Chances are that you will rarely, if ever, have someone ask for your help in overcoming perfectionism. Yet perfectionism may be very common in those who seek out your help.
If perfectionists rarely ask for help overcoming perfectionism, what might motivate a perfectionist to come to you for help? Perfectionists may approach you seeking help for:
- their marriage (because their spouse doesn’t meet their expectations and this results in continuing conflict),
- their parenting (their children have rebelled at the perfectionistic and legalistic standards imposed on them),
- their schedule (because their desire for perfection has caused them to attempt to earn approval from others by never saying no),
- their job (others in their workplace don’t have the same work ethic and this is causing consternation, or because procrastinating on projects has resulted in work issues), or
- their relationships with others (because their standards and judgmentalism have eroded their opportunities for deep friendships).
Obviously, the list could continue, but you get the idea. Perfectionists may seek help for a pressure point in life without recognizing that the pressure is being triggered by their perfectionism.
Use external pressures to see what’s happening internally
These external pressures become wonderful opportunities to help perfectionists unpack what is happening in their hearts. These are opportunities to begin to uncover the desires for respect, approval, earned righteousness, a life without suffering, or removal of shame. According to James 4, these desires are the reason for the fights and quarrels, the inner battles, and the dissatisfaction with life.
Unpacking what is occurring at the level of the heart equips us to lead people to the hope in the gospel. In addition to diagnosing the source of our dissatisfaction with life, James 4 also encourages us that God gives grace to the humble, He comes near to those who approach Him, and He lifts up those who come before Him in humility.
A brief case study
Tyler turns to you for counsel after coming home to find a note on the kitchen counter from his wife, saying she is leaving him and wants a divorce.
As you learn Tyler’s story, you find out that he has seemed to lead a picture-perfect life. He went to college on a basketball scholarship and married a sorority homecoming queen. After college he became a successful businessman and quickly rose through the ranks to become his company’s vice president of sales. He and his wife live in a nice home in an upscale neighborhood. Whenever you’ve seen Tyler with his wife in public, they appeared to be a happy couple.
As you continue getting to know Tyler, you find that his life has been less than picture-perfect. Tyler has believed that success in life is attainable if you just work hard enough. He believes that if you push yourself (and others) relentlessly, you can have it all.
Sadly, Tyler has found that no matter how hard he pushes himself, the success he desires seems to elude him. In fact, his biggest successes have often been accompanied by depression. During these times, he withdraws, feels anxious and guilty, and questions every aspect of his success. He looks back at all the mistakes he has made and his success turns sour. It wasn’t really success.
What is Tyler’s problem?
Tyler’s problem is not that he desires excellence and perfection. Tyler’s problem is not that he isn’t trying hard enough. His problem is not a sense of inferiority or anxiety. His problem is not that he has set his standards unrealistically high.
The crux of Tyler’s problem is that he has set aside worship of the one true God for a god that makes promises that it can’t deliver and will never fulfill. He has worshipped the god of perfection rather than the perfect God. Tyler’s god has offered itself as a savior from things Tyler wants to avoid: anxiety, depression, being seen as inferior by others. His god makes promises that appeal to Tyler’s pride: the admiration of others, prominence in his social circles, and respect. Tyler’s god has even subtly enticed him to believe that God will be pleased if he achieves the performance-based perfection for which he is striving: that Tyler’s perfection will make God look good. And without realizing it, he has embraced this god of perfection.
Tyler has trusted in performance-based perfection rather than casting himself in faith upon a perfect Savior. He has worshipped the god of perfection rather than the perfect God. He has disloyally chosen to pursue a different savior. He has worshipped being able to perform perfectly and bounced from self-satisfaction when it seemed within his grasp to anxiety and guilt when he’s seen his failures and has realized he didn’t measure up.
What does Tyler need?
There is hope for those striving to be picture-perfect. People who have stumbled over Christ by trying to attain performance-based perfection find that God offers hope to people floundering blindly in darkness. God offers his perfect Son, the Light of the world.
While Tyler has openly or silently condemned those he felt didn’t measure up, God has acted surprisingly differently. God is merciful to people who have not measured up, merciful to people who have pursued idols, merciful to people whom He created to glorify Him but who found the god of perfection more alluring than the perfect God. God sent His servant Son to open eyes that are blind. The only path Tyler has known is trying harder and harder to be perfect. He has stumbled along in his darkness, consoling himself with alcohol when his god disappointed him once again. He has indentured himself to a false god.
God provided His perfect Son to become Tyler’s substitute and to take the penalty for all of Tyler’s failures—for his less-than-perfect life and for his worship of the god of perfection. Jesus will take Tyler’s death penalty.
The better way
Christ has purchased a better way for us. He turns our striving to meet the demands of the god of perfection upside down and makes an incredible promise: we can have His perfection. This is stunningly beautiful. Christ has never messed up. Christ has never had to seek refuge in a bottle of alcohol to ease the pressure and dull the guilt and stress. Christ has never looked back at a victory and moved it to the loss column because He found mistakes. Christ is without blemish; He is perfect.
With Christ’s perfection we can begin to worship the perfect God rather than the god of perfection. We can start to love God and love others instead of simply performance and performance-based outcomes. We can start to love perfection simply because it represents Christ and His death in our place, nothing else. This can change Tyler. This can change the perfectionist. This can change me and you.
For a fuller treatment of helping perfectionists, you may be interested in Picture Perfect: When Life Doesn’t Line Up.