Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

How Perfectionism Blocks Spirituality

January 20, 2002

Let me describe a young spiritual leader who I shall call Jason. He was from a "looking good" family in a fairly strict church and in a community that prided itself on moral responsibility. Jason had pride and wanted to be perfect.

As a child, Jason grew up feeling ashamed and unworthy. From his religion he learned how much God expected of him. He learned a set of rules he felt he must keep in order to please God. He followed the rules as closely as he could, and he ended up feeling inadequate and miserable.

What went wrong? Jason was trying to fit the mold instead of appreciating his own unique gifts. He wouldn't trust God with his soul until he felt he was good enough. First he would prove himself, win the esteem and approval of others, and then approach God. He measured his worth by comparing himself to others.

Jason kept his inner life, doubts and struggles a secret. He didn't want others to know him until he had conquered his weaknesses and had achieved his goals.

It was tough trying to be perfect on the outside when inside Jason felt inadequate and unworthy. He was often discouraged. His perfectionism was a lonely "do-it-yourself" project.

How trying to be perfect can be self-defeating. To Jason, mistakes were unacceptable. If he made a mistake, he covered it up. He didn't take many chances. He feared failure. He was a first class procrastinator. He got bogged down in detail. He had too many goals and not enough vision. Everything was important.

Not only was Jason hard on himself, he believed everyone had to be perfect too. Because he judged himself' so hard, he judged others harshly as well. He had a difficult time being compassionate with others when he wasn't compassionate to himself. He was too preoccupied with himself to observe the needs of others.

He was extremely competitive. In his lofty view of what he needed to be, he often compared his progress in life with that of others. He was bothered by the successes of others. He wasn't gracious or enthusiastic about their accomplishments.

In his close relationships, Jason didn't talk about feelings. He didn't trust others enough to have true intimacy. He didn't use conversation with others to get to know them nor did he use them as a sounding board for issues in his own life.

Unable to ask for help. All Jason’s rule-keeping and perfectionism wasn't bringing him closer to God. In fact, he didn’t enjoy much of a private spiritual life at all. Jason rejected the idea of seeking pastoral counseling for himself. He couldn’t bring himself to reach for help. He felt that all of his struggle would have greater merit and recognition if it were done truly by himself.

Finally matters were brought to a head when Jason lost control and his problems became public. He was forced to admit that he could no longer do it on his own. He had to turn others for guidance and counsel.

Through this process, he got closer to perfection by accepting and sharing his own humanity. He learned that spirituality is a process of becoming himself - of being true to his inner voice and feelings. He began to trust that God loved him and understands that life is a process. He began to believe that sins and mistakes were a part of life and by overcoming them, he could grow and improve.

Jason had to honestly face the reality of his past. He had to experience pain and grieve over the part of his past he didn't like or understand. He started to make sense of his past and why he was the way he was. He dropped his "no talking," "no feeling" ways of hiding from himself and others. What had happened had already happened. What was important was what he learned from it.

Jason took a charitable view of his past experiences and found value in them. He learned patience. He learned to celebrate small improvements and steps he had made instead of haranguing himself with ones he still had yet to make.

It’s OK to be flawed. He was flawed, and that was OK. He was better able to accept current realities and go from there. He started seeing himself as a person with an unfolding destiny to which he would be faithful. It was the striving to be better that counted as long as he was working toward it.

Jason learned to trust others, to realize that they really cared for and accepted him. He didn't need to qualify for their love. He didn't have to be a polished product to be appreciated. All he had to do was let others know him. The more he shared with others, the more he learned about himself. He found joy in finally be connected to others in his journey through life.

Jason learned to use and value meditation, prayer, inspirational books, and scripture study to gain perspective and get beyond his pride. He started being honest with others. He felt he was finally learning what being spiritual was really about. He understood how being an imperfect rule-following, guilt-ridden perfectionist who didn't trust God and others, blocked his spiritual and personal growth with his own humanity.