over things that I have a death-grip on (read: perfectionistic striving). I need to turn from my sin. Do you? Let us repent from paralyzing perfectionism and instead walk in the freedom of "failing" in Christ…failing our old slumlord of sin while falling into the forgiving arms of our Redeemer. 

So how do we accomplish this task? Thanks for asking!

1) Repent from pride. We must turn away from self-seeking ways. Our thought life is in error, for we think more grandiosely of ourselves than we ought. We are not the kings of our own world, God is! We have set up ourselves as our own, personal idols. Perfectionism says, "I can do it without God (or anyone else!)." 
2) Start now. Don't put off obedience until it feels convenient or "start-worthy." Purposely start tasks now rather than waiting until better "beginning" days. For example, don't wait 'til Monday, the first of a month, or the new year…start now. 
3) Identify your priorities. Some things matter, some things don't. Most things fall somewhere in the middle. To quote an old friend, "You make time for what you want to make time for." List your tasks from greatest to least importance, and schedule them into your day accordingly. 
4) Make it work. [Thanks, Tim Gunn, for
mainstreaming this wonderful phrase!] Follow your schedule, check off your to-do list, and get things done. It doesn't matter if you have an interruption or if you don't have time to fully complete a chore to perfection right now. If you get halfway finished, schedule a time the next day for completion. If you only make it a third of the way, schedule two more windows of time - and so on.   
5) Let others help. Have you ever heard it said, "If you want something done right, do it yourself"? I have…and for years, I have bought into that statement hook, line, and sinker. In order to beat perfectionism, though, we must let others help us out with tasks we don't have time to complete. According to Kevin DeYoung's book Crazy Busy, we have to be willing to delegate and to accept help from others. Beware, for DeYoung warns that this will require "having the courage to accept that someone might be able to do a worse job."
6) Rely on God's strength. When the apostle Paul was plagued by a "thorn in the flesh" from which he was not delivered, God spoke these words to him: "My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9). Selfish strivings like perfectionism don't go away overnight. When we choose to walk away from sin or from a certain personal "bent," we are not immediately made strong. Inversely, we are often weak and reeling from the change God is enacting in us…as it should be. We must rely on His strength to make it through our challenges. 
Note: I will be continuing this discussion in a later post that will focus on priorities, so please leave a comment below about anything further you'd like to see addressed. Then make sure to come back to check it out next week!  

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  1. Leah, have you been reading my journal?? I feel like paralyzing perfectionism is a constant threat in my life. I loved how you said that in the end it has to do with selfishness. I loved your encouragement at the end!
    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks for reading, Larissa! It is a constant threat in mine, as well…it's good to know we can encourage each other! I've hopped over and read some of your blog, and I gotta' say - we have much in common. It's great to "meet" you on here!

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