I have to be perfect , I have to get it right, I need to improve myself consistently . I sometimes feel that I am my own worse critic. Where does this idea of perfection come from ? Was it in my upbringing? Was it found in my church ? Was it the pressure I felt by my peers? Do men and women still feel inferior in our society today ? What is the driving force behind this perfectionism?
Since the ‘fall’, in the Garden of Eden, we have been trying to imitate perfection in our lives. Seeking perfection is a part of our God given image (Gen 1:27) and makes us realise that this life, is not the final version. Creation mourns for something better and we can see throughout history, humanity strives to perfect itself to better oneself and benefit society too. But do we take it too far sometimes?
In my household, I grew up as one of the younger siblings. I always looked up to my older sister as the ideal role model. I saw her imitate perfection in my eyes. She always looked good, was athletic, worked hard, wore the right clothes, had her first choice of boyfriends, was model material, had many friends and seemed to convey ‘perfection’ in every aspect of her life. I believed this to be true. I admired every quality of her and could not ever reach her level of perfection. Of course, no one is perfect, everyone has their problems. As a child, my perspective was somewhat distorted and I only saw what I wanted to see. In the film ‘Atonement’, seeing the world through a child’s eyes can be very imaginative and sometimes destructive.
I grew up in a family of teachers; my dad was a headmaster of a secondary school and my mum a language teacher. I even gave teaching a good go myself. During my PGCE year, it gave me an inferiority complex, because I was compared to others, expectations were very high and was often judged and misjudged on my standard of lesson, my style of teaching and my behaviour management. I experienced some major depression during this time, due to the high stress, immense workload and pressure of expectations placed on me. Also, having being brought up in a family of high achievers, this motivated me to achieve highly to be valued. Even when I had my own classes, I would teach my students that they had to work very hard to get any sort of praise from me. Alternatively, they wouldn’t get anything, this would demotivate and frustrate my students. My standards were too high for anyone to attain. This was a major problem, particularly when I found myself working in an ‘all girls’ school where disruptive behaviour and emotional problems were rife. In the end, they disliked like me, my standards were unattainable for them. They were more interested in relationship building, not achieving results.
We all strive for perfection in some form or another, and when we don’t reach that bar, we criticise, blame and sometimes work harder next time to achieve the best we can (well I do!). I know from previous experience of going through many interviews in three years, that after the process, if I was unsuccessful, I would feel completely emotionally drained, run a repeat button in every situation that went ‘wrong’ and torture myself as to why I wasn’t good enough for the job. I would tear myself down and analyse where I could improve for next time. Not a very positive experience for myself or my self esteem.
In The Truman Show, an ‘unwanted baby’ was adopted by a corporation who watched every step of his life, without him knowing. They set up everything about his life including his flawless looking wife. She managed to convey a perfect lifestyle in every way. Why do we do it to ourselves? The mum’s who pretend it is a breeze to bring up a baby and look like they haven’t been affected by this major all-encompassing change. The media who post pictures of the Kate Middleton, beaming and completely at ease with her new baby; what picture does the media paint for us ? The sleepless nights, the dirty nappies, the constant giving, caring and feeding , it’s hard work. The perfect airbrushed picture on Facebook that conveys the mum looking like she has it all together. It makes me feel inadequate and wonder what did I miss here? Alternatively, being authentic with each other about our struggles may be encouraging , responding differently to the ‘How are you?’ and replacing the ‘I’m fine’, with something that opens you up with vulnerability. Where did we get the idea that being anything but perfect is a weakness? Let other’s support you, because we are in this together!
In your everyday lives, are you feeling the need to be liked? Are you always-working extra hard to gain affection and self-worth? Think of the simple story of Mary and Martha, Martha complains the other is not doing enough work, “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one.Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42).
Here we can see that Mary prioritises Jesus first in her life. She understands he was only on earth physically for a short time and carved out time. Perhaps, we can miss the picture when we focus on trying and doing too much, when Jesus really wants our heart and our time. We do not need to be 100 % perfect, Jesus meets us in our mess.
When I am having a bad day, and feel like no one appreciates me, I quickly dive under the covers for a couple of days. When the storm passes, I finally peek out from under the covers, raise my head and work even harder to impress and prove others wrong, until one day I experience burnout. This happened early on this year! I had to completely stop and be more attentive to the Holy Spirit. I wrote a journal and he spoke profoundly to me about many deep hurts. I am a healing process, and God has been showing me the dangers of a critical spirit.
There is nothing wrong in working to achieve, but when it becomes obsessive, its power can be unstoppable. Sometimes, the realisation that I will never gain complete satisfaction and craving in pleasing others and working harder is a revelation. Do I really need to do these things to be accepted? Do I overly criticise myself for not attaining the mark? Why have I put myself down so often? If I accepted compliments more readily, if I was less harsh on the people around me, (they are only human after all) I will accept a different outlook on life and chose to enjoy it a bit more. I also need to be less mean to myself and love myself fully (but without the ego!) and let God love me too. God’s love truly covers all faults. His grace and forgiveness keeps me going, show me compassion and empathy. If our drive is coming from proving others wrong or knowing we can do better, there will never be a limit to our expectations, and it is coming from the wrong heart too. I’ve worked for perfectionists and have realised how highly strung they are, and no one, no matter how many hours you put into work, will ever be good enough for them. This can damage and inhibit relationships at work, in church, in the home between parents and children and drive walls between husband and wives. God is working on me and every day when I see my two daughters, I remember that no matter what, I will love them unconditionally. I will try hard to praise and encourage, even on days I do not feel like it and remember that the Holy spirit enables me to do so in my weakness. Remember that Christ accepts you for who you are, warts and all , forget about the rest, your perfection died on the cross.