The Damage Done: Perfectionism
Updated: Mar 23, 2021
Marisa Guerin, PhD – March 2, 2021
Lots of people have had to cope with some degree of perfectionism. We might joke about it at times – almost with an odd sense of pride – as an explanation for why we worked so late on a project, or as our reason for finding this or that fault with our own work, even when others are pleased and impressed with what we have done. But perfectionism is no joking matter; it is harsh and oppressive to our spirit, a burden that depresses us and the people around us, too. It really puts the lid on joy!
For this post about coping with perfectionism, I’ll draw on the manuscript I am currently co-writing with my friend Br. Joseph Schmidt, FSC. The book-to-be focuses on the life lessons that come to us from the example of Thérèse of Lisieux, a French Catholic religious figure.
Thérèse was a young person – she died at 24 of tuberculosis – who was gifted with a striking level of emotional and spiritual maturity. She came by her insight the hard way, like the rest of us do; in her case it was the experience of early loss, co-dependency and addiction, healing, and the deepening of wisdom. One of her life challenges was dealing with a disabling perfectionism.
But before looking to Thérèse ’s experience and insights, we might start with recognizing a few things about the problem of perfectionism itself. To begin with, even if we want to be less perfectionistic, it isn’t easy to get there just by wishing it. The perfectionist streak in us exists for a reason. It’s a psychological maladaptation that often has its roots in the wounds of early childhood; it arises as an attempt to get the attention, love and approval we crave through being perfect or being smart or being good. Internalizing the expectations of parents, or teachers, or other admired figures, we end up becoming our own worst task master.
Perfectionism has an even more pernicious hold on us if we have been raised with harmful religious interpretations about God being wrathful, requiring that we must be perfect to earn our salvation, “or else.” The inherent violence of this idea is hard to notice because we can take it as a given. Society doesn’t help, either. Contemporary Western culture adds to the pressure we feel when it idealizes the self-made, successful person. Our mail and news feeds are overflowing with books, websites, and celebrities sending us the impossible message that we can, and we should, get it together through our own determined effort. The supposed power of our own ego becomes an idol.
For Thérèse, perfectionism developed in her childhood. She became fixated on pleasing her father and older sisters as a way of responding to her intense needs for bondedness, connection and approval, which in turn stemmed from her early experience of mother loss. For ten years in her childhood, Thérèse had applied her formidable willpower to this goal of perfection through self-improvement and through praying that God would make her perfect. It didn’t go so well. She tried to assure herself that others would be impressed and remain close to her, but she did so at the cost of her own integrity. Her literal, moral interpretation of being perfect dropped her into a deep pit, trapping her in a cycle of effort, disappointment, and more effort. She couldn’t find her way out.
A pivotal experience in her fourteenth year freed Thérèse from the oppressive bondage of her addiction to the approval of others. Thérèse came to realize the self-inflicted violence of her quest to be perfect. She saw that it was a hopeless, often selfish project, a form of psychological and spiritual self-defense – and most importantly, she had the flash of insight that it wasn’t necessary. What blossomed in her awareness was that she was loved by God precisely as she was; she could trust that her desire and willingness to be a good person was good enough. Thérèse was graced with an honest vision of her own truth, accepting both her gifts and her limitations.
There was a paradox at work here for Thérèse – her truthful understanding of herself not only enabled her to honestly accept her weaknesses, but also freed Thérèse to act boldly and confidently from her genuine strengths, without getting tangled up in her own ego. Her trust that she was held in love energized her and animated her willingness to put her real gifts towards the service of the good. As a result, she exuded serenity and grace, creativity and compassion and a spirit of gratitude, qualities of her personality that attracted others to her. Thérèse had regained inner freedom.
Thérèse drew strength and confidence from her profound realization that “working” on making herself perfect was neither possible nor necessary. As she matured, she avoided bullying herself as best she could. When she failed with striving, willful efforts to do good or to be pleasing, she accepted the feelings that came with failure. She raised herself above these natural feelings to deepen her humble relationship with an accepting God, and she just picked herself up and continued on. She redefined perfection as being who God willed her to be, and she displayed simple honesty and integrity as she invited herself and others to embrace their truth, no matter how much they might wish to be someone better or someone perfect.
In my own reading and reflection on Thérèse ’s experience, my favorite phrase of hers was one she wrote to her sister, Celine, who had confided to Thérèse how much she felt like a failure at that point in time. Therese encouraged her sister “to bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to yourself.”
Thérèse packs a lot of wisdom into those few words. She leads Celine away from a frustrated, self-blaming, self-violent reaction to herself. Instead, she coaches Celine to make peace with her messy reality, humbly accepting the truth with kindness, not animosity. I especially like the image of “serenity,” a calming salve to the sting of self-disappointment. Her advice helps me to let go the narcissistic injury, to say to my perhaps embarrassed or frustrated self, “It’s ok – you aren’t perfect – and you are loved anyway. Let it go. Be at peace with yourself and with your world.”
Self-acceptance became one of the essential elements of the way of life and love that Thérèse taught others. It’s the first step for us as we gently set aside the perfectionism that wants to run our show. As we are healed of the burden of perfectionism, relief rises. Joy comes more freely. And when we aren’t perfect at being not-perfect, we just bear it, serenely, and keep on going with kindness and patience for ourselves. There is always tomorrow!