Perfectionism: How's That Working for You?

I remember the precise moment I quit Girl Scouts. I was in 4th grade, and we were all sitting in the cafeteria at school. It was cookie fundraiser time, and they were trying to get us excited about selling the confections to relatives, friends, and neighbors. To inspire us, the leaders went over the incentive sheet, holding up what we would win if we sold 10 boxes (a pencil case or coin purse), 20 boxes (a Rubik’s Cube), 100 boxes (a Sea World printed beach towel). Finally they got to the grand prize. The girl who sold the most cookies in the ENTIRE country would win…


I sat there in the stale, instant-mashed-potato air of the cafeteria. I had never wanted something so badly before in my entire life. I said to myself,

“I REALLY want to win that grand prize…

It’s impossible for me to sell that many boxes…

I could never do that…

I’m quitting Girls Scouts.”

And with that, I trudged out of the building, removed my badge-smattered sash, and walked home. The fear of not reaching the highest possible reward was greater than any desire to dream or try for a lesser prize.

You see, the quest for perfection was my default mode. I don’t know if I was wired that way, or if I was conditioned to be that way, or a combination of both. I do remember there were cues that guided me toward meeting the highest expectations. For example, I remember coming home with my report card and announcing to my dad, “Look! I got six A’s and one B!”

“Why didn’t you get seven A’s?” was his response.

I know now that that was his way to challenge me to excellence and to always try hard. In that moment though, that one question stripped away all satisfaction in what I had done right and leveled it to the fact that I had not achieved perfection. Never mind that math was my hardest subject; never mind that I had brought my grade up from a C. It wasn’t straight A’s, so it didn’t measure up.

Please understand, my dad wasn’t trying to be abusive or mean. I had great parents who loved me and set high expectations because they truly believed in me and wanted to spur me on to greatness. Still, though, those well-intentioned high expectations morphed into impossible standards in my young mind. I assumed that I was expected to be the perfect child, the perfect student, the perfect employee, you name it. Consequently, my belief was that if I couldn’t do something perfectly, no matter how excellent my attempts were, then I had failed. So everything became win or lose, all or nothing, perfection or failure.

In my early walk with Christ, I operated under the same assumptions I had as a child. I was supposed to live up to impossible standards. I went around feeling defeated, full of shame, condemnation, and guilt. If I loved Jesus, I reasoned, then I should strive harder to be obedient, good, and perfect. God would never bless me if I didn’t measure up. Add the stress of being a new wife, career woman, and later, stay-at-home mother of two, and it was compounded. It was exhausting.

Early on, when I was feeling overwhelmed, my tendency was to fall back into my default mode of perfectionism. In some weird way, it seemed to give me control when everything else seemed out of control. I”ll never forget the summer one of my daughters and I got lice from a movie theater (*side note: always wear a hoodie to the movies and launder it in hot water when you get home).

Anyone who knows me well knows that I have “cootie issues.” It would always become DEFCON 5 in our house when anyone started sniffling, sneezing, or coughing. Out would come the apple cider vinegar, vitamins, and Lysol spray. So when it was clear that we had lice, I went into complete and utter freak out mode. Nothing in the house was safe! I bagged every stuffed animal, storing them in the garage for two weeks, in spite of my daughters’ tearful pleas otherwise. I boxed up all the My Little Ponies and other toys that had fur or hair. I washed the girls’ sheets, pillows, blankets, and comforters every single day. I vacuumed the carpets, rugs, couch, and drapes every single day. I picked through her hair and my hair every single day.

Every. Single. Day.

I am exhausted just thinking about it! I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. It was horrible.

H O R R I B L E.

The worst part was that in my desperate need to have control of the situation, I had spiraled out of control. I really was beginning to lose my mind. I remember at one point vacuuming and hearing voices. It was then that I sought help to get back into balance. I had come to the end of myself, and even through my most feverish attempts to be perfect, I had clearly fallen short.

God intends for us to depend completely on Him, not to revert to the default mode in which we operated before knowing Him. He gently, patiently taught me that He was my Rock, that it wasn’t up to me to hold it all together, keeping all the plates spinning like those acts on old T.V. variety shows. When I think of the freedom I gained from relying on Jesus instead of myself, not only for my salvation, but also for my day to day living, I am brought to tears. Because of Christ, we are no longer in bondage! We are not required to reach for unattainable perfection; we are free.

It may not be perfectionism for you; it may be anger, addiction, victim mentality, or avoidance behaviors so as not to have to face something. You may deal with it by not dealing with it, or by overeating, starving yourself, cutting, or any number of unhealthy behaviors. When you feel out of control, what is your default mode? Is there any hope?

Praise God, there is!

Romans 8:1-2 says that “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.” Good news: we are not dependent on our own ability to keep all the laws and rules on our own. Instead, we rely on the Spirit to lead us, knowing that Christ already fulfilled the Law through the cross.

In 2 Corinthians:12, the Apostle Paul describes his struggle with a recurring ‘thorn in the flesh.’ This could mean a literal physical ailment or a ‘default-mode’ struggle he had. Verses 8-10 summarize his struggle, and subsequent peace with God:

Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses… For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

We will never in our own strength conquer our default mode. But thank God, we can rest in His promise to be our Strength when we are weak. We must choose to rely on Him. It will require us to choose this daily, maybe even hourly. But God is faithful, and He “…will supply all of your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:19).

Finally, Isaiah 26:3 captures this nicely. “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.” If we want to abide, or remain, in God’s perfect peace, we must keep our minds focused on Him, trusting in Him completely. He is the only One we can trust for our well-being, our salvation, and our futures.

Part Two:

Less than two weeks after completing the first part of this message, the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic was beginning to take the forefront of newscasts and of conversations. I wish I could report to you that I followed my own encouragement to fall back on God and trust His protection and strength, but regrettably, I cannot. I just want to be real and transparent with you.

My concerns, probably like many of you, started slowly. As it became clearer that this was becoming a pandemic and was going to significantly change our lives and routines as we know it, at least for the short term, my own personal struggles concerning a need for security and control returned. At first my issues creeped in, then flooded in, unchecked. Once again, I’m sorry to admit, it came in the form of OCD behaviors related to germs. Now, I wasn’t one who panic-purchased all the toilet paper and hand sanitizer, but I did rehearse obsessively how I would go about my errands, meetings, and appointments without touching surfaces like doorknobs or keypads. I planned out instructions for my husband and children to use hand sanitizer as soon as they entered their cars from anywhere, to wipe down every touched surface in their vehicles upon returning home with a disinfectant wipe, and to wash their hands upon entering the house before touching anything or anyone. Tearfully, I admitted to them that I was aware that I was going overboard and it was illogical. I was aware that it was just an irrational need for control in a situation that felt out of control, but I just needed them to do it to be sure.

On day three of my self-imposed social distancing on steroids, I was reading over some of my writings to edit. Towards the end of my work, I came across the previous message about choosing to rely on God rather than revert back to our default mode. It was then that I burst into tears, feeling ashamed of my weakness and hypocrisy. How can I encourage others if I can’t even manage my own emotions or issues. I began to wonder how Jesus could identify with my feelings of being a hypocrite. Because He was perfect, I reasoned, maybe He couldn’t. Then I remembered the words of the apostle Paul:

“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:15-25a)

Later in the book of Romans, Paul reminds us that, “The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.” (Romans 8:6)

As long as we fix our eyes on our circumstances, on this fallen world, we will become entangled in fear, in worry, in doubt, and even panic. Instead, this is the time to let our minds be governed by the Holy Spirit to have His peace. We must abide, or meditate, on the promises of Jesus:

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33, NIV).

The Amplified Bible states that same verse this way: “I have told you these things so that in Me you may have [perfect] peace. In the world you have tribulation and distress and suffering, but be courageous [be confident, be undaunted, be filled with joy]; I have overcome the world.” [My conquest is accomplished, My victory abiding.]

Although there is little we can do to control circumstances in the world, we CAN choose to abide, or make our home, in Christ by reading the Bible and praying, which is simply talking to God about our lives, our fears, our small victories, and the like. Something I have learned in this experience of letting my default mode take over during times of great stress is to pray for the Holy Spirit to remind me of everything Jesus has said to me. John 14:25-27 is a beautiful reminder of this.

“All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

My prayer for each of us during this time, and in future times of uncertainty, is two-fold. First, that we can hold this truth in our hearts so tightly that even in the darkest times, the Holy Spirit would bring it to our remembrance so that we would have the peace of Christ (which surpasses all understanding and guards our hearts and minds in Him [Phillippians 4:7]). Secondly, I pray that we would each take the opportunity to share this Source of our peace with others who desperately need it as well. What better time to fulfill the Great Commission by sharing our hope in Jesus with those we care about most!