Friday, May 25, 2012

Perfectionism's Lies

The thing about Perfectionism is that it often walks and talks like Hard Work. It's adept at dressing up in the clothes that pass it off for a well-meaning, diligent character who only wants what's best for our lives. But the lie of Perfectionism is that it's never fulfilled--like a bucket with a hole in the bottom, so that we pour endless amounts of water into the thing, only to find that the level never rises above a certain point.

Here are five ways I've seen Perfectionism masquerade as a variety of other things--five lies that identify Perfectionism for what it is, along with some ideas on how we can call out these lies with a very loud, silver-ish whistle and a bag of carmelized popcorn (used for throwing, hard, at Perfectionism when he appears, of course):

1. RESULTS: Perfectionism's entire livelihood is built on the result of some project, dream, vision, or endeavor. Where Hard Work is concerned with the actual doing of something, Perfectionism only considers the action-part as a useless requirement in order to get to the result, the outcome. Perfectionism therefore holds the vision of a prize, an achievement, an award as real success and accomplishment, and leaves the fallible, day-to-day work undone. Perfectionism is concerned with glory, where Hard Work is concerned with journey.

2. GROWTH: Perfectionism will often try to convince us that it's only concerned with growth. Improvement is all we're talking about, after all, right!? I remember a student I had once who earned a 94 on her essay. I was so proud of her. I wrote loads of encouraging and congratulatory comments on her paper, as a 94 was a strong showing on a challenging essay assignment. But her reaction was only, "How can I get a 100 next time?" Perfectionism never allows us to enjoy what we have done because it's always screaming at us that we need to do better the next time. It pretends that it's about growth, but really it's an insatiable inability to rest or to be proud of the work we do.

3. PROOF: Perfectionism often tries to convince us that if we can manage to follow it obediently, we'll finally know that we are enough. Finally, you'll be able to feel peaceful inside and understand that you're okay! Because you'll have proof--you'll have evidence! But the lie of this costume of Perfectionism is that there will never be enough evidence. The proof that Perfectionism requires lasts for a few fleeting moments, and then we're forced to gather up new proof. What you accomplished yesterday won't stand in court today. And with Perfectionism, we're always on the stand, daily enlisting a trial lawyer to try and prove that we should be free. The tragedy of this is, of course, that there is no actual court case, no judge, no jury. We harbor the critical voices of others and put these messages on replay to construct a courtroom for ourselves, where we can battle over and over a case that has already been won on our behalf. Perfectionism's need for proof can never be fulfilled.

4. ENERGY: Perfectionism tries hard to convince us that it's a source of energy--a way in which we can find motivation to keep on going. In a way, it is, but it's energy is self-sapping and unsustainable. For a while, Perfectionism may feed a drive to accomplish and achieve, but continued despair over its impossibility eventually yields a feeling of claustrophobia. Perfectionism-as-energy puts us into a room and gives us a bag of balloons. Under its guise, we keep blowing up balloons, believing that we're accomplishing something. Finally, we look around ourselves and feel totally overwhelmed. Stuck. We can't even move. The reality is that the forty balloons that keep us locked in place only feel formidable; but they're just air, zero substance. The obstacles that Perfectionism throws in our path can fill a room with what could be held in the palms of our hands--once the hot air is removed.

5. LOVE: This is Perfectionism's most insidious disguise: to masquerade as a form of love. Sometimes parents send this message to children--it's the conditional claim of love: I do love, you, I just want you to be the best you can be... Essentially, such a claim really says, I don't love you, unless, you can achieve... Conditional love isn't, in fact, love. Vocationally, we start to believe that if we achieve enough (and achieve it in the right manner) we'll earn love or somehow possess an ability to love others better. Neither occurs.

In light of Perfectionism's incredible capacity for shape-shifting, what are we to do? I think one response lies in the remarkable power of Grace. Essentially, Grace responds with You don't have to. But the thing about Grace is that it frees us to want to. Some people claim that Grace is cliched because it tells us that we don;t have to work hard or have big dreams or entertain visions for the future. But the reality is that Grace gives us all these, but it allows us to work from a place of desire rather than a place of need. When we're parenting, writing, working, relating to others from a place of freedom, we can actually feel the joy of desire: we can want to grow, love, create beautiful results, forge proof, and sustain energy. If we need these things to happen, they don't. If we try to live from a place of must, then what happens isn't really ever organic--instead, it's always manipulated.

The power of Grace is that, in a world of people who are desperately trying to shove proof of our worth and lovability in front of the eyes of others, God doesn't need it. He doesn't ask for it. God's radical love instead utters a compelling, constant refrain: work from joy, not from shame.

You are no longer on trial. You have nothing to prove--to yourself or anyone else. In freedom, you can choose the work because you love it, not because you need to do it to earn status, belonging, or love. The lies of Perfectionism will relentlessly try to convince you that these can be obtained via its rigorous program. But Grace offers another avenue--still involving hard work, great sacrifice at times--but a way in which the work you do is liberating, not suffocating. Now is the time to pop the balloons that have been filled with the empty words of others and of yourself. Now is the time to embrace the gospel of Grace over the punishment of Perfectionism. There's a whole room--rooms!--in which you'll find you can move, live, and work.