About three years ago I burned out. I went from being keen to do the best possible work in every facet of my job, to suddenly adopting an I-just-don’t-care-anymore attitude. It wasn’t a matter of choosing not to care anymore, instead it felt as if I’d lost the emotional strength to do so.
I started coming in to work late, spending stretches of time staring past my computer screen, and doing only the simplest and the most essential tasks required of me. I realized I could no longer ignore the problem when I burst into tears in response to a co-worker asking me how I was doing.
Needless to say I wasn’t doing well. I ended up leaving my job.
Over the course of the next year I experienced an extended period of depression and a few panic attacks. During the second attack I thought I was either losing my mind or about to die. This scare eventually led to me seeing a psychologist.
During this time it became clearer to me that my burnout experience had not come out of nowhere. In the months leading up to it I had been feeling increasingly overwhelmed with my workload. I wasn’t coping well but I was convinced that my co-workers were doing at least as much work as I was, so I told myself I should be able to handle it too.
In hindsight, I can see a number of factors at work here, but I believe that one of biggest factors that pushed me to the point of burnout was perfectionism.
I have a very helpful book on the topic called "Perfecting Ourselves to Death." The author, a psychiatrist and theology professor, defines perfectionism as “the desire to be unblemished and faultless in some or all areas of life” (Winter, 2005, p. 24).
There are different perspectives on whether perfectionism is inherently dysfunctional or whether there are less extreme forms that are healthy and constructive, but at any rate there seems to be agreement that being a conscientious person (wanting to do things well) is positive and healthy, whereas the type or degree of perfectionism characterised by unrealistically high standards is very problematic. In fact perfectionism is closely linked to depression, burnout, eating disorders, anxiety, OCPD and OCD.
I’ve struggled chronically with perfectionism so I know a few things about unrealistically high standards. They are typically framed with words like “I should”, “I have to” and “I need to”:
- I need to have a clean home before I have anyone over.
- I should be able to handle working full-time like everybody else.
- I have to set aside time for prayer and Bible reading every day, no matter what.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to have a clean house, work full-time or establish a daily prayer routine, of course. But perfectionism can turn these desires into all-or-nothing rules that dictate a person’s sense of self-worth and can damage the way he/she relates to God and to others.
Perfectionism and Self-Worth
One of the problems with setting unrealistically high and rigid standards is that failure is almost inevitable. When a person’s sense of self-worth is wrapped up entirely in achieving these standards, the failure to meet them over and over again can convince a person that they are worthless.
On the other hand, even attaining unrealistically high standards can be destructive, as is evident in the case of eating disorders. It’s easy for girls growing up in a culture steeped in media images of airbrushed women to internalize the idea that there is a very limited range of acceptable shapes and sizes for a woman’s body, while anything falling outside of this range is ridiculed, shamed and considered simply not good enough.
Perfectionism and Relating to God and Others
Often feeling “not good enough” is sufficient in itself to drive us away from the people we love.
For instance, if I believe strongly that I can only have friends and family over when my house is impeccably clean, it’s likely that I’ll rarely invite guests to my home. And if I also believe that I need to host my friends as often as they host me, I might start isolating myself from others altogether. I might have a hard time even thinking about these friends and family members without feeling anxious.
Conversely, the same perfectionism that convinces me I’m not good enough also tricks me into thinking I’m better than everyone else, and the strict rules that I hold myself to tend to overflow into criticisms of others and the desire to control the people around me.
Similarly, perfectionism can wreak havoc on a person’s relationship with God. Perfectionism will say: “if you aren’t good enough to meet your own standards how could you possibly be good enough to meet God’s standards?” While it’s true that none of us are good enough for God, and we can’t make ourselves good enough, it’s a lie that we need to earn God’s acceptance!
If you’ve grown up under the heavy criticism of others, as many perfectionists have, you will probably have a hard time imagining a God who is compassionate and one who loves you and wants to partner with you in his work regardless of how many times, and how “unforgivably”, you’ve sinned.
If you can’t believe in God’s compassion and grace, it’s also easy to become prideful, believing that you can and must control God’s love for you by doing the things you believe he requires of you.
Perfectionism and Grace
I’m still struggling with perfectionism (as I’m painfully reminded in the process of writing and editing this blog post). I know I can’t overcome perfectionism on my own, through my own rules and steps and striving, and I certainly can’t overcome perfectionism by telling myself I shouldn’t be a perfectionist.
But there are a few things that have been helpful to me, such as seeing a mental health professional, reading up on perfectionism (as well as anxiety and depression), and also recognizing the importance of having compassion for myself. Finally though, when I’m struggling against a storm of self-contempt and pride, what brings me peace like nothing else can, is to enter into God’s presence as I am (not because I’m good enough, but because He has overcome my sin), knowing full well how messed up I am, what a failure I am, and how prideful I am. Because in his presence He always reminds me how much He loves me, and He calms my bewildered mind.
References: Winter, R. (2005). Perfecting Ourselves to Death: The Pursuit of Excellence and the Perils of Perfectionism. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.