Perfectionism leads to frustration and stress

Patricia Holbrook of Soaring With Him Ministries

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Patricia Holbrook of Soaring With Him Ministries

“The pursuit of excellence is gratifying and healthy. The pursuit of perfection is frustrating, neurotic, and a terrible waste of time.” — Edwin Bliss

John Quincy Adams is perhaps one of America’s most impressive leaders. No elected official held more prominent offices than Adams in U.S. history. He lived in constant pursuit of excellence, serving with distinction as the country’s president, senator, congressman, and minister to major European powers. He also served in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and his name was tied to important events leading to the Civil War.

Despite all his outstanding accomplishments, we find a quote by the former president that translates the void he felt and insecurities tied to his struggle with perfectionism. At 70 years old, with a lifetime of successes behind him, he wrote, “My whole life has been a succession of disappointments. I can scarcely recollect a single instance of success in anything that I ever undertook.”

Indeed, anyone who struggles with perfectionism can attest to it: Perfectionism is a monster disguised in pretty clothes. Its victims usually look always put together. Their homes are often spotless. Their grades and careers, commendable.

If you are a woman, I guarantee you’ve been jealous of a perfectionist before.

But as is often the case, when it comes to the Joneses, there is much more than meets the eye. It is not uncommon to find deep insecurities hiding behind many perfectionists’ beautiful front and successful endeavors.

I know it too well. A recovering perfectionist, I struggled with thoughts of inadequacy and failure for many years. I strived for straight As and dreamed of straight hair. Indeed, in a perfectionist’s economy, “good” is never good enough.

When it comes to physical appearance, the issue is broad. We live at the age of airbrushed, anorexic beauty. My anti-age cream ad campaign portrays a gorgeous 20-year-old model who won’t see a wrinkle on her face for another, well, 20 years. Millionaire actresses in their 50s or older sell us the lie that we can fight the losing battle of sagging, wrinkling and hormonal changes with the latest fad supplement or diet.

Without a doubt, physical perfectionism plagues our society, infiltrating our families and distracting even many of our beautiful young girls, who are hiding in the restrooms, drowning in the hopelessness of anorexia and bulimia.

But then there’s performance perfectionism. Like President Adams, many of us believe that we must be perfect in all we do. Our homes must be immaculate. We must strive to climb the corporate ladder, no matter the cost.

The need for perfection invariably leads to unhealthy comparisons. We may find ourselves comparing our marriage to our friend’s, whose husband appears to be more romantic than ours. Before we know it, we are nagging John to death, trying to change the man we fell in love with into someone he’ll never be.

And let’s not forget our children’s school performance and sports galore! The pressure to be on accelerated programs and honor rolls steal many children’s hide-and-seek moments today. Our baseball, softball and football fields overflow with young boys and girls missing their summers for another championship. Or missing church for another trophy. We push them. They push themselves. And everyone misses the mark.

We strive to perfect ourselves, our children, our spouses, our homes. Inevitably, we become miserable, tired, and broken... together.

It’s not easy to escape from the trap. But if we want to have an abundant life, we must try!

We can start by reminding ourselves of this truth: God is not impressed by our looks or performance. He wants our hearts. Hearts that understand that our perfection is only found in him.

He is looking for people who make his priority list theirs, and whose hearts are set less in seeking perfection and more in perfecting their love and devotion for him.

Indeed, today I realize that perfectionism’s most significant issue is that it pushes me to rely less and less on God and more and more on fallible, inadequate me. It borders idolatry, really.

Instead of attaining perfection, the result will always fall short of our target: We become stressed out, needy of approval, self-indulgent, impatient. Simply hard to deal with.

As we strive to escape the perfectionism trap, we should start by viewing ourselves and our performance through the grid of God’s grace. By grace, we are lavished each day with opportunities, gifts and talents which allow us to do our best and be our best.

As Dallas Willard said, “Grace is God acting in our lives to do what we cannot do on our own.”

Indeed, God never designed us to accomplish perfection without him. The point of the gospel is that we are unable to be perfect. We all fall short; we all “miss the mark.” Sinners need a Savior, and as believers, we understand that is the reason Jesus came.

When we trust in him, he forgives our shortcomings, and we can stop striving for unreasonable, unattainable worldly “perfection” and rest in the Perfect One.

Patricia Holbrook is a columnist, author, blogger and international speaker. Visit her website to learn about her speaking ministry, Bible studies and book. For speaking engagements and comments, email