Give Your Best and Let God Do the Rest : Avoid the Pitfalls of Perfectionism
If you’re an educator, you might be a little obsessed with doing things right. Wanting to do things well is a good thing. In fact, doing our best is Biblical (Colossians 3:17, 23). However, speaking from experience, when “doing our best” morphs into perfectionism, we might find ourselves looking up from a deep, dark pit. Before delving into a couple of pitfalls, it might be wise to clarify the meaning of perfectionism.
Merriam-Webster defines perfectionism as a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable. Cambridge Dictionary describes perfectionism as the wish for everything to be correct or perfect. Dictionary.com states perfectionism is a personal standard, attitude, or philosophy that demands perfection and rejects anything else.
These definitions definitely lean toward the extreme, and they portray perfectionism as less than desirable. However, I don’t think it is always that obvious. Sliding between a healthy striving and perfectionism can be a bit subtle. Sometimes it is hard to navigate the middle ground between high performance and damaging overachievement. Being able to recognize warning signs indicating perfectionism is the first step to avoiding pitfalls.
Early in my career, I worked in gifted education. Back then we wrote Individual Education Plans for each student. This process opened a window into a student’s world and gave me an opportunity to help them learn academically and grow emotionally. I distinctly remember one young lady who struggled with perfectionism. She was so bright but resisted change. She never wanted to push herself or try anything new for fear of failure. Although she didn’t realize it, her self-worth was wrapped up in her “label.” She aimed to please and was paralyzed by the thought of failure. It was heartbreaking to see the pressure she placed on herself at such a young age.
I wonder how many adults experience something similar. I know for sure there have been times when God prompted me to say or do something and I froze for fear that I wouldn’t get it right. My need to do it perfectly clouded my faith in God. I know better. I know God always equips those He calls, but I didn’t want to make a mistake. So, I just didn’t try. I have learned when God calls us to action, we need to guard against over-analysis and fear. Otherwise, we may succumb to the first pitfall of perfectionism: immobilization.
Immobilization is not the only pitfall associated with perfectionism. I suspect we have all heard the following statement: “I will do it; that way I know it will get done right.” If we are honest, we probably all have said this a time or two in our lifetimes. There may be times when the statement is appropriate, but this mindset could easily cause us to have a haughty spirit. Pride can set in and we can become a “Lone Ranger” Christian, acting as if we don’t really need God or anyone else to be successful. If we are not cautious, we can work ourselves to death and allow our self-worth to be wrapped up in our accomplishments.
I have been here, too. My daughters have informed me I am Enneagram 1. I have taken several tests (not sure how reliable they are), but so far my daughters seem to be right. Apparently, an Enneagram 1 is called the Reformer; it was previously labeled the Perfectionist. It is my understanding that they changed the name because of the negative connotations associated with the term Perfectionist. As many of you know, each personality on the Enneagram scale has strengths and weaknesses. People like me, which often includes many teachers, value high standards and are advocates for improvement. However, patience eludes us, and we often find ourselves working alone to efficiently complete tasks and avoid criticism. This is another potential pitfall of perfectionism: Isolationism.
Is it wrong to desire perfection? To have high expectations? To work hard? To strive to do our best? Absolutely not! Many would argue a certain level of perfectionism is not only healthy but necessary. Healthy perfectionism helps us do our best, but unhealthy perfectionism can steal our joy and leave us striving to be good enough all over again. If you catch yourself worried about taking healthy risks, overly concerned about what others think, caught in a cycle of over-analyzing, or hyper-sensitive to constructive criticism, you might just be experiencing one of the pitfalls of perfectionism.
Identifying warning signs is a good first step, but how do we pursue a healthy striving and at the same time protect ourselves from becoming immobilized and isolated (regardless of our Enneagram number)? How do we avoid the pitfalls of perfectionism?
As I sought to answer this question, I was reminded of individuals in Scripture who by all accounts could have easily been paralyzed by perfectionism. For example, consider the person Esther. She was a beautiful, young woman who was selected from among many such women to marry the king. Despite the pressures and cultural expectations, she stood for her people knowing it could cost her life. She was not immobilized but took action. She did not isolate herself but gathered many others to fast and pray with her (Esther 1-9).
John the Baptist is another person that comes to mind for me. He was a prophet who was revered by many. He drew a great deal of attention to himself; however, he humbly took his place in preparing the way for the Messiah (Matthew 3). John was undoubtedly a man of action. Though he isolated himself at times in his journey, He also engaged as many as he could in sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.
As I reflected on these two examples, I noticed something they shared. Both Esther and John the Baptist did the very best they could and let God do the rest. They stayed focused on their calling and placed their faith in God for the outcome. They weren’t paralyzed by the thought of failure; instead, they were unapologetically obedient to God’s will. They weren’t Lone Rangers but sought to rally others in their calling to honor and glorify God.
We CAN avoid the pitfalls of perfectionism by following their lead. We do our best when we…
obey God’s Word and the prompting of the Holy Spirit by being people of action.
engage others in our spiritual journey by surrounding ourselves with believers who encourage us, challenge us, and hold us accountable.
And most important, we do our best when we…
remember WHO GOD IS!
I will proclaim the name of the Lord; how glorious is our God! He is the Rock; his deeds are perfect. Everything he does is just and fair. He is a faithful God who does no wrong; how just and upright he is! Deuteronomy 32:3-4
There will always be work to do, and many times the tasks will feel overwhelming. The burden of perfectionism will only immobilize and isolate us if we do not take steps to avoid them. God doesn’t expect perfection from us, so we shouldn’t expect it of ourselves either. Let’s just do our best and let God do the rest! He is more than able.
And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. 2 Corinthians 9:8