Three Taverns Church

Masks and Perfectionism

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“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?

8 thoughts on “Masks and Perfectionism

  1. Seriously, who doesn’t struggle with perfectionism and masks? I recently made a discovery that I am what’s called a “frustrated perfectionist.” Basically, this means that I want to do everything perfectly, so I often don’t attempt things I cannot pull off with excellence. What’s more, when there is a task that I have to do that I may not want to do, I have a tendency to procrastinate until the last moment, because it somehow communicates to my brain that the reason it wasn’t done perfectly is because I didn’t have enough time to do it right. I can be OK with mediocrity, but I have to trick my brain into allowing it.

    In your case, I do think you have excellent leadership skills and potential, but you are your own worst enemy in this. Everyone else wants to encourage, support, and build you up. Any “criticism” is certainly only meant to help you grow and improve. If everyone only sang your praise all the time, that too would be a mask, or inauthentic feedback. If everyone has to walk on eggshells around another person, then are we really being real?

    • Dear Reader, I think you’d be surprised at the number of people who don’t think they wear a mask. I think we could also surprise ourselves if we knew how often we unintentionally wear masks.
      I appreciate your belief in my leadership potential, and I’m glad that you felt you could offer ‘criticism’ in this forum. I agree that honest feedback, both positive and negative, is important.

  2. You speak my language to a T, my brother. I struggle with the exact same problem when it comes to people pointing out my strengths. I had an annual review at work this past week, and my boss gave me the highest review he’s ever given anybody in 28 years. I’m still focusing on the few things he pointed out I need improvement on. I admit, I never thought about why I tend to keep the compliments and arms length, but I think you hit it on the head. I’m afraid of sucking in the very areas I’m supposed to be good at.

  3. This sounds like a great book…I may need to check it out!

    • I led a small group last semester on this book, and it had some very powerful results. One group member began an ‘unofficial’ ministry to fellow war veterans suffering from PTSD and other maladies; another member came to terms with his alocohol addiction and attended his first AA meeting; two other members began taking positive steps to improve their marriages. The book is fantastic, if people are willing to let it work.

  4. Like everyone else, I also struggle with the mask of perfection or “having it all together”. God has revealed some things to me in the last 6 months, however, that have made me much more comfortable in dropping the mask altogether.

    Another very good book on perceptions and self-images is “Leadership and Self-Deception” by The Arbinger Institute. It was probably one of the most revealing books I’ve ever read. Period.

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