Aleteia

How to overcome perfectionism

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Is your need to be perfect toxic to your life and those around you?

A woman named Anne recalls this story from her life in 1945 as a five year-old. Overcome with excitement, she ran down the large stairway of the family home to see her father for the first time, after he had been held prisoner in Germany. He looked at his little girl and said: “Put your boot on right, one of the buttons is out.” It illustrates a side of perfectionist behavior: high ideals, a preoccupation with details, difficulty showing love and accepting love.

Trying to do it right … who would complain about that? But the perfectionist is never satisfied until they’ve reached their goal, like the executive who demands an extreme level of work, or the mother who is angry because her children didn’t get an A+ grade average, or the father exhausted from cleaning the whole house after a full day at work. According to psychologist, human relations trainer, and consultant Yves Boulvin, “Wanting to be better, to change, to aspire to do your best is fine, but believing that you can be perfect creates tension and stress. Only God is perfect.” And that is the trap—in choosing perfection as your life’s program.

From a very early age, “some children with anxiety do not finish their homework because it is never good enough,” says Brigitte de Baudus, mother and educator at the Institute of Family Education (IPEF) in France. This tendency is often due to a need to know that you are loved, an unconscious desire to be acknowledged or correspond to a social model. 

When perfectionism becomes a problem for your relationship with God

In a show from the French television channel KTO on moderation, philosopher Chantal Delsol explained: “Everything has a limit, even the best things. We imagine that there is perfection in this world and that by pushing a virtue to its extreme we will attain it, but that does not work in a human world.” If we try to reach perfection here, we risk falling into an accounting logic, like children who do whatever it takes to get a reward, falling into the pride of wanting to control everything. In the spiritual life, this can translate into a question of scruples, points out Brigitte de Baudus: “If, when we examine our conscience, it looks like a catalog, if we only focus on what we have or haven’t done, if we fail to take into consideration the love we put into our actions, then there’s a problem.”

When Jesus orders us to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), He is calling us to holiness, not perfectionism. Comments Yves Boulvin, “It is contrition, the connection to love, that gets you into Heaven, not the fact that you are completely perfect.” The classic example is St. Paul, as Alek Zwitter explains: “He had deep convictions, and was convinced that the faithful execution of his Law would bring him to spiritual perfection. After his conversion, after presenting his imperfection to God, he found an infinite source of inner peace, joy and vital force.” 

Don’t be angry at yourself for not being perfect

Perfectionist behavior is like a machine that we cannot turn off until the program has ended. Fifty-five-year-old Beatrice, aware of the eccentricity she inherited from her grandfather, admits, “I don’t stop to rest until what I’ve done is at the level I am comfortable with for myself. With age, I have softened up a bit, but getting out of this habit takes a whole lifetime.” In fact, perfectionists often suffer burn-out. There is only one answer: realism. It requires knowing yourself and being humble enough to know your limits. Yves Boulvin recalls “I often get women who berate themselves for being angry with their husbands and children. I ask them: “During the day, do you take any time at all for yourself?” Allowing yourself to take time out for yourself, learning to delegate, and pray, are indispensable requirements to be able to disconnect. 

Being aware of other’s expectations allows you to soften certain demands. “I send a report to my boss. According to my criteria, it was barely presentable. But he thought it was excellent. I wasn’t expecting that!” confesses Beatrice. Others rarely measure all the effort it takes to make a good meal, they don’t care about a little dust on the furniture and they prefer to have fun with a child wearing mismatched socks. Perfectionism is particularly hard on the person themselves. Not being able to reach exorbitant objectives, our self-esteem often ends up suffering. Therefore, it is better to apply the wise advice of  St. Francis of Sales: “One of the best exercises in gentleness we can perform is when the subject is ourselves, so that we do not get angry with ourselves nor fret over our own imperfections.”

A prayer to free yourself from perfectionism

While the tendency is to tire yourself out, the perfectionist also tires out others by imposing their perfectionist criteria on them. “One day my kids invented a little song that started with ‘Mom’s stressin’ out, Mom’s goin’ crazy,’ and the song would come back in my head at times when I was super busy. I realized that I was making their lives miserable and I began to give more space for living and doing things on the spur of the moment,” says 47-year-old Felicity. 

On a more serious note, Patricia states: “Perfectionism makes you cold, unpleasant, inaccessible. There is no place for others in perfection.” “Who would want to love a model?” asks father Pierre-Marie. “In order to let yourself be loved, you have to accept the fact that you are not perfect.”

Freeing yourself from perfectionism is a long road that includes self-examination and prayer: 

“Lord, teach me to accept myself as I am!”

According to Brigitte de Baudus, “We never stop saying this, but it is when we are fragile—that’s when the Lord comes.”

Bénédicte de Saint Germain

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