Letting Go of Perfectionism
By Stuart Briscoe
G.K. Chesterton, the great English author, was known as the master of paradox. He used to explain that paradox is “truth standing on its head to gain attention.” One of his best known and most mis-quoted paradoxical statements was, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” This statement certainly stands the common maxim – “Anything worth doing is worth doing well” – on its head! And it undoubtedly gains the attention of many – not least the perfectionists in our midst. The very thought is enough to send them into paroxysms. But it may actually be true! And it may even be good news for the perfectionist.
No one has ever accused me of being a perfectionist and the reason for this is clear to see on an even cursory examination of anything I have done. But I have great regard for those dedicated, conscientious people whose desire for personal growth is so consuming that they are never satisfied with what they have done, never delighted with what they have achieved. Their pursuit of “being the best” and “doing their best” and their oft-repeated mantra, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well,” leads them to become overly self-critical and spills over into impatience with others whose achievements fall short of a perfectionist’s standards. They find much in themselves and in others that frustrate them and constantly bring them disappointment. Living in an imperfect world is no paradise for one who aims at the perfect. For reality demands that we face the question, “Can we expect perfection in an imperfect world populated by imperfect humans?”
Of course there are reasons for some people to develop standards that are unachievable. The society in which we live frequently imposes demands that push people too far. How many young girls have developed anorexia in an ill-advised attempt to emulate the glamorous models constantly parading before their eyes? How many aspiring athletes have been driven by demanding coaches whose own consuming ambitions have negatively affected their young charges for life? How many students have learned to hate the subject they once loved because of the unrealistic expectations of their teachers and the constant pressure of goals beyond their reach?
Then there are the unfortunate souls who have been born into underprivileged circumstances that have birthed feelings of insecurity which they have tried to alleviate by seeking levels of excellence that are beyond their abilities.
Perfectionists cannot stand hearing others say, “No-one’s perfect” or “To err is human,” and are quick to dismiss such attitudes as indicators of laziness or lack of commitment – and in many instances they may be right! But to be brutality realistic no one is perfect, erring is human, we are all fallen and perfection is unattainable this side of eternity. Perfectionism is a long, weary journey that takes you back to where you began.
I recently attended a worship service where I was not required to do anything but worship – a rare event for me. I enjoyed it immensely. The music was superb, the prayers led us into the Throne room, the Scriptures were read with obvious understanding, and the congregation participated with enthusiasm and sensitivity, and the sermon was first class. The preacher had obviously studied carefully. He had mastered his subject, he presented the Word clearly, his application was timely, his posture was correct, his intonations cadenced, his demeanor appropriate. It was a pertinent, polished, and perfect presentation.
Well, not quite!
In order to present such a polished presentation, the speaker had taken a typed manuscript which he proceeded to read to us. Hence the beautifully-nuanced message. But perfect was not the right word to describe it. Because he was reading a manuscript, it was practically impossible for him to engage the audience in eye contact. And we had to settle for an unchanging view of the top of his head. Faces speak volumes, but since his face was averted we saw no emotion. We were left with no doubt as to what he thought or what he believed, but we had no clue as to how he felt! And that is why his presentation finished short of perfect!
I wonder what would have happened if someone qualified to speak – not me! – had gone to the preacher after the service and said, “Thank you for the message you presented so well this morning. You certainly did your homework and the presentation was nearly perfect, but it could have been improved. Because you were tied to your manuscript, we couldn’t see your face and accordingly your presentation lacked emotional engagement.”
He could have responded graciously or he may have reacted negatively. But if he was a perfectionist, his day would have been ruined, and he would have rushed back to his study to start practicing eye contact in the mirror after watching the recording of the message twenty times. And the next time he preached his manuscript would have been plastered with red notes saying, “Look up!” “Eye contact.” For him nothing less than perfect would do.
What was behind Chesterton’s famous paradox? He was certainly no advocate of mediocrity. Writing about childcare in England in the early 20th century he foresaw – with remarkable prescience – a day when many children would be placed in daycare situations and would effectively be brought up by professional caregivers. Not surprisingly, given the days in which he lived, he was not in favor of this and he insisted that children would be better off being brought up by amateurs rather than professionals. He used the word “amateur” intentionally because it comes from “amare,” the Latin word for “love.” Professionals do what they do for money; amateurs do what they do for love. And the amateurs Chesterton was referring to were “mothers” who care for children out of love, but perhaps not as professionally as the pros. So his point was that it’s better to do something lovingly and badly than professionally for the money. He obviously preferred a less-than-perfect loving act to a professionally “perfected” piece of work.
Let’s consider the paradox. Once we have determined to engage in an activity that we consider “worthwhile,” I suspect that we derive a certain amount of pleasure and satisfaction from doing it. We have achieved something of value. But if we are seeking perfection that we will never find, yet striving more insistently to find it and enjoying no satisfaction with what we have done we are left with a gnawing sense of failure.
Unless we stop striving for the unattainable and take a break.
Your hair may be having an off day and your mascara may be AWOL, but that is not a reason for a breakdown. A cute little hat and shades will cure it and there will be no lives lost. Preacher your presentation may not have been word perfect, but the Spirit of God took it home to many a heart – so rejoice! Soccer player you did miss an open goal and the team had to settle for a draw but apart from one slip you played a great game and without your contribution your team would have lost. And by the look on your face for 89 of the 90 minutes you loved the excitement, the competition, the drama – the GAME!
Perfectionism can be a mighty hindrance. Fear of failure is one of the more common reasons for the lack of involvement in worthy causes. I see this frequently even in church life. Before preaching in a service, I often walk around the back of the congregation to observe the worshippers. On stage, brightly lit with flashing colors, a group of accomplished musicians are producing an amply amplified version of a DOVE award-winning gospel song. But very few of the congregants are singing – they are just standing and listening. Now I cannot say if they are worshipping or day dreaming or simply tapping their feet to the dominant rhythm, but they are not engaged in congregational worship which is the point of the exercise. Why? Because the polish of the performance up front, so highlighted (literally) and magnified intimidates them. “I can’t sing like them,” is the most likely response to the question “Why aren’t you joining in?” But one obvious factor is being overlooked. The group up front couldn’t “sing like them” when they started either. In fact only a short time ago they started out with a love of singing and doing it badly (how else) and got better – not perfect! In a worship service it’s not the polish of the “professionals” that is the focus – it’s the attempts from loving hearts of the amateurs that counts. Because “anything that’s worth doing is worth doing badly.” And anyone – and everyone – can do that!