My hands felt clammy. My heart rate soared. Then my teacher was at my desk passing me the test paper, neatly marked in green ink, because green is less threatening. 97%. Only three marks off.
That test wasn't a big deal. It didn't make or break anything, but as my teacher walked away, I struggled not to let the tears leak out. All I could do was think about how stupid I was for getting that one question wrong, making that one mistake, being less than perfect.
Some people at this point are wondering, "What on earth is wrong with you?" Believe me, I wondered the same thing as year after year, I felt that sense of failure creep up on me whenever I came short.
It stalked me all the way to university, where the bench mark for feeling good about myself changed from 100% to High Distinction. I even remember watching the 2012 Olympics and wondering at how devastating and soul-destroying it must be to win a silver medal.
Perfectionism is a problem people seem to have but don't really consider a problem. If you are asked in a job interview what your weaknesses are, chances are you'll say something like "I tend to get too obsessed with doing something perfectly" or its equivalent.
The classic strength-as-weakness trope might work when trying to nail your next job, but outside the interview room, reframing perfectionism as a strength just isn't realistic. It's like saying anorexia is a strength because it helps you lose weight. Actually, anorexia eventually destroys your body, just like perfectionism destroys your mental health.
Options for change
For me, something had to give, because the fact is, despite being a perfectionist, I am not perfect. Let me review a few of the options that are on the table for any perfectionist.
The coping mechanism of choice is simply to be as perfect as possible. This works quite nicely until you drop the ball; you face an unexpected exam question or you write an essay that just isn't quite there. It happens. We're human. It's at that point we realise that this option isn't so much about dealing with the problem as it is avoiding it. Avoiding problems doesn't help anyone.
The solution that non-perfectionists think is a no-brainer is simply stop caring. If only we could honestly say to ourselves "I do not care whether I get a 60 or a 90. P's get degrees!" This sounds like a good idea, but there are two fundamental problems with it.
Firstly, the very point of being a perfectionist is that not caring is notoriously difficult to do. Believe me, I tried it!
Secondly, it's not biblical. Colossians chapter 3, verse 23 reminds us, "whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters." This verse urges us to do our best in everything, not slack off in the knowledge that we can at least pass the subject. Be assured, however, that it doesn't call us to make perfect 100's. It's much more about attitude than achievement. This was the true key to dealing with my own perfectionist tendencies.
Breaking the shackles
Admitting you have a problem, as they say, is the first step to dealing with it. That for me was pretty easy—it was blindingly obvious that what I had going on in my head was not healthy.
What was much harder was putting that problem next to my faith. In light of my relationship with Jesus, the shadowy land of perfectionism began to take on the hard edges of pride, selfish ambition, and, dare I say it, idolatry. Ouch.
Thinking I should be infallible is simply a disguise for pride. Backtrack to Colossians chapter 3, verse 23, where it exhorts believers to work as if for the Lord not for men. My selfish ambition was not working for the Lord, but it wasn't even working for men. I was working for me, me, me.
And why this potent mixture of sin? Well, that's where the idolatry comes in. All this striving and effort was an attempt to stabilise my shaky self-worth. By putting my grades in a position where they controlled how I felt about myself, they became my god.
When the true God was saying "You are free in Christ", I was chained to a number. When God said "You are complete in Christ", I strove to be completed by my own academic prowess. My identity was bound up in something that wasn't Christ; that's idolatry. Clearly, it was time to act.
Destructive, sinful attitudes rarely disappear in one great swoop. More often, it takes a continual chipping away of negativity every time it pops up. Sort of like a game of whac-a-mole. Thankfully for us, the better we get at whacking down those thoughts, the less they come up in the long run.
As I studied away through my undergrad years, I refined the art of essay-writing, conjugating Latin verbs, and engaging in the battle of whac-a-sin. Repeating the truths of who I am in Christ was my hammer, slamming down on the temptation to idolise the perfect 100. Interestingly enough, my grades didn't drop. That's because the problem wasn't with achievement, it was with attitude.
Over time, God showed me how to disentangle my grades from my identity. There is tremendous freedom in being able to hand in an assignment without the crushing knowledge that it holds the key to who you are.
I care as much as ever about working hard, getting good marks, and doing my very best. The difference is that I no longer tie those marks to who I am. I know full well that no amount of 100% can change who I am. My identity is in Christ.
Lucinda loves languages, from Latin and Greek to Pidgin English. She tutors high-school students and leads a Girls Brigade group.
Lucinda Glover's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/lucinda-glover.html