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What is perfectionism? Do Christians need to be perfect?

AlethiaPerfectionist cutting grass by BartCo / iStock

Perfectionism runs rampant in the United States, and legalism can be a kind of perfectionism that infiltrates Christian communities. However, perfectionism is neither healthy in society nor in our churches, and it’s particularly perilous for relationships. Christians are not perfect. In fact, the Bible clearly says we cannot be perfect by our merit (Romans 3:23). Perfectionism often inhibits the lives we want to live. So why are people perfectionists? What is the definition of perfectionism, and how can you escape it?

What is perfectionism?

I generally consider perfectionism a “life rule” or “survival rule.” Life rules are those unspoken, sometimes even subconscious, rules we pick up from our childhoods, contexts, or personalities. We hold ourselves and usually others to the same rules. An example of a life rule is to always put finished dishes in the dishwasher rather than the sink.

Survival rules are the same kinds of rules but born of trauma. For example, if you had an alcoholic father, you might never get up at night to avoid accidentally running into him in a drunken state. As another example, many military veterans scan corners when they enter a room. Perfectionism is either a kind of life rule or a survival rule.

I define perfectionism as the mental and emotional need to have things in a certain, generally arbitrary way, or there are substantial negative emotional consequences. In order for it to be true perfectionism, the perfectionist needs to act out their emotions on others around them; for example, getting unreasonably mad at a speck left on a clean dish.

Now, let me connect the neurosis of “perfectionism” and the biblical concept of “legalism.” Sadly, we wink at both. Legalism is something we often accept in the church. Our society nods at perfectionism. Honestly, we usually reward them in both communities, but they are deadly–especially in relationships. Legalism is a fatal heresy that teaches us that our righteousness is based on the value of our performance, and perfectionism drives relationships apart.

So, why do so many fall into perfectionism?

Why do I feel like I need to be perfect?

There seems to be a moral component to the perfectionist attitude, as though getting things done the way they “ought” to be is morally superior. Getting that last crumb off the floor is more righteous than leaving it, the thinking goes.

This attitude, as I think about it, crosses into legalism. Legalists believe that following their own way of thinking and behaving wins more of God’s approval. We should never underestimate the destruction this legalism can cause. It defies the most fundamental teaching of grace–that God does not base his love for us on our performance but on his mercy and love.

This thinking possesses another fundamental error. Much, if not most, of what we consider “common courtesies” or “how things ought to be” are strictly arbitrary and subjective. For example, a perfectionist may insist everyone remove their shoes when entering their house. But how could this be morally superior if it’s only cultural?

Most of us are so accustomed to these little guidelines and habits that we can’t step outside them. We are so entrenched and invested in them that we hurt people to make them follow them. The feeling of righteousness may accompany this judgment, but it’s an immensely destructive, prideful way of living. Have you ever heard the phrase “cleanliness is next to godliness?” It’s not in the Bible–not even close.

Let me offer another slightly silly but real example.

Perfectionism and Play-Doh

My close and dear friend, Kevin East, was playing Play-Doh with his sons, and one of them began to mix up the colors.

Of course, he did what I had done dozens of times with my kids. He told them, in no uncertain terms, “Don’t mix the colors!”

One of them asked, “Why?”

And it stumped him. Why not?

What “right way of doing things” do we impose on others just because it’s how we do it? Is it really the right way of doing things? Whatever that thing is, it probably reflects perfectionism and hubris rather than a genuinely good rule. I am sure there are some arguments in defense of not mixing the Play-Doh colors, but they’re all ridiculous when you’re talking about a cheap toy you’ll have to replace soon, anyway!

In that moment with his son, Kevin couldn’t think of a good reason not to mix the Play-Doh, so he let them.

When he told me, I had to laugh because my poor kids never asked me “why,” so I had never allowed them to mix colors. But since I was a kid, I always wanted to! The commercials even show the colors mixed, and I remember thinking how cool it would be to have different colors together.

I had passed on a rule that had no real basis in reason.

My daughter-in-law’s parents have a great example of the opposite of perfectionism. When they were children, they let their kids play with flour on the floor of their kitchen like sand. They eventually cleaned it up, of course, but what fun and joy could we have when we remove the strains of perfectionism?

Why perfectionism is dangerous

We all have these silly life rules, but perfectionists are so invested in them, feeling the need to correct and criticize others, that they can’t let them go. That’s what separates them from better-adjusted people. We all have rules, and many rules are good, but the perfectionist takes them to another level.

As a counselor, I have seen clients burst into tears at the thought of either:

  1. letting go of a perfectionist morality or
  2. realizing all of the pain their perfectionism had caused.

Perfectionistic thinking is dangerous. I can think of virtually no place where it is a valuable life rule. The more positive expression of this temperament, striving for excellence, can be positive. Or it can just be what a perfectionist calls their perfectionism.

If you don’t know about yourself, ask someone who isn’t afraid to tell you the truth. If you’re a true perfectionist, I’m afraid there might not be many people who’ll be honest with you in your life, but try anyway.

Two kinds of perfectionists

Perfectionist thinking splits things into black-and-white terms and people into winners and losers. The perfectionist always makes themselves into the righteous winner or woeful loser–there’s no in-between.

Loser perfectionists believe that things must be perfect, but they can never live up to the standard, so they are constantly failing and disappointing. They will keep trying and failing (a life of constant frustration that they generally take out on others), or they will give up. Why bother? If I can never do it right, I might as well quit.

It’s odd, but I sense that many of the messiest and most disorganized people have the same neurosis as the neat freak–they just respond to it oppositely. They believe in the laws of perfectionism, so they either rebel or collapse into slavery. Either one accepts that the rules are an absolute standard, so neither offers true freedom.

On the other hand, winner perfectionists are Pharisees.

I had one friend of mine define a perfectionist as someone who “takes great pains… and places them on others.” This is another way of saying what Jesus said. “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift their finger to help carry them.” (Matt 23:4).

If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing. If it can be done well or rightly, great. If it can’t, just do it anyway! It’s better to love people poorly than to wait until it can be done perfectly. It’s better to welcome people to a messy house than to fail to invite them because the house is never perfect.

Healing from perfectionism

As a therapist and pastor, I often wonder if the root issue of perfectionism might not be forgiveness. In order to forgive, one must accept one’s own and other’s frailty, even if they don’t.

Indeed, perfectionism forgets or denies human frailty. As Henri Nouwen once noted, “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all people love poorly.”

If you are a perfectionist, learn to recognize the mindset as the enemy of grace.

Learn to love poorly. After all, if something is worth doing, it is worth doing poorly.

What is clinical perfectionism?

So far, I’ve focused on perfectionism as a destructive character trait, but some studies point to extreme cases being a clinical problem. These cases can connect to severe mental health issues like Bulimia and Anorexia Nervosa.

Sometimes, perfectionists may have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD). I’ve talked about personality disorders in another post–so check that article out.

If you or a loved one struggles with perfectionism or possibly even a form of clinical perfectionism, consider going to counseling–we’d be happy to have you. We have therapists all over Texas who are experts in family and marriage counseling, as well as personality disorders. We can help guide you toward freedom from perfectionism.