Believe it or not, there is some illusory glamor attached to being a perfectionist. That’s why I misdiagnosed myself as one for many years.
You see, despite the misery and exhaustion that can accompany perfectionism, our culture nevertheless still whispers to us that its sufferers have enviable motivations. Perfectionists have high standards. And nature has bestowed upon them the ability to give sustained and meticulous attention to detail. Those perfectionists might be a dysfunctional bunch, but they sure are productive and successful.
As the readers of Brene Brown can tell you, the drive toward perfection will make a mess of your inner life and a train wreck of your relationships. And yet, calling yourself a perfectionist is the sort of thing you can safely say when a prospective employer asks you about your weaknesses. You know, it’s one of those secretly acknowledged strengths that you can toss out as a shortcoming during a job interview. You want to get things right so much that you’ll even sacrifice yourself for the firm.
Look, I’m not saying that being a perfectionist is a healthy thing. As Brene says, we’re much better off when we can say that we are enough just as we are. Still, calling myself a perfectionist felt a lot more acceptable than what I now confess about myself.
I’m a recovering atychiphobe. For much of my earlier life, the fear of failure—atychiphobia—drove me. Or froze me in my tracks. Or led me to set my sights too low. Or just told me not to try.
Okay, I admit, no psychiatrist would have given me a clinical diagnosis. My fear of failure was at the high end of the garden variety dread that many of us in the West wrestle with. That’s because we associate our self-worth with achievement. We assign value to ourselves and to each other on the basis of the results we produce.
No wonder so many people fear failure. It represents rejection and humiliation. Your results make you somebody or reduce you to nobody status. At least, that’s the myth that holds many of us captive: the world is populated by winners and losers, and your results determine which team you belong to.
For the most part, I do not fear failure anymore. In fact, some people wish I were a little more risk averse. But failure no longer holds the power over me it once did because neither do results. I’ve found another way to live. Or, more accurately, it has found me. Jesus suggested this way in the Parable of the Sower. It goes like this:
A sower went out to sow. The results were mixed. Some seed took root in fertile soil. The rest of the seeds landed on rocky ground, withered in shallow dirt, or were choked by weeds.
But remember, this is the Parable of the Sower. Not the Parable of the Seeds. Nor the Parable of the Soil. Nope. It’s a parable about a sower. And the sower did what sowers do. They sow. They don’t stress about the results. They bring the Kingdom by embodying the Kingdom wherever they are. And that is an inherently valuable way to be.
Even though he was not commenting on this parable, I think the following passage from Thomas Merton illuminates its core message:
“Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.” (Thomas Merton, The Hidden Ground of Love, p. 294)
Embodying the Kingdom means to walk the way of love. When you love, it will transform some people’s lives and mend some circumstances. But not always. Not every time. Sometimes your love will be scorned and rejected, betrayed and crucified.
On the cross, Jesus joined us in the ultimate powerlessness of our merely human love. And he showed us how to entrust love’s result to God. To trust that God’s love is the power to bring even life out of death. The power of resurrection.
Along Jesus’ way of love, the meaning of failure is transformed. The way of love is the way of the cross. And as it turns out, that’s the path that leads to resurrection.
I love your message and the quote from Thomas Merton–I think that I may share it with folks after our nightly Compline service this evening (via Zoom).
The parable of the Sower! I love this. I’m a gardener and so I always identified with the ground, sometimes rocky and sandy, sometimes rich and fertile. Thank you for this new and lovely perspective on what it really means to be a worker in this world. I am, like you, a recovering perfectionist and an atichyphobe. Thanks for teaching me a new word, too!😊
Thanks for reading Eva! Good to know a fellow recovering atychiphobe
Thank you. Puts things into a different light altogether. We are in this all together. God’s love and your mother have made a difference as my mother and God have done for me. Love your book. It’s by my nightstand.
Thank you, Pat! I’m glad we’ve connected. My next book from Abingdon is due out April 20, 2021. This one is about hope. You’ll hear more later, but it’s going to be called Looking for God in Messy Places. Still casting about for a subtitle!
Oh yes, I am a recovering perfectionist too, I would often say that even the untidiness of my office was “perfect”! However, my books are shelved perfectly and it drives me crazy when they are not, I love little containers to put “things” so that they can be perfectly arranged. I have high standards mostly for myself, “I’d never ask anyone to do something I wouldn’t do”! Yeah, well I’m getting over this, slowly, because it’s exhausting and when I’m finished doing “everything perfectly” I’m too tired to do what I’d really like to do, with folks that I’d really like to be with. Only God’s love is perfect, and gee we don’t have to do all that much to be loved. Thanks as always Bp. Jake!
I loved what an old friend said to me years ago. “I used to be perfect and I was miserable. Then I went to therapy and got all screwed up. Now I’m happier than I’ve ever been!” Stay safe. Be well. And thanks for reading!
Oh yes! I’ve taken that route too! Happy as a Lark, and laughing a lot more too! cheers and thanks for writing.
Thanks for this insight today Bishop.
You definitely know what to say. What a year!
Prayers for all and 2021 vaccine. Thanks be to God for our blessings, known and unknown.
Blessed New Year,
Happy New Year Lorelei!