I’ve written previously about the dangers of being an idealist, but today I want to focus on a related illness – that of being a perfectionist. I write as someone who is still recovering from this illness and as someone who has great concern for the way this illness is developed (often unintentionally) and manifested in educational settings. My hope is that these words will somehow break through the perception that perfectionism is an any way good for educators or for students. I have heard too many beginning teachers say, “I’m a perfectionist“, with the assumption that this is good news to me, that I somehow hope that they are perfectionists. I don’t. Instead, I want to do all I can to interrupt this discourse because these words can reveal a hope that outer light/glory will conceal inner darkness and can become a road that is eventually very damaging.
My experience as a perfectionist has taught me the following:
Perfectionists come to believe in their own capabilities. They are so strong in themselves, they have no need of God. If they are Christians, they are Christian atheists.
Perfectionists are preoccupied with their own glory and crave recognition for that glory. Their greed for glory is never satiated.
Perfectionists think about their own accomplishments – a lot! They dwell/live in their accomplishments.
Perfectionists hate hearing about any glory given to another (although they would never admit this).
Perfectionists are irritated by imperfection and those less perfect than them. That irritation can easily explode into anger.
Perfectionists are usually not content or grateful or joyful or peaceful or gentle…They don’t have the fruit of the spirit because they haven’t actually recognized their need for the Holy Spirit. They may be good at pretending these things in order to preserve an image they have of themselves, but their mask keeps slipping.
Perfectionists see only what is imperfect in others or in circumstances. They obsess about fixing things. Their lives are full of ‘picture frames that need straightening‘.
Perfectionists are frustrated with any ambiguity or complexity that prevents them from getting the right answer quickly and then getting recognition for having gotten the right answer quickly. They want to know what and how more than what if or why.
Perfectionists use others to make themselves look more perfect. They are the opposite of relational and personal human beings. They are atomistic, fragmented, self-centered individuals.
Perfectionists crumble when they are shaken by circumstances beyond their control. They have no inner strength, no unity between their inner and outer lives, no way of reaching beyond themselves. They are often deeply sad.
Perfectionists don’t teach, they impose, control and manipulate and then produce mini-perfectionists. We always offer who we are.
We teach people to be perfectionists when we are confused about the aims of education. We confuse learning to live well with God and all others, with correctness and rewards.
We teach people to be perfectionists when we start to view them as ‘pictures needing straightening‘.
We teach people to be perfectionists when education becomes more about individual hoop jumping and rule following than a shared, joyful and challenging journey.
We teach people to be perfectionists when we tell them that their only hope of glory is to win a competition, to be the best.
We teach people to be perfectionists when we tell them salvation is an event rather than a journey.
We teach people to be perfectionists when we praise them with too many words that they come to understand as defining them – words that eventually enslave them with the pressure to continue to be what others think they are.
We teach people to be perfectionists when we are cruel and merciless, rather than gentle and patient.
We teach people to be perfectionists by immersing them in a culture that focuses on image and presentation of image. Facebook was made for perfectionists.
Perfectionism can become a serious illness, one that is easily caught and taught, but also one that can be healed – with time and help. Healing usually requires significant shaking – especially if you’ve been a perfectionist for a long time, and your mask has hardened. It requires turning away from yourself and towards others. It requires learning to let go of….well…almost everything. It requires coming to the end of yourself (and you will) and seeing the abyss in front of you, within you. It requires a ‘cat’ that will turn your most beautiful piece of ‘furniture’ into its scratching post. It requires recognition of the quality of spirit that is infecting all of the ‘good‘ you do. It requires seeing how little true life you have to offer others. It requires gratefulness for your contingency, for your complete reliance on God and others for any good that is given to you to do. It requires teaching yourself to forget any good you do immediately after you do it. It requires understanding that the only hope of glory you have is Christ in you, transforming you, helping you become like Him, helping you become human.
To be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect is a good thing to want. It is not wrong to have a telos, it is wrong to have an idol. Perfectionists eventually turn themselves into idols. Our Father is perfect in love, perfect in goodness, perfect in mercy, perfect in peace. We are judged by His absolute strength, but saved by His willingness to share His perfect life with us. God is the one who perfects ( 1 Peter 5:10). To be perfect like our Father, is simply an invitation to keep ourselves in the love of God, before His face, looking for His mercy (Jude, v. 20).