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The Performance Trap
The wise heart will know the proper time and procedure. For there is a proper time and procedure for every matter, though a person may be weighed down by misery.”
Perfectionists continually strive for acceptance because the acceptance they received in the past was based on how well they performed. If parents or other significant people in your life gave you approval only for achievement, the message you received was a setup for perfectionism.
“Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.”
The root of perfectionism is pride. Perfectionists act as though they are “equal with God” by thinking they are capable of meeting their own needs. In their own strength they attempt to accomplish what only Christ can do in them and through them.
“In the pride of your heart you say, ‘I am a god; I sit on the throne of a god in the heart of the seas.’ But you are a man and not a god, though you think you are as wise as a god.”
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What Is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism is a pattern of thinking that demands all areas of life be flawless. Anything less than perfect is unacceptable.
“So then, the word of the Lord to them will become: Do and do, do and do, rule on rule, rule on rule; a little here, a little there—so that they will go and fall backward, be injured and snared and captured.” (Isaiah 28:13)
For perfectionists, the pressure is always on . . . and the performance never stops. All of life is lived under the glare of an unforgiving spotlight. The smallest blemish . . . the tiniest flaw . . . the slightest mistake is sure to raise an eyebrow and silence sought-after acceptance. Even when reason seems skewed, the Psalms offer hope for the afflicted.
Perfectionists are performers and they are also prisoners . . . chained to the opinions of others—their self-acceptance invariably linked to cherished accolades. Overlooked crumbs on the kitchen counter leave a perfectionist humiliated before guests. A student’s self-worth plummets if a record of high-scoring As is broken by an unbearable B.
Even when compliments do come, such praise provides only a fleeting moment of pleasure because now the bar—the measure for self-worth—is simultaneously raised even higher. Instead, God’s plan is that we aim for excellence, not perfection . . . to accomplish our personal best with the gifts He gives us, using the power He provides.
What Is Excellence?
Excellence is being over and above average, exceeding and surpassing the ordinary.
“This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.”
The Divine Mandate
— In Greek the noun huperbole means “throwing beyond, surpassing, exceeding, excellence.”
“Eagerly desire the greater gifts. And now I will show you the most excellent way.”
(1 Corinthians 12:31)
— In Greek the verb huperecho means “surpassing, excelling.”
“What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.”
- Over and Above
— In Greek, the verb perisseuo means “to be over and above, to abound, to excel.”
“Excel in gifts that build up the church.”
(1 Corinthians 14:12)
There are recognizable differences between the demand for perfection and the desire for excellence. The perfectionist not only fails to rely on God, but also places trust in self-effort. The Bible calls this sin.
Examine yourself: Are you trusting in your own strength or trusting God to work through your weakness?
“[God said to Paul], ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ [Paul responded], Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
(2 Corinthians 12:9–10)
“What is the difference between being perfectionistic and aiming for excellence?”
Perfectionists feel defeated if they are found at fault in any area. However, Christians are called to rise over and above immaturity, to excel in maturity.
“Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:4)
Perfectionism vs. Excellence
“Godliness with contentment is great gain.” (1 Timothy 6:6)
Perfectionists take great pain and cause great pain!
The Demand for Perfection
- My best isn’t good enough.
- I have to get a promotion.
- I must have a spotless house.
- I must make straight A’s.
- I dread starting this project.
- I’d rather be dead than average.
- I did better than my friends.
- I can’t be content if it’s not perfect.
- It is painful to be a failure.
- I have to do better.
- I feel frustrated by having done this.
- I’ll be perfect if I try hard enough.
The Desire for Excellence
- I am pleased with my best.
- I hope to get a promotion.
- I choose to keep a clean house.
- I desire to make straight A’s.
- I look forward to starting this project.
- I feel competent in many areas.
- I did better than I’ve ever done.
- I’ll be content to do my best.
- Failure is just a part of life.
- I choose to do better.
- I feel fulfilled by having done this.
- I hope to excel when I give it my best.
“The perfectionist is a man whom it is impossible to please because he is never pleased with himself.”—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The Idealist …
- demands success.
- dwells on mistakes
- fears failure
- defends when criticized
- centers on what is accomplished
- despises losing because of feeling unacceptable
The Realist …
- desires success.
- learns from mistakes
- accepts failure
- profits when criticized
- centers on how it is accomplished
- doesn’t like losing but still feels accepted
Question: “Doesn’t everyone want a perfectionistic contractor, teacher, doctor, lawyer or employee?”
No. When new approaches are needed, perfectionists are less flexible to try new ideas or procedures. No matter what our occupation, we are to do our work as though we are working for the Lord.
“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.”
Behavioral Characteristics of Perfectionists
The essential feature of perfectionism is compulsive behavior, which results from an insecure need to “go beyond the call of duty.” Instead of joyfully giving out of love, the perfectionist gives out of duty in an effort to please others.
“Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
- Controls environment, situations and others must be in control to make sure things go well
- Objects to criticism and correction reacts defensively
- Majors on the minors preoccupied with trivial details
- Procrastinates puts off starting projects for fear of failing
- Underestimates time needed to complete tasks tendency to overcommit
- Lacks joy and creativity inflexible
- Sacrifices relationships for projects stingy with emotions, personal possessions and time with others
- Imagines rejection from others self-rejection—expects to receive disapproval
- Vacillates in making decisions, avoids or postpones decisions
- Expresses intolerance toward others critical and impatient with the mistakes and weaknesses in others
Perfectionists seem highly motivated to produce, yet their behavior is actually a compulsive drive to protect themselves from losing self-worth. They live under the law of God (seeking to earn approval and worth) instead of living under the grace of God (accepting unearned approval and worth).
“There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.”
Physical Symptoms of Perfectionists
Compulsive behavior takes its toll physically. One is unable to escape some of the internal repercussions of a hidden addiction to perfectionism.
- difficulty relaxing and often feels guilty if not busy all the time (Thinks, Maybe there was something else I was supposed to do. Maybe there’s a better way to do it.)
- muscle tension
- too little or too much sleep
- eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia)
- high blood pressure
- sexual impotence (due to fear of failure)
- stomach problems
- heart disease
Efforts to earn God’s approval or the approval of others actually result in defeating your good intentions.
“I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.”
Perfectionists & Procrastination…
“I used to be a perfectionist who accomplished so much, but now I can’t even get to work on time or get my work finished. Why am I constantly procrastinating?”
A perfectionist often procrastinates because the “fear of failure” takes control of emotions and paralyzes productivity. Perfectionists seek to get their need for significance met through excellent work, but perfection is an impossible goal to maintain. The time eventually comes when the work is never quite good enough, and it seems better to do nothing than to risk feeling like a failure.
If you are serious about moving beyond perfection-driven procrastination . . .
- Change your goal from seeking to please others in order to earn acceptance and begin trusting the Lord for His unconditional acceptance.
- Realize that your significance comes from Christ, residing in you, not from any of your accomplishments.
- View your work as being given to you by the Lord and as your opportunity to allow His wisdom to work within you and through you to accomplish His purposes.
- Focus on pleasing the Lord in all you do with a heart of genuine gratitude.
“Teach me your way, Lord, that I may rely on your faithfulness; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name.”
Master Your Mind
“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
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