I will never measure up.”
“I can’t do this. I won’t be successful!”
“I sense impending doom; it’s out there, and it’s coming to get me.”
You might think this sounds like the thinking of a procrastinator or someone who won’t take a risk. But these are the common thoughts of perfectionists who fear failure. They often don’t speak with confidence, and more than likely they don’t rejoice in God’s good gifts because, for them, failure is always right behind even good things.
Why is fear of failure so paralyzing for a perfectionist? Because failure in any form for the perfectionist isn’t just about the outcome of an event; it’s not just an idea the person had that didn’t work out so well. For a perfectionist, failure is a statement about who he is. And that person doesn’t want to be a loser.
Unless the perfectionist can come to love God more than his own good reputation or the comfort of measuring up to perceived standards, that person is probably going to shrink from risky situations where he could make a mistake. And, as we know, sometimes mistakes have serious consequences (for example, when a project fails at work and that person is responsible for losing a million dollars in an account). However, overcoming the fear of these consequences is possible, and you can help a perfectionist not to be bound by fears.
Scriptural truths to encourage change
You might think helping a perfectionist who fears failure is as simple as reminding him of Christ’s imputed righteousness: Christ’s perfection that is ours through faith. It is true that a perfectionist needs to understand this, because otherwise, it’s doubtful that person will ever see change. But knowing something and acting on it are not the same thing. It also can be hard for a perfectionist to embrace the truth of Christ’s imputed righteousness when his heart craves a righteousness of its own. So how do we help him?
When the perfectionist comes to see Christ as his greatest treasure, something that he would sell everything for, then he begins to have the boldness to face the possibility of failure. To view Christ in this way, above all else, a person has to recognize his deep need for Christ. Here are three passages of Scripture you can share with a perfectionist to help him realize that need.
Matthew 5 is humbling: in this passage, Christ raises the stakes by redefining what it means to observe the Ten Commandments, and then He has this crowning pronouncement in verse 48, where He tells his followers to “be perfect … as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The understanding that no one can do this should drive perfectionists to their need for a Savior. They can’t do it; they desperately need a Savior.
First Corinthians 13:4–8 has the same effect when discussing the characteristics of love. We all fall so far short of Paul’s description of love that we clearly need a Savior, someone who can rescue us.
Matthew 25:14–30: You could also share the parable of the lazy servant. That servant, out of fear of failure, went and hid his talent because he didn’t want to lose it. And he didn’t lose it. But he didn’t get commended by his master; instead, his master called him a wicked and lazy servant.
Once you’ve guided a perfectionist in recognizing his need for Christ and His righteousness, you can help the person address situations in which fear of failure arises.
A plan of action: Developing boldness in the face of failure
The biblical king Jehoshaphat provides a model pastors can use when helping perfectionists respond to their fears with courage and faith. In 2 Chronicles 20, Jehoshaphat is king of the Israelites, and he’s facing an alliance of enemies who are coming against him to wipe him out. He doesn’t know what to do, so he goes to the temple and prays, “Lord, we don’t know what to do, but our eyes are on you.”
You can help the perfectionist develop an action plan, based on Jehoshaphat’s situation, fears, and response, to put into effect when fear of failure surfaces.
First, ask the person to keep a journal of the occasions when he doesn’t know what to do and is afraid of failing. Then, encourage the person to follow these steps and write down how he handled each step.
- Acknowledge powerlessness: As Jehoshaphat did, have the perfectionist acknowledge his feelings of powerlessness in the face of the current situation. A helpful question for reflection might be, “What temptations to fear come with this situation?”
- Resolve to turn to God: That’s an act of the will. Perfectionists must will themselves to turn to God.
- Express trust in God: Next encourage the person to pray and affirm that God owns everything, that He’s in control of the situation. Help the perfectionist express his trust by asking him, “What truth do you already know about God, which could strengthen you as those fears come washing over you?”
- Tell God what’s happening: Encourage the perfectionist to tell God what’s happening in his life at that moment. Perhaps he’s been given this project, he has no idea what to do, or he’s been asked to take on a certain responsibility and it scares him to death.
In retrospect, you can help the perfectionist learn from the situation by asking what he thinks God might have been up to by allowing him to experience a specific fearful circumstance. What lessons did he learn about God and himself? How can the perfectionist build on these lessons the next time the same fears of failure arise?
“I’m failing at trying to change!”
Now, the perfectionist may want to change, but feels like he is failing at changing. You can help the person understand that growth is not instantaneous but a step-by-step process. Proverbs 24:16 tells us a righteous man falls seven times, but he rises again. It’s the wicked who are brought down by calamity. But that isn’t true for people who belong to God, because all of the wickedness on their account has been paid for by their Savior.
A message of hope
Perfectionists who struggle with a fear of failure need to remember that God is their refuge and strength. God doesn’t ask them to be the star performer in their company. He doesn’t ask them to be the world’s best. He just asks them to love and honor Him. You can remind them that if they do this, they’re fulfilling their God-ordained commission, and they’re a success. Not only that, God’s going to give them the strength to do it.
Of course there will be times when perfectionists fail and pursue their idol of perfection, but God longs to forgive, restore, and show compassion and mercy when His children cry out to Him. Remind the perfectionists that regardless of the outcome of their present situation, they have the hope of being loved with an everlasting love and finally going to a place prepared by Christ, who knows them intimately and is preparing a place that will be stunningly perfect.
You’ll find further insights on helping people who struggle with perfectionism in Counseling the Perfectionist and Helping Perfectionists Receive Criticism. And for a more detailed discussion on the struggle and the roots of perfectionism, see Dr. Baker’s book Picture Perfect: When Life Doesn’t Line Up.