The Burden of Perfectionism

perfect3One afternoon less than a year into our marriage, I returned to our apartment to find my then-husband waiting impatiently for me in the living room.  He didn’t waste a moment before severely scolding me for failing to turn off the stereo receiver before leaving home.

He then launched into an in-depth lecture about the sensitivity of the components and the value of the equipment and insisted that my singular offense was “absolutely unacceptable.”  I humbly apologized for the oversight, but he immediately dismissed my apology.

“You have to promise me that will never happen again,” he demanded.

I explained that I would do my best while confessing I could not make such a promise.

“That’s not good enough,” he fumed.  “You have to promise me.”

I could only commit to my best effort, but he insisted that anything less than perfection was not to be tolerated.

That lengthy, perplexing conversation ended in a stalemate because I could not give him what he was demanding.  Yet it instilled a fearful determination in me to do whatever I could to adhere to his strict expectations, an intense desire to avoid giving him a reason to be angry, disappointed or even inconvenienced.  Rather than insisting on the right to be imperfect, I instead afforded him the right to determine what was good enough, if there was such a thing.  It is not surprising then that, in addition to his verbal criticisms, he could just shake his head or roll his eyes at me for some oversight, and I would feel like a failure as a person and a wife.  I came to believe I expected too much of him and of marriage and not nearly enough of myself.

As the years passed, my former husband’s demands only increased while in terms of my role as a wife, I became little more than his petrified partner.  With regard to our marriage, for all intents and purposes, I ceased to exist.  What I wanted or needed didn’t matter and any expression of dissatisfaction on my part was viewed by him as a sign of my utter selfishness.  In the pursuit of perfectionism, I had denied my humanness and forfeited the right to be imperfect.

Perfectionism is a curse, a trap and a lie.

At its core, perfectionism elevates performance over personhood.  Perfectionism leaves us living under a dark cloud, where what we do is more important than who we are and how we look is more important than how we feel.  In an abusive marriage where we accept perfectionism as our calling, we give our abuser the authority to scrutinize, judge and define us, and the criteria by which we are measured are also subject to change.

We were not created to be robots or slaves.  Perfectionism compels us to live as though our emotions, needs and desires are unimportant.  Attempting to operate in that realm robs us of our uniqueness and the joy of genuine relationship, from whence our sense of belonging is derived.  When our needs for acceptance and affection are consistently unmet, we will find ourselves suffering from what amounts to emotional starvation.

Perfection magnifies failure.  There is no satisfaction to be found in perfectionism, only the frustrating pursuit of an end that will always be beyond reach, leaving us haunted by feelings of inadequacy and perpetual disappointment.

Perfectionism is paralyzing. Success comes with risk-taking; however, the fear of failure  or criticism can lead to either procrastination or abject avoidance when success cannot be assured.

Perfectionism robs us of our joy. Perfectionism demands that its subject operate under a crushing weight of obligations and demands.

  • Perform your duties and do them well.
  • Try not to need anything from your spouse or to inconvenience him in any way.
  • Learn to quell your emotions and ignore the pain.
  • Pretend you’re happy and that this life you are living is normal.

Perfectionism is a lie.  Perfectionism says, “You can do it,” when the truth is that you can’t (at least not perfectly), nor are you meant to.  There is no perfection in the human frame, and it is a good and healthy thing to rest in the truth that, even on our best days, messes and mistakes are going to be made.

Perfectionism is contagious.  Our children will imitate what they see rather than what we say.  Imitating the perfectionist’s lifestyle, our kids may be inclined to doubt whether they are lovable apart from their good behavior or accomplishments.  That burden and the measure of unhappiness they witness in our own lives is sadly contagious.  I  have seen varying degrees of perfectionism in the lives of my children and know  it was I who modeled it.  I can only hope those tendencies will heal over time.

These many years later I too am still detoxing from the poison of perfectionism.  I continue to struggle with the notion that sometimes good enough really is good enough and that I matter too. Being married to Doug, though, I know I am safe.  There is no need to hide my failings or doubts or fears from him, as I know he will always be accepting and affirming.  He is not oblivious to my weaknesses and may occasionally offer alternatives to my way of thinking or doing things, but he does not ever make me feel ashamed of who I am.  If anything, he is the one who encourages me to let go of my unrealistic expectations of myself, rest in our relationship, and enjoy this life we are privileged to share.  He reminds me that who I am is more important than what I do.  What a beautiful thing.

Perhaps you have found yourself on that crazy treadmill, striving but getting nowhere, reaching for perfection in an effort to win over an abusive spouse.  You may have grown accustomed to trying harder, keeping silent, denying yourself and basically pretending that your needs or desires don’t matter.

Let me remind you that you do matter.  If you have any hope of bringing your unbalanced relationship back to center, you will need to find a way to express legitimate needs and desires and to ask for the kind of loving grace that should abide in a healthy relationship.  You will need to identify the unhealthy habits and accommodations you have made that have contributed to the dysfunction, be honest with your spouse, and insist upon compromise and new ways of living and relating.  Thus begins the work of reclaiming your value and your identity.

If, over time, you continue to find yourself unduly criticized and condemned…

If you consistently feel unsafe, unlovely or unlovable being your imperfect self with your marriage partner…

If you believe that you must be less in order to be married…

If there is no mutuality of genuine care  as God intends…

…then you might want to consider what kind of relationship you really have.

As badly as you want this to work, realize that you are not perfect, that you were never meant to be, and real love is evident and is that much sweeter when it grows and thrives in the midst of imperfection.

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.”  I John 4:7-8 (emphasis added)

Copyright 2015

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6 thoughts on “The Burden of Perfectionism”

  1. Very timely article, what with all eyes, lately, on a cult (the one the Duggar family subscribes to) that demands “immediate obedience” to a moral code of perfection that includes a perpetual smile on one’s face lest one “dishonor” the (male) “head” of the house…

    I am so glad that whatever our “perfection” is, as Christians, is the righteousness of Jesus Christ, not our behavior.

    Love your comments about your husband.

    Blessings to you and yours today!

    1. Hello, “P.” Wow, I didn’t even see the connection with the Duggar controversy. That kind of lifestyle has nothing to do with being real and everything to do with appearances. Jesus was repulsed by that stuff.

      I also fully agree that whatever righteousness we may exude surely does not come from us!

      As always, thanks for sharing.

      All the best,

      Cindy

  2. You’ve done it again, Cindy, with another great post!

    I could really relate to this as I lived with an abusive spouse for far too many years that demanded perfectionism from me and our two sons, yet when he messed up, well then it was okay.

    When he walked out on me 6 years ago the first thing I really felt was this relief of not having to worry about what I was going to do wrong each day. It was such a burden lifted off of me to not feel this constant pressure to be perfect.

    But having said that, I still to this day have a hard time starting projects or sometimes finishing things because deep down inside I worry about it not being perfect. Amazing how it can still affect me to this day.

    Fortunately, like you, my wonderful husband never expects anything so unrealistic from me, and accepts and loves me as I am…faults and all!

    🙂

    1. Hello, Amy:

      It always amazes me how similar our stories are. I can’t believe the junk we put up with, how abusers are so adept at brainwashing us into presuming that what we are living in is normal (or our fault), and wonder why in the world we stay as long as we do.

      It blesses me to know that you too are happy now. The truth, and the freedom that comes with it, is such a gift.

      Thanks, as always, for sharing.

      Cindy

  3. Yes! Perfectly stated! After 27 years of trying to “perform” I have distanced myself from the demands! Relief was the first emotion (ok, the second. The first was “really pissed”). Now I am understanding why I never start anything new, never finish anything I DID start, why I have a hard time deciding what I am going to do today, etc. Its kind of debilitating and embarrassing that I am a grown, intelligent woman and I have to really think about what I will do on any given day. I am still “waiting for him to tell me no, or why it can’t be done, or why it can’t be done THAT way, etc”. I find it difficult to move forward just with regular tasks, let alone “dreams” but I am getting there.

    1. Hello, Debby.

      I’m glad you wrote. All of your feelings and responses are absolutely consistent with a striving for perfection. You are right – it is debilitating, although I don’t think you have anything to be embarrassed about. That fear of inadequacy or failure has been drilled into you over the years, and the dark cloud of “What if?” that hangs over your head is huge. What you really want is to be loved and accepted for who you are, and you know in your heart that is the way it should be.

      It takes a long time to heal, and I’m not sure we ever do heal completely. Nevertheless, it’s good that you see where you have been, where you are today and where you would like to be in terms of your emotional safety and well-being.

      Thank you for sharing.

      Blessings,

      Cindy

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