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I’m not afraid of heights (at least not as much as I used to be). But I’m not fearless either. A few years ago, my wife and I decided to paint the exterior of our house. It’s a tri-level. Not only that, but one section has a sunken patio.
I was fine with 8′ ladders, but this job required a 25′ ladder. At first, I was scared to go much beyond the 8′. By the end of the project, I was climbing all the way to the top. I found a healthy balance between too-afraid-to-climb and too-fearless-to-prevent-accidents.
Perfectionism is completing a task with a greater amount of energy or effort than is needed to meet the task’s objectives, in a way that leaves other areas of life lacking needed attention. Unchecked perfectionism creates an imbalanced life that can produce significant deficiencies.
Procrastination is different but can be related. You could spend an extra 2 hours cleaning your car because it allows you to delay an undesirable task (such as apologizing to your spouse).
The pure perfectionist finds satisfaction in the cleaning (for example) while not necessarily avoiding something else. Instead, the perfectionist seeks perfection to satisfy their desire for perfection. Sounds perfectly logical, doesn’t it?
The desire for perfection is okay. Nothing wrong there. Perfectionism becomes a “sickness” when it becomes obsessive or irrational. No person can hide that all of creation is under a curse–but that’s what a perfectionist tries to do. The time spent to bring order to one area of life means another area will suffer. When the effort becomes out of balance, life can become out of balance.
We took four months to paint our house. We kept up with our normal everyday tasks, but we cut out the non-essentials. I don’t think we could have shaved more time off of the project. I certainly didn’t want to have to paint it again. But I admit I’m somewhat of a perfectionist.
A desire for excellence is different but can be related. If perfectionism is over-compensating, then its opposite, negligence, is under-compensating. Both miss the mark. A perfectionist might call the negligent person “lazy.” Perhaps the lazy person has more fun?
The perfectionist doesn’t give up soon enough. The lazy person gives up too quickly. Somewhere in the middle is the pursuit of excellence. But even then the pursuit of excellence at some point must surrender to “it’s good enough for our purposes.” Every once in a while the perfectionist should ask, “Is there something more important I could be doing with my time? Has another task worked its way up to the top of my priority list?” Actually, those are the same questions a “lazy” person should ask, too. Although, I suspect they’d answer differently.
Perfectionism can also be expecting a higher standard than is necessary or possible at any given moment. The cost of missing the mark can be high.
The core questions are, “When is enough, enough?” and “When is not enough, not enough?” These are actually best left as deeply personal (subjective) questions. Keep in mind that all behavior (including lack of behavior) has consequences. Just because you’re fine showing up for work 30 minutes late most days, doesn’t mean you’re employer will agree.
Just because you’re fine to keep on sinning and pursue your own way of life, doesn’t mean God approves. God expects you to be perfect (holy), but He also provides the help you need to get there, which includes His infinitely loving patience. Thank God He is a lover of excellence and not a ruthless demander of instant perfection.
God’s love both accepts us as we are and motivates us to reach our full potential. Love wouldn’t be love without both. God sets the standard as high as Himself but then provides the ladder you need to reach it.
An unhealthy person might:
- go for perfect foot placement on each rung and never reach the top.
- climb all the way to the top but extend beyond the ladder too far and fall off in the process.
- worry about how high the ladder goes and never start climbing.
- look with hatred or mistrust at the person holding the ladder and walk away.
- freeze during the climb, unable to continue up or down.
- climb part of the way and jump off because the jumping is fun.
- climb part of the way and fall off because climbing requires letting go of things considered to be too important.
Of course, I think you know the correct way to climb:
- trust the ladder holder.
- don’t look down.
- don’t climb too fast or too slow.
- focus on the ladder holder, not how high you have to go.
- when the time is right, drop the heavy stuff that you don’t need anymore.
- don’t wait until you are fearless to start climbing.
Matt Pavlik is a licensed professional clinical counselor who wants to see each individual restored to their true identity. He has more than 20 years of experience counseling individuals and couples at his Christian counseling practice, New Reflections Counseling. Matt and Georgette have been married since 1999 and live with their four children in Centerville, Ohio.