How to Overcome Perfectionism

How to Overcome Perfectionism7 min read

In case you’re naked and you don’t know it, we all miss the mark when it comes to being good.

So, what does this have to do with how to overcome perfectionism?

I used to hold unrealistic, unattainable standards for myself.  When I didn’t reach my ideal, I harshly criticized myself, intent not only on doing better, but getting it right the next time.

I was my worst critic.

This cycle of failure to reach perfection, followed by self-criticism, sometimes spiraled out of control, leading to procrastination–from fear of failing again–and depression–from wondering what must be wrong with me.

Perhaps this describes you, or someone you know.

Good is never good enough.

One More Thing

The Bible tells the story of a religious leader who seemed to suffer from perfectionism (Matthew 19 and Luke 18). In his self assessment, he’d obeyed God’s Ten Commandments since his youth. But, thinking there must be more he should be doing, he approached Jesus with the question:

“What should I do to inherit eternal life?”

Among the popular ideas on how to get to heaven there is one like this: God holds a scale, weighing your good deeds against the bad. If the scale tips in your favor, you’re in. If the bad deeds outweigh the good, you’re out.

Perhaps the religious leader worried that he’d missed a small, but significant detail somewhere in God’s list of deeds that must be done to get through heaven’s pearly gates.

“You know the commandments,” Jesus replied.

And He began listing the commandments this religious leader ought to know: Don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t lie, honor your father and mother.

But listing five of the last six of the Ten Commandments, Jesus stopped short of listing the tenth.

The religious leader replied, “I’ve obeyed these commandments since I was young. What else is there?”

For the perfectionist, there is almost always one more thing.

Jesus knew what it was.

“There is still one thing you haven’t done. Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me,” (Luke 18:22 NLT).

Pretending Not to be Naked

During my summer breaks from college I worked at Big Lake Youth Camp, a summer camp hidden away in Oregon’s Cascade Mountains. Each day of action-packed outdoor activities ended with a dramatic play by the camp staff intended to present a valuable moral lesson. The Emperor’s New Clothes was one of my favorites. It’s perhaps Hans Christian Andersen’s best known story.

The tale told is of a vain emperor who hires two weavers who promise to tailor for him clothes invisible to those who aren’t well suited for their positions, or whose intelligence is a quart or more short of a full gallon. The swindling weavers actually make the emperor no clothes at all. But, full of himself, the emperor parades his imaginary garb before his subjects. (In our summer camp version of the story, our emperor wore long underwear.) He and the onlookers act as if he is fully clad for fear of losing their status, or appearing foolish–all but a little child.

The child, untainted enough by pride to speak the truth as the crowds pretend, cries out,

“But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”

Like the naked emperor, perfectionists persuade themselves to believe a delusion. They believe that perfection is within reach, if only they work harder at it. But in their relentless pursuit of flawlessness, their endeavor to wipe away that last little smudge, they overlook at least one big one.

Knowing this condition would infect His church, in the biblical book of Revelation, Jesus’ friend John received this message for the church at Laodicea, to be delivered to God’s people in the time before the end of this world:

“You say, ‘I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!’ And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked,” (Revelation 3:17).

Whatever your position on personal perfection, we all miss the mark when it comes to being good. There’s always something.

“For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard,” (Romans 3:23 NLT)

The religious leader who met Jesus had a lust to possess things that blinded him to the need to care for people.

He was a good man, but not good enough.

He’d failed to obey the tenth commandment. It was a blemish he couldn’t acknowledge, and he walked away from Jesus unwilling to give it up.

The Cure

Not long after Jesus’ sad meeting with the religious leader, He met Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector who perched himself in sycamore tree to get a glimpse of Jesus as He passed through his neighborhood (Luke 19).

Seeing something special in Zacchaeus, Jesus invited Himself to his home.

Zacchaeus held a lavish reception for Jesus.

Like the religious leader before, Zacchaeus too had a list for possessing things, and had become wealthy, not entirely by honest means.

His neighbors protested.

How could Jesus honor this corrupt man by visiting his home and eating at his table? Jesus mustn’t know Zacchaeus’ reputation.

Like the child who cried out to proclaim the emperor’s nakedness, Zacchaeus’ neighbors cried out to proclaim his sinfulness.

Unlike the religious leader who turned away when confronted with inconvenient truth, Zacchaeus embraced it and vowed to change.

Zacchaeus stood before the Lord and said, “I will give half my wealth to the poor, Lord, and if I have cheated people on their taxes, I will give them back four times as much!” (Luke 19:8 NLT)

In Jesus’ message to the church at Laodicea, as with Zacchaeus, He invites Himself to the home of His people, and wants to eat at their table. But, instead of being invited in for the reception, Jesus stands at the door knocking (Revelation 3:20).

In his home, in front of his guests, Zacchaeus stood up and made a commitment to change his ways.

Jesus responded, “Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a true son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.” (Luke 19:9, 10 NLT)

Jesus offers His people the perfection they can’t attain themselves. There’s no place for perfectionism. The perfection that Jesus offers is unattainable by human effort.

Underlying the perfectionist’s persona sits an insecurity, a drifting soul looking for a solid rock on which to rest their anchor.

When I spend time with Jesus, He reveals who I really am.

Then, the perfectionist in me must choose, will I:

  1. Continue to believe that I can achieve perfection?
  2. Acknowledge my imperfection and give it up?

When we spend time with Jesus, He awakens the desire within us for what He has to give:

So I advise you to buy gold from me—gold that has been purified by fire. Then you will be rich. Also buy white garments from me so you will not be shamed by your nakedness, and ointment for your eyes so you will be able to see. I correct and discipline everyone I love. So be diligent and turn from your indifference. (Revelation 3:18, 19 NLT)

Jesus offers His perfection:

  1. Gold purified by fire – The richness of a character transformed by the words of the Bible and the fruit of His Spirit.
  2. White garments – His righteous life as a substitute for our flawed life, our only right of passage through the pearly gates of heaven.
  3. Ointment for our eyes – Clear vision, to see our need of Him.

On Jesus, I can rest my anchor. He is the Solid Rock that crushes the perfectionist in me and promises an abundant life.

Do you want to purchase the gifts offered by Jesus–gold, white garments, and ointment? What’s the price we must pay for these? Please share your thoughts with a comment below. 

Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

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Jon Beaty

I'm a counselor, writer and believer in the power of God to help you thrive in your marriage and family. I live with my family, a small herd of Boer goats, and thousands of honeybees near Portland, Oregon.

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