I remember a couple I saw in counseling same years ago. Every time she came into my office, she first had to pick up any lint that might be on the floor or on the couch, then she had to arrange the pillows, and only after everything was perfect would she then sit down. Her husband just rolled his eyes as I asked her if she was uncomfortable with anything else in the office. She was a self-admitted perfectionist.
Her husband later commented that he often felt criticized by his wife, sometimes verbally, and sometimes just because she had to do over what he had just done–and she would do it perfectly this time. As we talked about her perfectionism and his feeling constantly criticized, she brought up the fact that every time he offered to help her do something, she was the one who took it as criticism. It felt to her as if she she needed help it meant she couldn’t do it right on her own.
Not everyone is as thorough a perfectionist as this lady was. Most of us have what are called “pockets” of perfectionism. There is a part of our life where we struggle with being perfect. Rather than a consistent pattern of perfectionism, we only struggle with that issue is some specific part of our lives.
I always thought I wasn’t a perfectionist in any way shape or form. That was until a publisher asked me to write a book on perfectionism. I was two years late in turning in the manuscript. I was convinced that since perfectionists would be reading the book, it had to be perfect. Finally, I reluctantly turned in a less-than-perfect manuscript. I was surprised at how many perfectionists were helped by it? (The book is out of print, but can be found at places like www.alibris.com. It is titled either Hope for the Perfectionist, or Living with a Perfectionist.)
Most of us who are at least the owners of a pocket of perfectionism developed that behavior out of a fear of criticism. We believe that if in some vulnerable part of our life, we could achieve perfection, we would escape the judgment of the critics. Sometimes the most severe critic is ourselves. I remember one man who made beautiful furniture in his wood shop. But there was always a flaw, and that was all he could see in the finished product. Eventually he stopped making anything and simply spent time polishing his unused tools to perfection.
For Christians, perfectionism can sometimes be a spiritual issue. We may struggle with that verse in Matthew 5:8, which says “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” To many, this seems like a command to be a perfectionist. But the word translated “perfect” really has the meaning of “being complete.”
I’m told that the Moroccan rug makers purposely weave into their magnificent carpets a flaw. They do this out of the belief that if something they made were perfect, it would be blasphemy. Only God is perfect, nothing else can be! If only my friend the furniture maker could have purposely made a flaw he might have accepted the flaw as necessary.
In the future, we will talk about the characteristics of perfectionism, and how to break the cycle. Think for a minute–where are your “pockets of perfectionism?”