How I discovered that perfectionism opposed my faith
Whenever someone asks me “How have you been?”, I’ve become predisposed to replying “Busy, tired,” as if I had prepared an envelope at the tip of my tongue, waiting to be delivered. I recently came to the realisation that this recurring response is grounded in a perfectionist mindset to “do everything better.” I spend copious amounts of time just to ensure that everything is put precisely in place, in which I am willing to sacrifice anything that stands in its way. Absolute ideals are set, and no allowance is given for grey areas.
One might lay the blame on Singapore’s meritocratic society, where everyone is afforded “equal opportunity,” thus the need to place your hand on the plough and toiltoiltoil. Or we could blame it on us being raised in Asia, where success is often a narrow, high road.
There is always the alluring illusion of being able to accomplish it all, paraded by people around me who seem able to do that — scholarship recipients living the life in London with a red carpet in the office awaiting to be unfurled back home; suave high-flyers with immaculately furnished homes and well-mannered families. A vision of a well-strung life drives this perfectionism, hence it is hardly surprising that terms such as “Asian F” and “Tiger Mum” have crawled into our vocabulary.
However, what lies underneath this shiny veneer is a cold, brittle place. I’m my harshest critic, hyper-critical of any mistake made, even when the mushroom soup for lunch is a tad too salty. When things do not pan out according to expectations, I pore (unnecessarily) over the outcome, as if nursing an invisible bruise. I stop dreaming of new places to discover and of new relationships to foster, for all I can think about is escaping out of this impervious exhaustion or soothing that stiff shoulder. This perfectionism is not only a lifestyle, but an addiction.
As I ruminated over this addiction that ran through the length of my veins, I grew in conviction that it counterposes my faith — its principles are easily disjoint from my Father’s values.
Perfectionism is built on self-reliance.
In striving to better myself in every single arena of life, it was all too easy to depend upon myself rather than on God. I was so blinded in needing to reach the goal, that I got my tactics all wrong; He has called me into a symbiotic partnership, where “apart from [Him I] can do nothing” (John 15:5). I had looked to myself in the drawing of resources, elevating myself into a league beyond my finite frame and fallibility.
In Isaiah 14:13–14, it reveals Satan’s plan from the onset: “I will ascend to heaven and set my throne above God’s stars. I will preside on the mountain of the gods far away in the north. I will climb to the highest heavens and be like the Most High.” I believe that the spirit of perfectionism avows the same intention, for we shove God to the sidelines, and assume that we are captain of our own lives.
Fear runs riot in perfectionism.
Perfectionists tend to be defensive towards criticism, and the fear of failure is always at hand. The shadowy back alleys of our minds teem with incessant questions like “What if this does not work out the way I want it to? What if I fall short of his expectations? What if I fail this person?” It is practically impossible to pursue perfectionism without desiring to attain affirmation from the world. Our lives run counter to Colossians 3:23, as we verge on working for people rather than for the Lord.
Perfectionism never fails to leave us afraid, for its imposing voice reverberates in our mind like a deep-sounding bell in a mossy well. This new identity replaces our sonship or daughterhood — the ironclad knowledge that you’re greatly blessed, highly favoured, and deeply loved is substituted for panic and insecurity.
Perfectionists are perpetually discontented.
The goals set by a perfectionist are impossible to grasp, for it is a moving target — there is always something better to strive towards. This only leaves us in an unceasing state of vexation, as we are never satisfied. Carrots are continuously dangled, enticing us to hop even when our limbs are chapped and chafed. We are so manic in the pursuit of our lofty ideals, such that we burn ourselves out, leaving us in a cold hearth full of cinders.
In Philippians 4:11–12, Paul shares that he has “learnt how to be content with whatever [he has],” illustrating that in this life, we have to learn how contentment can be nestled snugly in our soul. Christ should be our sole satisfaction for He is “the living bread” (John 6:51), and this manifests when we hold steadfastly onto the truth that “in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). Our present accomplishments will eventually be forgotten and our trophies will rust, so let our contentment never be contingent on things that magnify our transient glory days.
Perfectionism = Gracelessness
The most shocking revelation when it came to a life thronged in perfectionism was how I found it exceedingly difficult to give grace to others. As much as I prowled after high standards, I prescribed the same expectations on whoever I worked with. I became unreasonably impatient as a critical voice loomed large like a hawk in my mind; I just did not care enough for the people at my side.
It still rattles me to think that I had nonchalantly forgotten that I myself have been lavished with such bewildering grace when Christ borrowed the grave for me. My heart had obliterated the reality that I have not only been given a second chance, but countless chances such that I could use them continually and never come up empty. Perfectionism had choked the gospel out of my life, leaving it putrid like an abandoned landfill.
One day, I’ll stand before God and account for my life, and in no way do I want to be known for my perfectionism, as it would only mean that I had inhabited a cold, heartless existence. The tectonic plates of my life started to shift when I came to the understanding that this life has never been about reaching perfection; it is more about learning how to see my broken life perfectly, that Christ is actively working through the imperfections, carefully arranging the shattered pieces into a timeless mosaic. The closest way I’m going to get it all right in this life is to allow Him to be the Vine, and professing that I am merely the branches (John 15:5).
May you renounce perfectionism from your life like the expulsion of vomit. Your hunger for perfection shall wane when you realise that you’re made fuller by the Bread of Life — Christ is your sole sufficiency. May you ever choose to eat at His table rather than scavenge for something seemingly better.