(This post is part of the Practice Makes Imperfect Series: Click here to learn more)
If you had to draw a symbol for perfectionism, what would it be? (I know, this sounds like a weird assignment from your eleventh-grade psychology class, but play along with me for a minute, okay?) What image would perfectly capture that relentless inner drive to make everything “just right”?
Here’s the picture I would choose: A simple arrow, pointing forward.
In my experience, perfectionism has always tugged my attention forward. Like a rapid, steady cadence, when I fall into rhythms of perfectionism I start marching forward in double time. Always planning the next thing. Always wondering what more I could be achieving. Always, noticing something I should be doing better.
Can you relate?
It’s not all bad to think ahead, of course: I’m a big advocate for pulling out the weekly calendar and planning out my appointments and to-dos. (My kids like it too: It’s the reason they have meals to eat and they don’t get left at school–at least most of the time!)
The problem comes when we’re only thinking forward. When our hearts get stuck on forward motion, we inevitably run into perfectionism’s best friend—anxiety. Because despite all our exhausting efforts to keep those proverbial ducks lined up in a row, we can’t ultimately control them. We just keep struggling with the ones that wander out of line.
A Different Direction
If anyone had a reason to obsess about the future, I think King David would qualify. Though he’d been promised a career as Israel’s king, he spent years being chased through the wilderness by a madman. Even when he finally achieved the throne, his journey took some far-from-perfect turns. From adultery to family drama to political betrayals, he had plenty of reasons to look forward with anxiety.
Amidst all these ups and downs, David created many of the Psalms. In them, he describes the anxiety and despair that nipped at his heels. He often wrote with a concern about his future—begging God for help to fight both the physical and spiritual enemies of his soul.
But David didn’t only look forward: he also reflected on the past. “I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago . . .” (Psalm 77:11). “. . . I will tell of all your wonders.” (Psalm 9:1) Time and again, even as he poured out his fears about the future, David also looked back and remembered God’s faithfulness and love.
David lived a far-from-perfect life, but he garnered the title “a man after God’s own heart.” You know what this tells us, dear perfectionistic friends? We don’t have to constantly move forward to prove our worth to God. We don’t have to get it all perfect in order to have a holy heart. If we will only pause on occasion to look back, we’ll discover the same thing David did: God already loves us–and He’s been faithfully loving us through every up and down of our lives.
Yes, forward thinking can help us move things along and accomplish our God-given purposes. And for us perfectionists, it’s second nature. The skill we need to cultivate? Looking back.
Clutter of the Heart
A couple years ago, I went through a season of “looking back” while my family prepared for a move. The small house we lived in had some unfinished storage space in the basement—and we’d filled it to the brim during the decade we lived there. Weeks before we started house-hunting, I set to work sorting through the mess.
Some boxes opened to reveal treasured memories: Favorite baby clothes and toys from my kids’ younger days. Pictures from our earliest years of marriage. Long-forgotten mementos from old jobs, past events, and even our high school years. Each one a little arrow pointing back to God’s goodness and providence in our lives. Other items reminded me of harder days: Old medical records from our struggle through infertility, the pile of paperwork we’d had to accumulate as part of our adoption process. More arrows pointing back to God’s faithfulness, even through the challenges.
And still other items just made me roll my eyes in laughter as I chucked them into the donation pile. Why in the world did I save that old step aerobics video? (And where would I find a VCR to use it?) And why exactly had I kept every single sippy cup and baby spoon my kids had used? (I have a slight problem with the idea of saving things “for the grandkids someday.”)
It took hours of perusing and sorting to get through all those storage shelves. In the end, I had the useful and valuable items neatly labeled and packed. And on the other side of the room? A pile of items that weren’t useful anymore.
In recent months, I’ve begun a similar process of remembering and sorting and organizing—but it’s got nothing to do with basement storage. Instead, I’m learning how to look through the things that have accumulated in my heart and mind. As one who sways toward perfectionism, it’s easy for me to spend time attending to the outer details of my life. The everyday schedule, tasks, activities. The rituals and activities that will earn approval from my community. And then I’m doused with conviction by God’s Word:
“People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). How tempting it is to prioritize all the outward things, instead of really taking time to examine the condition of my heart!
“Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God?” (Gal. 1:10). I know I shouldn’t care so much what people think, but oh how easy it is to just do what will make others admire me instead of listening for God’s call!
Do these battles sound familiar, friend?
Boxes full of thoughts and feelings, memories and motives, build up inside of us throughout our lives. Whether we examine them or not, these things will shape us—for good or for ill. God invites us to pay attention to what’s going on inside our hearts so that they can be shaped more like his own.
He longs to help us root out the clutter of perfectionism and hold on to the treasures of grace.
In the book, What Does Your Soul Love? Alan and Gem Fadling write brilliantly about this process of self-examination, and how it can transform us into people of peace and purpose, even amidst the hustle of everyday life. “The outer circumstances of our lives may continue to be busy, but we do have a say about our inner lives. And that is where hurry resides.” (loc 2420, Kindle version.)
We have a say, friends: Will we accept God’s invitation to slow down, look back, and work through the clutter in our hearts? Or are we too busy trying to live the “perfect, Christian life?” It’s ironic, really, how the drill sergeant of perfectionism actually keeps us hustling toward spiritual mediocrity.
God’s just looking for the messy progress of a heart that beats like his.
Two Questions A Week
So what does this look like on a practical level? How does one actually work self-examination into everyday life? (Yes, I know you, my dear perfectionistic friend. You want a plan, right?) Here’s a simple, weekly practice to help you sort through the debris in your heart. Find ten or fifteen minutes in your week to ask yourself these two questions: 1.) What gave you joy today? and 2.) What made you feel fear or despair? You might find it helpful to jot down a few thoughts in a journal that you can look back on from week-to-week.
(And don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t happen every. single. week. Maybe start with once a month. Or commit to once a quarter. Progress, not perfection, remember?)
1. What gave you joy this week?
It’s so easy to plod through a day without ever pausing to notice the quiet, little ways God blesses us. A delicious meal. A beautiful sunset. A moment of complete and utter ridiculousness enjoyed with your son. Take a moment to look back and appreciate these “little” gifts. Notice what they tell you about the things you really treasure and enjoy. Notice how God is faithful to provide.
As you start paying more attention to this question in your life, you might be surprised by what you learn about yourself. It might be that some of the things you turn to for comfort actually lead to less peace rather than more. You may find that some incredibly hard and difficult things actually give you an underlying sense of joy. (For example, I find tutoring a moody fifth-grade daughter through her math homework every night very frustrating and unpleasant! But underneath the surface frustrations, it’s giving me joy to work beside her through her struggles and help her succeed in school.)
I love how God uses this question to help us better understand ourselves Those things that give you joy and peace? They point toward the passions and purposes God wrote on your heart. They help us make better decisions about what to prioritize (the things that give you peace and joy!) and what might just be adding “noise” to your days.
2. What made you feel fear or despair this week?
Fear makes an inevitable appearance in every life. When health fails or we hear threatening news stories, it’s natural to feel afraid. And pride can stir up a dust cloud of fear in our everyday thoughts, too: Fear of what others think. Fear of failure. Fear of making mistakes. All too often, these fears operate on auto-pilot, quietly running the show without us even realizing how they’re driving our actions. Pay attention to how fear is showing up in your days. Pay attention to the places where you’re struggling to trust things to God.
And then there’s despair—“a loss of hope” as the dictionary defines it. What moments throughout your day led your spirits to sink—what made you feel defeated, or hopeless, or alone? Perhaps it was a conversation that unsettled you, or you lost your temper with your spouse. Perhaps it’s simply negative thoughts that kept cycling through your mind.
Sometimes, you just have a bad day: Like the weather, our emotions can grow stormy from time to time. But as you note the moments of despair in your days, you might begin to notice patterns. God might be inviting you to do some heart work, to let go:
- maybe it’s ministry or work God’s inviting you to let go of, to make room for something new
- maybe it’s a struggle with anxiety or depression that God’s inviting you to let go of by talking to a counselor or good friend
- maybe it’s a relationship that needs distance because it’s pulling you into unhealthy directions
- maybe it’s a situation (or person) you’ve been trying to control and God’s inviting you to trust it to Him, even if the outcome isn’t your ideal.
Whatever God might be nudging you to let go of, remember that He doesn’t do so in condemnation or judgment. “If you are hearing judgment or condemnation it might be good to discern whose voice that is. Maybe it’s an old inner recording of one of your parents, your own inner critic, or it might even be the enemy of your soul” (What Does Your Soul Love, loc. 2474). I find that true conviction from God’s Spirit may include a sense of guilt for a time, but not lasting despair or fear. Be gentle with yourselves, friends, for God is gentle with you: True conviction tends to come with a sense of hope, joy even, as the Spirit assures you that “I love you, and it might be really hard, but I want to work on this together.”
Living from the Holy Place
In the end, of course, we always end up moving forward, don’t we? But as you learn to “listen” to your life with these questions, I hope it changes how you move forward. Forward into God’s grace, God’s plans, and God’s heart—rather than those exhausting efforts to pursue your own perfection. I hope these questions guide you toward more of the lasting peace we experience from God’s presence, rather than the short-term satisfaction of checking off another to-do.
Frederich Buechner shared his own quest toward this Godward life with these beautiful words: “We have a holy place within us that gets messed up in a million ways. But it’s there, and more and more I find myself turning inward toward that and learning how to be quiet . . . to let whatever is down in the holy place drift up.” (The Remarkable Ordinary, p. 13).
In the end, that might be the truest cure for perfectionism: Not looking forward, or back. But looking right beside you. And learning to remember the incredible truth of every moment: God is right there with you, working through them all. –
This post was part of the Practice Makes Imperfect Series: Click here to learn more