If you’re a perfectionist like me, I’m almost certain you’ve caught yourself thinking this very phrase after completing a task, finishing a project, or creating something with your own two hands: “This could be better.” Even as I’m writing this article in hopes of helping other perfectionists, there’s a nagging feeling in the back of my brain that’s whispering, “Nope, this isn’t going to be good enough. This won’t help anyone. No one’s going to even read it. Why even try?” If these perfectionist quotes sound familiar, you’re not alone!
I strive to do my best at all times, but when I’m not at my best, or, heaven forbid, when I make a mistake, the negative self-talk can take over and completely kill my joy. Growing up in church was a wonderful thing, but as a perfectionist, even as a child, hearing the Scripture “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” (Matthew 5:48 NIV) only fed my desire to be perfect even more. What I didn’t realize about this verse and this way of thinking, however, was that Jesus wasn’t actually asking us to be perfect.
It’s quite the opposite. For some context, the fifth chapter of Matthew is Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. He talks about how blessed it is to be merciful, pure in heart, poor in spirit, and meek (my personal favorite!). He asks us to rejoice in our suffering, encourages us to be a light in this dark world, and outlines some big sins to stay away from.
So, when we get to Matthew 5:48, Jesus is asking us to be intentional in our spiritual growth and to aim for spiritual maturity. He’s not asking us to be perfect in the sense that most perfectionists would define the word. The Greek word for “perfect” in this verse is teleios, which actually means “growth in mental and moral character.” I don’t know about you, but if there’s one thing that often keeps me from this kind of growth, it’s the pursuit of perfection. In other words, our limit as we try to achieve growth is perfection. That’s good news for this perfectionist. Perfection isn’t the goal—progress is!
Researching this verse actually gave me a huge sense of relief and peace once I really started understanding the context. As a perfectionist and a rule-follower, relief and peace are a welcomed vacation for my overachieving tendencies. Right before we get to this verse, Jesus talks about loving not only our neighbors but also our enemies, and that helps me see the true point. Instead of taking this verse as an order to strive to be a little more perfect, it’s an invitation to love everyone—our neighbors, ourselves, and even our enemies.
The problem with perfectionism is that it places the focus on ourselves and not on God. This is dangerous territory if we want to become better. But here’s the thing about “better.” We don’t try to be better just to be better or to just look better to people. Instead, we want to become better followers of Christ—more complete, more whole. Because we know the transforming power of His love will not only help us love ourselves, but also will help us love our neighbors and enemies, which is exactly what Christ did for us.
Loving ourselves, and loving others, will in turn create more followers of Christ. Did you catch that? Trading our perfectionism for spiritual maturity in Christ will actually gain results we could never achieve on our own! Our imperfection could actually be the very thing that brings others to Christ. That is why this verse means so much to me, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9 NIV). It’s not what we do or how well we do it—it’s by God’s grace, and it’s a gift. End of story.
So, all of this spiritual talk is great, and I bet you feel a little bit better already, but what about the practical side of beating the perfection game? How can we move from changing our mindset to changing our actions and overcoming that pesky, nagging need to achieve?
Here are five perfectionist quotes to avoid and tips to remember:
1. Instead of saying, “I’ll never be good enough,” quit beating yourself up.
When I beat myself up after making mistakes, it only feeds the desire in me to be perfect. It also feeds the desire to expect perfection from others. Sometimes this flaw can translate into how I parent, how I relate to those closest to me, and of course, how I view myself. It can be a destructive force if left untamed. It’s taken some practice, but when I catch myself beating myself up, I remember that no one is perfect and that my negative self-talk will actually hold me back. I also remember that Romans 8:1 says that there is no condemnation in Christ. I’ve found that admitting my mistake, no matter how hard it is to do, is the key to moving past it and eventually reaching my goal.
2. Stop saying, “Why bother if it can’t be right?” Choose to stop procrastinating, instead.
Because I’m a perfectionist, I sometimes procrastinate even getting started because I know it won’t be perfect! I know this sounds crazy, but if you’re a true perfectionist, you are nodding your head right now. Stop procrastinating and just start. The anxiety and fear that surrounds that first step is real, but let it push you past the starting line. The race isn’t really that scary. You can even walk before you run. Just start. And remember that Jesus came to give you peace, so ask Him for it.
3. Avoid saying, “Everything’s fine,” when it isn’t. Instead, bravely be real.
As a self-professed perfectionist, sometimes I expect so much from myself that I cannot physically or mentally meet my own expectations. I set high expectations for others too. It’s not okay. It’s better to set the bar a little lower and exceed your expectations than make them impossible to reach. You don’t have to be the best! You just have to be the best you. And when you need grace for yourself? Go to God. He will give you the grace you need (Hebrews 4:16). Once you have grace with yourself, you’ll start having grace with others. Trust me, your family and friends will notice. And guess what? Things will start feeling a lot easier. And, since you’re still a high achiever, my guess is you’ll still be successful. Try it. I guarantee you will like it!
4. Instead of, “I’ll take a break when everything’s perfect,” choose to enjoy the ride.
Sometimes we’re so busy “doing” that we forget to enjoy the journey. It’s kind of like running up a breathtakingly beautiful mountainside but never taking the time to look around to enjoy the scenery. If we focus too much on our steps, our heads are down. Sure, we’re focused. We’re making great progress. Maybe we’re even winning the race! But missing out on the beauty of the journey is a pretty high price to pay for first prize.
5. Instead of saying, “If it’s not right, I’m wrong,” let yourself fail.
Every bone in your body is fighting me on this right now. I can feel the tension even as I write. But the truth is that a little failure never hurt anyone. In fact, it can actually lead to great success! Trying something new may be scary—whether it’s picking up a new form of exercise or sport, asking to be involved in a project you’re interested in at work, or talking to that person you’ve been wanting to talk to for a long time but just haven’t had the courage. Whatever it is, put yourself out there, even if you think you might fail. In every failure there’s a lesson to be learned. Some of the greatest thinkers of our time have failed hundreds, even thousands of times! The important thing is not that you failed, but that you picked yourself up and tried again. And guess what? You lived through it! Failure just may be the perfect solution to your perfectionist problem.
Whew! We made it. I actually wrote the article, and hopefully you read it, and maybe, just maybe, it helped you! Maybe you can avoid the perfectionist quotes that play in your head and start quoting Scripture and God’s truth instead. Maybe you can follow these tips and make some new changes to the way you’ve always done things. My pastor Craig Groeschel says this: “Perfection is the enemy of progress.”
I’ll finish with a great verse from Hebrews that encourages us all to lay down our burden to be perfect (which is a weighty burden to carry), and to strive to finish the race God has set before us:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. Hebrews 12:1-2 NIV