The Tyranny of Perfection

From as early as I can remember I’ve tried to be perfect.  And it’s nearly killed me.

Perfection tantalizes with the promise of completeness and rest.  But it consigns you to endless striving.  Perfectionism damns every effort before it’s even started.  More than that, it can prevent you from ever trying anything at all. And it kills the joy of endeavour and even success, because you’re only as good as your (next) project.

I was reminded of this last night whilst watching the film ‘Black Swan’, (starring Natalie Portman).  Depending on your take, it’s either the epitome  of modern melodrama or Hollyoaks on speed .  Here’s the premise: Nina is a ballerina.  Not just any ballerina either – a really, really good one.  (We know this because she cries a lot and has half a grapefruit for breakfast.

So Nina’s your typical dancer.  Into music, bulimia, self-harm, schizophrenia  and drugs.  Her life’s ambition is to play the central role in Swan Lake.  This means playing not only the good or white swan, but the bad or black swan.  Subtle it ain’t.

Nina is immaculate as the white swan but struggles to play her evil twin.  Her motto is:  “I just want to be perfect.”  Spoiler alert –  this  story does not end well.   Because  whether it’s suicide or murder, perfectionism kills.

Of course the question we all shout at the screen is “Why, Nina?!  Why does it have to be perfect?  Who are you killing yourself for?”

But I may as well ask the question of myself.  And I already know the answer.

Getting is right is firstly about pride.  Perfectionism is the white-wash of plain old self-justification.  If I’m “special” then I’ll know who I am.  But if I’m average, then I’m nobody.

It’s also about protection.  If I get it right, nothing bad can possibly happen.  No-one can blame me if I’ve kept the rules.  Things won’t go wrong if I do it right.  So if safety is the goal, perfect performance is an ideal method.

But the worst thing about perfectionism is the way that it represents God.  For the perfectionist, he is the great big rule-giver in the sky.  Never satisfied, even with our best efforts.  Determined to squeeze the best performance from us.  This couldn’t be further from the truth.

The gospel is for those who are broken and recognise their need of a Saviour.  It’s not about cleaning ourselves up or jumping through hoops.  It’s grace, from start to finish.  It’s a relationship, not a performance.  And it’s freedom not slavery.

It gives me freedom from pride.  I’m worse than I ever dreamed and I can never make it up to God.  Instead I’m clothed in His righteousness.  The good news is, I’ve got perfection – and it’s Christ Himself.  He’s my perfection and therefore I can rest in Him.

When I know Christ’s love, then I don’t need the protection of perfectionism.  I’m secure in Him.  Therefore I am freed to take risks, knowing that I’m not my achievements.  As GK Chesterton argues:

If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.

2 thoughts on “The Tyranny of Perfection

  1. I’ve just been reading two Christian books that help on the issue of perfectionism.

    1. Dr Richard Winter (a Professor at Covenant Theological Seminary) wrote “Perfecting Ourselves to Death”, which I found very helpful.

    2. Don Carson’s book about his father, entitled “Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor”, specifically in chapter 6, speaks to many issues that will hit home for perfectionists. He says, to take one example:
    “[Dad] had a remarkably tender conscience. On so many fronts this is a good thing. Indeed, in the Christian way it is an almost universally recognised truth that the closer a believer is to God, the more deeply he or she recognizes and feels the weight of personal sin. This might become an unsupportable burden if it is not joined with the an ever-deepening grasp of the limitless dimensions of the love of God (cf Ephesians 3:14-21) … [Dad] was developing a glass-half-empty analysis of himself that was not, finally, realistic.” (p. 94)

    I hope many similar perfectionist souls will find comfort in these resources. (And, being a true perfectionist, I had to struggle not to read them twice…)

  2. Hi

    Thanks so much for these recommendations – they are really helpful. I’ve heard Winter lecturing on this topic, but hadn’t come across his book. ‘Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor’ also sounds good, especially if the rest of it is as insightful as this quotation.

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