I am one of those tragic figures who is both a perfectionist and a procrastinator. I am such a perfectionist that the very idea of failure terrifies me to the core of my being. I am so afraid of doing things wrong that I am afraid to start because I will probably not do it (whatever “it” is) perfectly and correctly.
So I have to wait around until the fear of failure-by-not-finishing-at-all becomes greater than the fear of failure-by-not-doing-it-perfectly. Once the scale tips the balance, I can then scramble to try to get it done in the little remaining time, my normal fear of imperfection having been overwhelmed by the terror of it not being completed by the deadline.
If this doesn’t sound like a healthy pattern to you, that’s good, because it isn’t. But let me tell you, it works. In high school, college, and graduate school, I became skilled at balancing those fears and I was a successful student, but often a miserable one.
Haunted by Fear
Now that I am out of school, I have found that this strategy doesn’t work as well in normal life. My job and life have few deadlines, so the fear of not doing a task perfectly doesn’t have any counterbalance. Effectively, that means I spend most of my time with a to-do list that I never properly tackle, and so I am always haunted by things that should be done and aren’t, which is not a pleasant way to live.
The lack of deadline fear in my life is forcing me to look more closely at the fear that drives my perfectionism. It actually consists of many fears: fear that I will fail, fear that people will find me lacking and no longer love me, fear that I am not good enough for anything, and the strange fear that somehow failure will destroy me rather than be a learning experience or a hilarious story to tell my grandchildren.
These fears exist because I build my self-worth on my performance. If you can only love yourself (and believe that others will love you) as a straight-A student, then a B+ becomes an existential threat.
In order to defeat my perfectionism, I need to let go of the whole project of establishing my own worthiness. I’ll never succeed. I make mistakes, I fail people, I hurt people. Busily engaging in my own pathetic attempt at perfection in limited areas doesn’t fix those things. These projects, which seem so terribly important, just distract me from the real issue.
The real issue is that I am a sinner and there is a holy God, and I do not deserve good things from him. I need someone to fulfill the demands of the law on my behalf and suffer the judgment for my failures. Christ has done this exact thing for me and extended his worthiness to me by grace, and it means that my worthiness is no longer up for me to determine. Because of Christ, I am good, I am safe, and no B+ (or worse!) can vouchsafe that reality.
I believe these things because they are true, and then the truth goes on to set me free. The truth frees me from my obsession with achieving perfection and actually allows me to do my jobs well. This paper, or this assignment, or this blog post, is not a referendum on my worth as a person. It’s just an attempt to be faithful where God has placed me. I will fail from time to time, and I know I’m going to fail, and God knows I’m going to fail, and everything will still be ok. I do not need to procrastinate because I am no longer driven by fears in any direction; so I don’t need to balance them.
Taken altogether, letting go of my perfectionism is all gain and no loss. But it is still a difficult thing to do. What if God didn’t really mean this whole grace business? What if only the superficially perfect inherit the kingdom? That’s where faith, and trust, and resting in the promises of God come in.
In repentance and rest is your salvation; in quietness and trust is your strength. Some trust in their achievements (including me!), and some trust in their own facades (me too, quite often!), but we (are working to) depend on the Lord our God.
Anna Smith holds a Masters of Arts in Biblical Studies from Westminster Seminary in California and lives in Chicago, Illinois with her husband Andy. Anna blogs weekly at thebeautifulplaceblog.com.
Anna Smith, “Perfectionism and Procrastination,” Modern Reformation, March/April 2016. Used by permission.