Intellectually everybody knows that perfection is not possible, not in this world — and yet emotionally, many of us end up striving after it anyway.  It’s a recipe for anxiety.

Usually the root of perfectionism seems to come from the desire to earn acceptance from ourselves, from others, or from God.

Perfectionism to Obtain Acceptance

Wanting acceptance is not a bad thing; we’re designed that way. Healthy people know that they are loved and accepted already, and they’ve internalized the belief that they will still be loved even if they fail. This is a necessary prerequisite for the risk-taking that is required of all of us in order to grow and achieve our goals in life.

But what if you don’t know you’re loved? We seem to be programmed with the idea that love and acceptance can be earned. Usually perfectionists set about trying to earn it with things like performance, admiration, and status — which are short-lived even if we manage to achieve them, and never actually meet the underlying need.

The solution to this is not trying harder — that ultimately just doesn’t work. The solution is honesty in the context of a supportive, grace-filled community.

A Guilty Conscience

Often perfectionists are predisposed towards guilt — and more often than not, they’re not even sure what they feel guilty about. This provides further fuel for perfectionism, encouraging us to “work harder” so that we won’t be so unworthy.

Here’s the truth: your conscience is not infallible. It’s part of your mind, and it can be taught — which means it can be taught wrongly, due to an overly strict upbringing, lack of instruction, or perhaps even our own fears. A ‘weak conscience’ is defined biblically as one that is overly strict and unclear on what is right and what is wrong (1 Cor 8:7-12).   It is completely possible for our hearts to condemn us when God does not (1 John 3:20).

Furthermore, there’s a big difference between feeling guilt and repentance. Guilt involves self-flagellation (“What a terrible human being I am!”) while repentance involves sorrow that your actions have hurt another person, and the desire to make amends or stop the harmful behavior. Guilt puts the focus on yourself, which leads to the desire to “try harder” and “do better”… and this ultimately never works because (let’s face it) we’re not perfect. Only repentance comes from love for the other person, which can lead to lasting change.

Failure: The Beginning of Freedom

Here the bad/good news. When we finally accept the fact that we cannot do everything perfectly, we become capable of accepting ourselves as we are, not as we would like to be.

Emotional Freedom Technique is one remarkably effective therapeutic approach for arriving at this conclusion. The cornerstone of EFT is this simple phrase: “Even though I (fill in what you don’t like about yourself), I love and accept myself exactly as I am.” This self-acceptance is powerful, because this is where most of us miss it. Offering ourselves this grace enables healing to occur. At some point it will also be necessary to seek out a safe community where we can build trusting relationships with other imperfect people. This foundation gives us the courage we need to take risks… because if we fail, we’ll have a soft place to land.

If you struggle with perfectionism, I’d encourage you to make this year about accepting yourself as you are, and purposely seeking out a community who will do the same.

For more on this topic, I highly recommend “How People Grow” by Henry Cloud and John Townsend.

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