I've been a perfectionist for as long as I can remember. In middle school, I was already setting ridiculously high standards for myself academically, athletically, and relationally. I had to get As, had to win, and had to please everyone. Every mistake or perceived failure unleashed a torrent of self-condemnation.
When I became a Christian at 19, my perfectionism went to a whole new level. Every fellowship group or church I joined unknowingly validated my perfectionistic streak. Talk at church of selling out for Christ, pursuing excellence, or avoiding nominalism confirmed my core belief that saying no, or falling short of someone else’s standard, was simply not an option.
At age 40, I found myself leading a long-term discipleship group, mentoring several women, heading up the pre-marital program with my husband, serving on the prayer team, working part-time as a photographer, and homeschooling my three sons.
But I still had (some) limits, so when I was told that I also needed to serve a regular rotation in the church nursery, I refused. The children’s pastor pulled me aside and said disapprovingly, “You really need to evaluate your priorities.”
So I did. In response to her assessment, I pulled out of almost all church activities for an entire year and spent that time trying to get to the root of my issues.
Where Do We Get the Need to Be Perfect?
Perfectionism often emerges as a result of insecurity and a faulty understanding of grace. During the first few years of life, our parents are meant to communicate through their words and actions that we are both lovely and lovable, even though we do nothing to earn that love. When a baby cries and a parent consistently and lovingly meets her needs, the child gradually gains a sense of self-worth outside of her performance. If that message gets reinforced through the child’s first 10 to 12 years, the child will likely emerge into adolescence with a secure sense of self, ready to take risks and fail.1