“A large part of our unhappiness has to do with this grandiosity and this pretending to be more than we are. We have laid expectations on ourselves that no one could have fulfilled and then felt unhappy when we couldn’t fulfill them.” J. Keith Miller, A Hunger For Healing
As a perfectionist I can definitely identify with this statement! For many years I unconsciously set myself up for failure by expecting more from myself than I could ever deliver: The perfect son; the perfect friend; the perfect employee; the perfect boyfriend or husband. Of course I was far from perfect in all of these roles, and the harder I tried being perfect in any one role the worse I ended up performing in all my roles.
Until recently, I was behaving this with my recovery program. I sometimes caught myself trying not to get triggered…which was absolutely ridiculous, because: 1) I am a man, 2) I am not castrated, and 3) I am a recovering pornography addict. Of course I will get triggered! Trying to not get triggered is like trying to not get thirsty in the middle of the desert: It is going to happen. Instead of setting myself up for failure (and thus justify a relapse to console myself), I must stop trying to be more or less than what I am: I am a good, smart, kind, loving, and generous person. I am also cruel, jealous, angry, bitter, resentful, lustful, greedy and impatient. I get triggered by triggering people and images. Rather than trying not being triggered, I need to respond appropriately after I’ve been triggered.
My program was at an all-time low a few months ago because of my efforts to be ‘perfect’. I was not only trying to not get triggered, I was also trying to work every step perfectly. If I didn’t bounce my eyes quick enough, I got frustrated. If my eyes bounced back to a trigger, I got angry at myself. If I took a long look at a triggering woman I felt guilt, shame, and disappointment. I reached the point of absolute fatigue. I was depressed. I was on the verge of relapse because no matter how hard I tried I could not seem to work the perfect program; I was completely unhappy.
Then I had a revelation: I don’t need to work a perfect program, and trying to work a perfect program was making me miserable. Though it sounds strange to say this, I started working my program not-quite-so-hard and I immediately felt better. I didn’t get disappointed when my eyes lingered on a trigger; I just told myself to bounce away. When my eyes bounced back to a trigger, I didn’t get frustrated. Instead, I acknowledged this as normal behavior for a recovering addict, and patiently told myself to bounce my eyes away again. My program has been going much more smoothly since then.
Do you constantly demand perfection in yourself? Do you fear that life will collapse around you unless you are at your best 24/7? Does it seem that once you achieve one goal it is just replaced with another, and that your life has become a joyless, tedious treadmill?
If you answered ‘Yes’ to any of these questions, print out the following paragraph and read it aloud twice a day for the next thirty days…and gain freedom from your perfectionism!
Adapted from the Prodigals International Homecoming Recovery Manual
I am not perfect; I cannot look, feel, think, and behave perfectly at all times. It is OK to be less than spectacular, and I have the capacity to set meaningful, flexible, and appropriate standards. I get great satisfaction from processes and experiences, and I am not exclusively fixated on outcomes. I don’t have to be outstanding at everything, and I don’t always have to try my best. Mistakes are golden opportunities to learn and confirm my humanity. I am productive because I am not compulsively preoccupied with detail correctness.
Dear Mr. Perfectionism,
When I first hired you more than twenty years ago I thought I’d made a brilliant move. You seemed like the perfect choice: A person who hates making mistakes and works as hard as he can to avoid them. It turns out I was mistaken. Hiring you was one of the worst decisions I ever made. Luckily, as of today I no longer have to live with that mistake. Mr. Perfectionism: You’re fired.
The trouble with you is that your perfectionist attitudes and actions were never really about heightened performance; you were never really concerned with the health of this business. Rather, what you were worried about was how people perceived you. When I fired your friend Mr. Insecurity the other day, I told him something very similar. You are both so wrapped up in, and dependent upon, the perceptions of others for self-worth that you will sacrifice anything to earn their approval. In your case, you were ever-prepared to sacrifice the process for the result. You didn’t care how much suffering you inflicted on this company or its clients in a given business endeavor as long as it resulted in a ‘win’ for you. You thought these ‘wins’ made you valuable and worthy in the eyes of those around you, but what you failed to grasp was that most people are at least as concerned with the process as they are with the result. Furthermore, your constant need for perfection in your thoughts, words, and actions actually made you far less effective in your work than many of your peers. Your obsession with detail correctness in every aspect of your life made you slow and inefficient. You were afraid to take risks because of the possibility of failure. Unfortunately that translated into fewer promotion opportunities for you.
You see, Mr. Perfectionism, life really is a journey; it’s not just a destination. I know how cliché that sounds, but it’s true. The moments we live out on a day-to-day basis are at least as important as the goals we work towards, maybe even more so. When your life draws to a close I suspect you’ll be less concerned with what you did with your life, and far more concerned with how you lived it.
Consider the life of Jesus Christ, the man I am replacing you with. According to your perfectionist standards Jesus’ life was a disaster: Tried and convicted as a criminal, He was beaten and crucified. If life is judged by outcomes alone, Mr. Perfectionist, Jesus’ life was a complete failure. However, it’s the way Jesus lived His life that is important: He was completely obedient to His Father in everything He did; throughout His day-to-day life Jesus never sinned; He was always as concerned about how He reached the end of His life as He was about the end result itself. And for this, a life perfectly lived, Jesus was raised from the dead. That is the kind of lasting and winning attitude I want to define this company!
Goodbye, Mr. Perfectionism. I hope you can learn to live at peace with failure and the disappointment and disapproval of others. It is the only way to truly live.
“Denial has caused many of us to bury our positive abilities along with our character defects. Some of us were afraid that if we owned our abilities, people wouldn’t think we were humble. We would also be responsible for living up to our potential perfectly.”
J. Keith Miller, A Hunger For Healing
Even before I was a Christian I knew humility was a virtue, though I thought humility meant ‘thinking less of myself’ (rather than ‘thinking of myself less’). I hid or denied my positive abilities because I thought to confess them was prideful and wrong. Although I ’knew’ I was a bad person I tried to maintain a positive image with others because I was afraid that if other people thought I was prideful they might start ‘sniffing around’ to see what else was wrong with me. I adopted a ‘false humility’ by dismissing and disbelieving most of my positive abilities to convince people I was ‘humble’, hoping they would approve of the mask I wore.
I still have a tendency to ignore positive praise and focus on my negatives. In the past six months there were times I received feedback from my peers, both positive and negative. In all cases the positive feedback far outweighed the negative, but it didn’t matter. I immediately dismissed the positive feedback as irrelevant and focused all of my mental energy on ‘fixing’ the negatives…which really meant fixing the perceptions of others, not actually fixing the root problems. For example, people said that I was generous, kind, loving, and loyal. When I read those things I half-nodded and felt good about myself for about five seconds…until my eyes got to the part of the page with negative feedback. There I saw things listed like: Critical, impulsive, and ‘too hard on himself’. The negative feedback (in my mind) invalidated the positive feedback; it didn’t matter how many positive things people said about me because they were also saying negative things about me…I wasn’t perfect! I had to be perfect (or so I thought) and I remember thinking of ways to appear less ‘critical’ and ‘impulsive’ rather than consider how I might get to the root of the problem. And as far as being ‘too hard on myself’…fuhgettaboutit! In my mind, if my friends knew half the things I’ve done they would know I was not being hard enough on myself!
The final statement from Miller is also absolutely true: I live under the false pretense that if I confess my abilities I will have to execute on those abilities perfectly. I know I will not be able to pull off perfection, so I deny my abilities instead. For example, my Ministry classmates and professors tell me I have great leadership and preaching skills and potential. But there is a part of me that is afraid of taking on leadership and preaching roles because I know I will not be ‘perfect’ at them. That part of me is afraid that once people see I am not a ‘perfect’ leader and preacher, they will see through the rest of my façade and realize I am not a perfect Christian, husband, father, or son.
Do you struggle with masks and perfectionism?