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Discern To Learn

  • Writer's pictureTheresa Peters

Perfectionism: Fear in Really Good Shoes

Updated: May 6

The lie that cripples us and our students

Perfectionism: The lie that cripples

How many times have you heard it? "Yeah, I'm a bit of a perfectionist."

Our culture revels in this ideal of perfectionism; it is no wonder so many are secretly struggling and quietly dying inside. The real truth is that we will never ever be perfect. We cannot be perfect, and deep down we know that. Our knowledge of imperfection brings us shame and a fear that we will not be loved, accepted, or cared for in our flawed state.

Enter the garden of Eden. Absolute perfection. This is what we are made for. Is it any wonder that after Adam and Eve sinned that they hid themselves from God? They knew there were consequences for their actions and feared He would no longer want them - no longer want to interact with them. Their fears were not unjustified. God is utterly holy. He could no longer walk with them the way He did. But His Love - His Love Never Stopped. He made a very personally costly way to be in union with us again.

Our fears are not unjustified either. We are sinful. We are imperfect. People will disappoint, taunt, bully, and shame. We will be hurt, and we will hurt others. We are so flawed, and we can never be good enough on our own. These feelings of inadequacy should lead us to God, but we have taken on the quest of perfection.

Here we are today - a society of perfectionists jockeying for position and completeness both in a spiritual sense (that is wholly an impossible feat in which we are doomed to fail again and again) and in a natural sense where we have impossible standards to meet to raise our self-worth.

Where does this leave the accomplishment of goals and dreams? As a mentor of students grades 6-12, I work tirelessly to show them they can reach their goals, they can improve themselves, they can change the condition of their futures.

Does submitting to God's will and direction, giving thanks in all things, and daily taking up our cross invalidate personal dreams and goals? Are we naught but dust and sinners?

Yes, sinners in need of a God of grace and then we become sons/daughters and heirs meant to plow and till (Gen. 2, 3; Prov. 14:23), use our possessions and skills (Matt. 25:14-30), and be women (and men) working "with eager hands" and providing well for our families (Prov. 31). God is a being of dreams, and without vision we fail (Prov. 29:18).

Perfectionism then, is a devastating lie that we believe. The lie, that although we are forgiven, our actions must still be always flawless for us to be loved and accepted. It is the lie that, though God loves us and we are His, we have nothing to offer, no good we can truly accomplish. No matter what we do we will fall short.

"Perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it's just terrified... underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says again and again, 'I am not good enough and I will never be good enough.'" Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

Perfectionism at first blush appears to be helpful. It spurs us on to work harder and achieve great things. The paradox is that, even though perfectionists work harder than anyone, even though they may achieve amazing feats, even though others admire them... they live with an inner critic that tells them they haven't done enough. It destroys their ability to enjoy the beauty and life God has provided.

What does perfectionism look like? When a perfectionist looks at their life they:

🚩 check how far they must yet go to be complete or perfect

🚩 say "Yes I did, but (others have done more, that's just the minimum, I could have done more...)

🚩 focus on what is not working

🚩 fear mistakes

🚩 are threatened by the success of others.

"Perfectionism helped me get straight A's all through school, helped me get into Harvard, helped me graduate from med school with honors... but she was also there to tell me that each of these accomplishments was not sufficient, that I should try harder, do more, be better. When I had achieved something difficult and was enjoying my success, she was there to whisper in my ear, 'Not good enough... set your sights higher.'" The Curse of Perfectionism, by Elena Miller

The Spin Cycle of Perfectionism

The spin cycle of perfectionism
(graphic credit:  )

Perfectionists have Impossible Unwavering Rules to Achieve

Have you thought or felt these things yourself? 😭 "I'll be happy when...," but then we get there it just isn't enough?

😭 "People should be like me - if I can do it so can they - no excuses!" and you're frustrated because others don't follow your code

😭 "I can achieve anything I set my mind to" Maybe you can do most things, but is it worth the cost? and the truth is there are personal limits!

😭 "People will accept/love me when I get this right," but it never seems to be enough to feel worthy

The Task and Result

Then comes the test! Let's use a student's assignment as an example for this. There is a task that must be done. There are only 3 possible results:

➡️ Complete the task and meet the standards / expectations. Many students are in this category. They follow the instructions and do the assignment reasonably well (to my expectations), but they feel they have fallen short because the grade is not perfect, or there is feedback for improvement. They lose confidence because they see this as failure to be perfect!

➡️ Complete the task but fall short of the standards / expectations Some students need help, but don't ask. They press on doggedly determined to do it all on their own. They invest perhaps too much time, and the result is that they are discouraged with the results of their efforts. Again they lose confidence. Their need to be perfect on their own without help has blocked their way to meeting the expectations

➡️ Freeze completely and avoid the task I see students do this all the time. They procrastinate. The pressure builds, and they feel more and more that they cannot even start the assignment. Many do not even open it! The feelings of potential failure are so great they cannot move forward at all. If they do not feel equipped to do it perfectly the first time, they feel they cannot do it at all.

Each of these scenarios leads to further loss of confidence! How do we turn this ship around?

Enter the Optimalist Attitude

The optimalist is not the opposite of the perfectionist. They have big dreams and care very much to succeed, as the perfectionist does. The difference is how they look at the world.

The Optimalist Sees Life as an Opportunity and

🚀 says "I'm not there yet, but look how far I've come!"

🚀 looks at failings and says "No it's not perfect, but..."

🚀 evaluates the process and looks for what worked

🚀 sees mistakes or failings as proof that they are trying and an opportunity to learn

🚀 finds inspiration in others who are succeeding in life

How to Develop the Optimalist in Our Students

  1. Actively engage thinking and replace rigid standards with flexible ones Students will be able to be open and honest with mentors or parents who are trusted. this is key, since the student needs to be able to engage in open and honest dialog. By interacting closely with students, a mentor/parent will be able to discover the lies or long-held beliefs that are the underpinning of this failure cycle. They can help students to identify what they are feeling and thinking about themselves (because many of us have no idea!) and be able to consciously practice replacing those core beliefs about self, God, and others.

  2. Teach priorities When students learn to prioritize things in their lives, they will begin to understand that perfection in everything is impossible. They must consciously budget their time, energy and emotions!

  3. Work together to set realistic goals Setting first small goals, then larger ones that are realistic and measurable will help our students to see that they can achieve success when they measure it by a fair standard.

  4. Evaluation and celebration Setting aside a regular time and space in life to evaluate outcomes and personal responses consciously is vital in this process. This is the mechanism by which we can know when we have succeeded and the time to catch those determined inner beliefs and challenge them again! It allows a space for celebration of wins and to reframe what feels like a loss.

That's a lot of work! What if We Just Don't Bother?

That is always an option. After all, many of us have lived our whole lives chasing this, and we may even believe it has helped us in our lives. We may believe that if we weren't chasing this dream of constant perfection we would revert to laziness and achieve nothing! So what are the costs of perfectionism? The American Psychological Association published a press release in 2018 that shows an individual's perceived pressure to be conform to a standard of perfection has risen by 10% between 1989 and 2016, and perceived socially prescribed perfectionism has risen by 33%! The shock is that, although the number of high school seniors expecting to earn a college degree in 2008 was 80% higher than in 1976, the actual numbers of students completing those degrees has not nearly kept pace. Students have been encouraged to pit themselves against others in post secondary institutions to climb a merit-based ladder that rewards grades over growth. We have generations of students failing to meet their overly high expectations. It is no wonder then that anxiety, depression, anorexia, bulimia, suicidal ideations and self-harm have raised sharply over the same period.

Perhaps you're not concerned about a college or university degree. That's no problem, but your student will still need the confidence to go out into the marketplace and make a way for themselves. Their self-worth and belief that they can fight through, grow, and succeed is paramount to their personal success. Perfectionism sets them up for failure every single time. Optimalism sets them up to grow and move with confidence into adulthood. The choice is easy. The path is hard.

“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” Theodore Roosevelt

Are you struggling with this? Is your student? Would you like to talk more about how to move to an optimalist view? Please contact me at I am, above all, a mentor. I want to build relationships with you and help you on your way with your student. If you are interested in grade 6-12 language arts or essay writing programs that include mindset and self-management skills that is also available. Just click "home," and you can check that out or shoot me an email.

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