“Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight.” (Brené Brown)
Have you ever, as a child, stayed up all night on Christmas Eve in hopes of catching Santa Claus making his rounds?
I bet you did all the works too — wrote a letter making your request known to Santa, mailed your letter to the North Pole, even had a glass of milk and some cookies prepared and waiting for him next to the Christmas tree so he wouldn’t miss it.
Well, did you get to see him? I think I already know what the answer is, so I’ll just change the question.
Wasn’t it frustrating to keep missing him, and even more so heartbreaking to keep chasing a figure that you find out later on doesn’t exist after all?
And yet this is something so many of us do. Every single day.
We keep seeking Perfection when we all know Perfection does not exist.
The Perils of Perfectionism
The thing about perfectionism is that it seeks justification under the guise of having a higher standard of excellence.
I was raised by a single mother who had always prided herself on being a perfectionist, and I’m telling you, nothing pees on your cornflakes as a child faster than a parent’s perfectionism does.
On one hand, the words “Is this really the best that you can do? Certainly not! I know you can do better than this” sound so empowering. However, the same paradigm that prompts every perfectionist to say those words to herself and to others is also the same paradigm that brings out her inner James Ingram almost immediately— “I did my best but my best wasn’t good enough”.
The truth is that perfectionism is an illusion that traps us in a life of misery and endless frustration.
Have you ever tried searching for something that you just can’t ever find no matter what you do? Every time you try, there’s always a deep sense of longing, anticipation and even desperation; and every time you fail at finding or achieving it, the anticipation quickly turns into hopelessness, exasperation and bitterness.
The need — or perhaps, the obsession — for things to be perfect has made my mother so unhappy because none of the people and things that she placed her hopes upon managed to meet her expectations. They all ended up failing, hurting and disappointing her one way or another. And because she held herself to such a “high standard”, she was also constantly hard on herself because she found out that she too came in a package with a fine print that says “Batteries not included”. Just like everyone else, she too was imperfect.
When I once asked why she leaned hard into perfectionism, my mother told me that she simply believed that if a task can’t be done perfectly, then it’s not worth doing at all.
It’s a terribly flawed way of thinking, because the truth of the matter is…
1. Perfectionism is an excuse for procrastination.
Instead of taking action, a perfectionist will always put off what needs to get done until the timing is “perfect”, or will keep postponing a product launch until the product is “perfect” which will happen… uh… never.
2. Perfectionism is fear in disguise.
The perfectionist doesn’t hold herself and others to such a high (often unrealistic) standard because she overflows with confidence; quite the contrary, she is very much insecure and the idea of failing, getting rejected, and being criticized terrifies her. That’s why she can’t seem to find contentment in whatever outcome her efforts have created because she always imagines the worst case scenario — people not appreciating or approving her work — and so her fears drive her to keep tweaking and keep tweaking until she feels her work looks “perfect” which of course, is another heartbreak waiting to happen as the perfectionist later finds out that 1) her work isn’t perfect, and 2) she can never please everyone anyway.
3. Perfectionism is self-abuse — a very brutal self-criticism.
By resorting to perfectionism, what the perfectionist is truly telling herself deep down in her subconscious is that she is not allowed to make mistakes… that it is unacceptable for her to fail, because if she does then that means something’s wrong with her, she’s incompetent, or she’s unqualified.
“Who do you think you are thinking you even had a shot?” is one of the most self-destructing thoughts that run through a perfectionist’s head after falling short of her expectations.
4. Perfectionism steals your joy.
Many of the things we regard as disappointments and frustrations in life are actually caused by unmet expectations that we have placed upon ourselves and in the people around us. When we hang on to these expectations, what we’re really doing is we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment, and possibly heartache, as we’re putting our hopes on human beings, which means that making mistakes comes with the territory.
The Mindset Shift That Defeats Perfectionism
This is the single mindset that will certainly break the old destructive pattern of perfectionism in your life, but not just that. Any feelings of self-doubt, being overly critical of yourself, fear of criticism, fear of rejection, fear of failure, lack of confidence will also disappear as soon as you realize this one thing and take it on as your new mindset.
YOU ARE A WORK IN PROGRESS.
But it doesn’t stop there. The next question or thought I want you to reflect on is “Whose work in progress are you?”.
The answer: You are God’s work in progress.
Ah, now that’s the game changer right there. Take that in for a minute.
Now, here’s what it means to be “God’s Work In Progress”:
1. Unless you’re dead, every trauma or tragedy you experience is not The End of the world.
You might be laughing at this one but you’d be amazed at how many of us treat every rejection, every disappointment, and every struggle as though it was a death sentence. So many people over-dramatize their mistakes and failures that if they were to write a book about their lives, you probably can almost swear that every chapter would end with the line, “And then it killed her.”
2. Every moment/experience is a necessary stage of your growth.
Everything that you go through was allowed to happen to you because it will develop in you a character, specific skills and a well-formed maturity in you that will equip you for future challenges and responsibilities, and will enable you to fulfill your purpose.
3. Every day that passes, you’re one day closer to becoming the person you’re meant to be.
There is no such thing as stagnant growth in a person who has embraced the mindset that she is God’s work in progress, simply because when God is at work, every detail is masterfully and carefully thought out, not a moment is wasted, and even the delays and interruptions are never in vain. Just as to a painter, every brush stroke counts, and every color has a purpose and significance in the painting.
4. You can trust the timing of things in your life.
Did you know that it took Leonardo DaVinci four years to work on his famous masterpiece, the Mona Lisa? Any artist who’s ever worked with oil paint as a medium knows that the best result is achieved when you paint in layers, and each layer of oil paint takes days or even months to dry, hence a whole masterpiece can really take up to years to complete.
When you know that you are God’s work in progress and not your own, you can start to relax and keep calm even while you wait to be ushered into a new chapter of your life, or for a new path to emerge before you. You can afford to wait patiently because you understand who’s in charge.
5. There is no condemnation.
No matter what you’ve done or failed to do, rest in the knowledge that the Almighty always offers mercy, grace and compassion, not condemnation. As Rick Warren once wrote, “God is not interested in making you jump through hoops to prove yourself worthy…”. This is a breath of fresh air! If the Creator of the universe promises to never condemn you, what’s your excuse for condemning yourself or others for being imperfect?
6. You are a Masterpiece in the making.
Do you really think that God could create a work that’s mediocre? Do you think He could ever create something or someone that’s guaranteed to fail? How about ‘ugly’, ‘worthless’ and ‘hopeless’? Do you really think those are fitting words to describe His standard and quality of work? If you are “God’s work in progress” doesn’t it make sense to think of yourself as a Masterpiece in the making?
And indeed you are.
So embrace your imperfections. Be willing to embrace your mistakes, but learn from them — take note of what potential lessons and opportunities are being revealed to you. You won’t always get things right, you won’t always have your marbles together and that’s okay, because Someone who knows exactly what He’s doing is at work behind the scenes. You can breathe a sigh of relief, and you can give yourself permission to dream sweet dreams tonight because you know you’re in good and able hands.
You are a masterpiece — unfinished, but a masterpiece nonetheless.
“I am proud to consider myself a ‘work in progress’ because it allows me to be free to be myself, try new things, and adapt as my life changes. You should try it sometime.” (Zac Sky)
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