What is perfectionism? In psychology, perfectionism is defined as a personality trait according to which one strives for flawlessness and sets high performance standards. It is accompanied by critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations.
When I was a lot younger, I perceived perfectionism to be something positive. Looking at the definition above we might all see why. A personality trait of someone who strives for flawlessness, while setting high performance standards… how could that be negative? My understanding of this was that a perfectionist was super hard-working and high achieving, and while having such high standards, should and would be doing really well, I’d imagine. The fact that the perfectionist would show critical self-awareness and be concerned about the evaluations of others, would, in my opinion,be a great motivation to always want to work harder and achieve better and I never thought then, that there could be anything wrong with that.
In my late teens and young adulthood, I wanted to have the perfect body, be successful academically, not make relationship mistakes my parents or other adults I knew had made, and through this, have that sort of a perfect and immaculate life no one could criticise or say anything bad about. I went on a strict diet and developed an appetite for running and exercise, and while I became quite slim, I still wasn’t satisfied about the way I looked and always managed to find flaws in my physical appearance, keeping me from reaching that perfect self-image I’d strive to achieve. My academic success did not materialise as I’d planned as I dropped out of university after the first year and for relationship mistakes, they also happened. By the age of 24, I was a single mother living in a foreign country with very little self-esteem and did no longer aspire to perfection, while admiring those who seemed to have a perfect life.
It seems as if young people today are not under any less pressure to look perfect, to be great students and to have amazing social lives. The pressure to be perfect and to do great has been made worse with social media use and this is not a problem restricted to the younger generation. Anyone using social media can probably relate to this. “We’re coming towards the end of a decade in which we’ve been encouraged to think of our public life as a performance instead of a participation exercise” (Daisy Buchanan, the Guardian, 2018). Public exposures and comparisons can lead to our own construct of perfection and of unrealistic ideals. It materialises in airbrushed photos of ourselves and our loved ones, and focuses on achievements, status and how well connected and loved we are.
Thankfully, my perception of perfectionism has changed. I have come to realise that there is more to perfectionism than high achievement and flawlessness. Patrick Regan, in his book ‘Honesty Over Silence’ says that “Perfectionists set up unrealistic expectations for themselves and striving to meet those targets becomes addictive and all-consuming. Then what we find is that the goalposts are constantly moving anyway”. Perfectionists are hence never satisfied and never at peace. Anne Wilson Schaef goes further and says that “perfectionism is self-abuse of the highest order” and Daisy Buchanan says that “perfectionism is a weakness. It’s making us ill”. Patrick Regan also says that you cannot be a perfectionist and self-compassionate, hence perfectionism can more often than not, stand in the way of our mental and emotional wellbeing.
A recent BBC article showed that for many, perfectionism is still seen as something positive and warns against its danger. Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill conducted a study analysing rates of perfectionism from 1989 to 2016. This is the first study to compare perfectionism across generations and findings revealed an increase in perfectionism tendencies in young undergraduates over time. The result of that is unfortunately not more accomplished youngsters, as perfectionist tendencies have been linked to a wide range of clinical issues such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders and many more.
According to David Burns, an adjunct professor emeritus in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences in the US, a perfectionist will display the following five character traits: procrastination, fear of failure, the all or nothing mindset, paralysed perfectionism ( trick your mind plays on you in an attempt to keep you safe. Whenever you are about to put a piece of yourself into the world, you form an idea of it in your mind first) and being a workaholic. Perfectionism unpacked in that way is no longer appealing as the root of much dissatisfaction and burnout.
Perfection and indeed perfectionism are very controversial concepts and even more so for Christians. Matthew 5:48 which reads “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” is particularly challenging and at the root of much disillusionment when read with a twenty first century mindset. Christians scholars have longed warned about plucking out single bible verses from the Bible ignoring historical context. Similarly, failure to apply semantic understanding can also be detrimental to biblical interpretation. Theologians who took time to dig into this verse have come to the same conclusion, that the translation of the word ‘teleios’ in Greek for the word ‘perfect’ in English falls short to give the original meaning of the text its true sense. This translation is also prone to have been influenced by an earlier translation of the original Greek text into latin as ‘perfectus’. When Jesus says ‘be perfect’ here, He hinted at perfection in the sense of the character of God. What is meant here is love as God loves, or be complete or mature, in the way God is, hence ultimately hinting at wholeness and integrity rather than perfection in the way we understand it today and when applied indiscriminately to all areas of our lives.
The truth is, God does not require us to be perfect, but to give our best, to love unconditionally and do things wholeheartedly, that is perfection in His kingdom. Not more, not less.