In an earlier article, I discussed the dangers of perfectionism as exhibited in protectionism and power (see The Pitfalls of Perfectionism, Part I). In these follow-up thoughts, I want to explore two additional ways in which perfectionism might affect our personalities and the manner in which we interact with others. These two words have been made particularly famous in recent years by the popularity of Jane Austen’s extraordinary novel (from which we can all learn a great deal about such matters), Pride and Prejudice.
(1) Pride: Perfectionism is directly related to self-importance, vanity, and superiority. For one thing, remember the hallmarks of protectionism? Pride is what makes us build a fortress around ourselves or causes us to cloak ourselves in shadows, so that we do not have to face criticism—no matter how constructive such criticism may be. Pride is what makes us wish so heartily for a buffer from public exposure of our failures. We all fail—usually, often; imperfection is the hallmark of our humanity and when we seek to lessen that truth it is pride which drives us. When we run away from being able to transparently acknowledge our imperfections, we are engaging in protectionism. Similarly, the desire to be powerful and to impose our standards on others has its roots in pride. The regular practice of it cultivates egotism. The more we impose our power, the more we risk the genesis of arrogance in our hearts.
(2) Prejudice: Perfectionism is also directly related to preconceptions, discrimination, and injustice. As we set ‘our’ standards above others, we need to recognize that we are automatically creating an environment in which others will fail to measure up. Consequently, we develop an atmosphere in which our prejudices arise: preferences for some who at least seem to meet with our liking even if they cannot fully meet our standards, or prejudices against some who do not meet the ‘cut.’ Thus we arbitrarily set some up while we push others down. We are not encouraging all to attempt to meet God’s standards in fellowship within a community of believers. Neither are we lovingly modeling God’s standards to unbelievers. Instead, we are judging in a way which neither uplifts nor witnesses well: it exalts some while diminishing others.
There is one final “P” that is a fruit of perfectionism: Pain. Look around: in this world which—ever since the Fall—rejects God and exalts the god-likeness of ‘self,’ what do we see? Overwhelming fellowship, community, and love? Or isolation, domination, and hate? Many would argue we see a continuous deluge of the latter. Maybe this is because the perfectionist focus on self, whether through protectionism or power, causes pain. Self-protection leads to personal isolation, not to fellowship. Self-empowerment leads to domination, not fellowship. Pride leads to self-exaltation over others while prejudice fosters rejection of others. All of these neglect the biblical exhortation to “love one’s neighbor.” All of these produce pain.
This is not to say that there are no standards. It is not at all to say that there is no such thing as excellence. It is most definitely not a rejection of objective Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. It is not to advocate throwing up one’s hands and giving up the path. I want to caution us as we raise our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord: do not lead a child teeteringly close to the precipice of perfectionism. Only God can set standards of perfection, because He is Perfect. Only God can set standards of perfection and ask us to meet those standards because only He was capable of providing us with the Person in whom we find salvation: Christ.
As a classical, Christian educator, I feel I need to continually examine my standards of excellence and the ways in which I explain them, teach towards them, and enforce them. I feel I must be aware of the pitfalls. For me, it is worth the time to ponder the following types of questions:
- Is it only through a certain test score or letter grade that I feel excellence has been reached by my child or student? Or are there some kinds of excellence—particularly those upheld in the Bible—that cannot be scored quantifiably? On which am I focusing more?
- What kind of feedback do I give my student in terms of how he is completing his work? Am I conveying my appreciation of his work and efforts? Giving him constructive advice? Helping him to see what the true purposes of the assignment are? Evaluating with him whether and how he met those purposes or not? Or just telling him he must achieve a certain percentage score in order to obtain approval?
- Is it through the study of certain specific subjects (usually mandated by the government) that high standards are achieved by my child? Or is it through the study of all subjects as they reveal the character of God that she is motivated to emulate godly standards? Am I more concerned about checking off the completion of a list of subjects prescribed by the state than I am about whether or not my child learned more about God—and therefore learned to love learning because it brought her closer to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty—through the study of those subjects?
- Is it through the exhibition of certain talents (most often analytical ones such as those found in mathematics and the sciences, but sometimes others, such as artistic or athletic abilities) that my student can be judged to have reached excellence? Or is it through the use of talents to glorify the Lord that he or she can be said to have achieved an excellent standard? Which do I emphasize more?
- Is it through academic achievement (at any level, from grade school through college) that these high standards have been met? Or are there are multitude of other ways in which children can achieve high standards—standards they may in fact have reached through the study of academic subjects, but which in themselves are not academic in nature, such as virtues like diligence, perseverance, and integrity? Do I emphasize academic achievements measured by test scores more than I seek to see what skills and abilities my child gained through studying those academic subjects?
- Is it in the practice of respected and/or lucrative careers that excellence is revealed? Or is it in the fulfillment of God’s calling—a vocation—that true excellence comes to fruition? What is my real concern for my child’s education: that he secures a good paying job or that he serves the Lord efficaciously in whatever field in which he works?
As a classical, Christian educator, I also want to spend time contemplating questions like these:
- Do I realize that Christ leads each uniquely created person down a path solely and matchlessly designed by God himself within biblical standards of excellence?
- Do I grasp that each person is gloriously created imago Dei and subsumed beneath God’s standards alone, and thereby brought fully to sanctification—to perfection—in Christ alone?
- Do I understand that when I set up my own standards (by embellishing, taking away, or changing God’s standards), I am exercising perfectionism, and succumbing to a pride and prejudice which will not necessarily disciple my students well, but which may, in fact, produce pain?
Personally, I have become convinced that if my standards exalt some students while diminishing others, I am walking too close to the edge of the precipice of perfectionism. That does not mean that my students and I cannot all walk in fellowship towards high standards of excellence, but it means that we must walk the ridgeline in the middle: in open recognition of our imperfections, in avoidance of wielding personal power, in humility, and in love.
These are difficult goals; I do not claim to have reached them, but I surely do want, with God’s equipping, to reach towards them. And I want to remind myself often, as C.S. Lewis puts it beautifully in Mere Christianity, that there is no such thing as an ‘ordinary’ person; we are all eternal souls living moment-by-moment in the opportunity to grow, through God’s grace, towards His standards of excellence. I want to leave the perfectionism to Him.