I am a perfectionist. I have always been a perfectionist, and unless I figure out some way to break the habit, I will always be a perfectionist. This flaw has often served me well- it permitted me to be a straight-A student, securing my place as Valedictorian in elementary and high school, as well as Summa Cum Laude in college. Teachers have always loved me, and my parents have always been proud of my grades. Most people would consider my perfectionism to be a blessing, but more often than not, I have found it to be a curse and a very bad habit that has been nearly impossible to break.
I could have been a good student without needing to be a perfectionist. I probably could have been a great student. But I wouldn’t have been Valedictorian twice and I might not have graduated Summa Cum Laude. I have always demanded perfection of myself. I have always required that I give 110% in everything that I do. Anything less would not suffice.
Many of my classmates envied me. They envied my dedication and the ease with which I learned information. They envied my remarkable presentations and my perfectly written papers. On more than one occasion, students told me that they wished they were as smart as me. I would smile in response, but I always found myself wishing that I didn’t care so much.
My classmates saw the finished products. They saw the A+ papers with not a single correction. They saw my colorful, intricate presentations. They listened to me give my Valedictorian speech and watched me receive award after award at graduation. But they only saw the tip of the iceberg. They saw the bright snow-covered tip, glistening in the sunlight. They never saw what lay beneath the dark waves. They never saw the darkness, the tons of ice that never saw the light of day. They never saw the hours of work that went into my papers and presentations. They never saw my red-rimmed eyes at 1AM as I re-read my paper for the third time to make sure that there were no errors. They never saw the obsession that fueled my dedication. They never saw how my perfectionism threatened to overwhelm me.
So many of my classmates wanted to be more like me, and yet I just wanted to be a little less like me. I wanted to care a little less. Work a little less. Obsess a little less. I knew that I could do less, but I also knew that I could always do more. And the more kept pushing me forward, preventing me from being content and constantly feeding my desire to be perfect.
You probably wonder where I got this need for perfection. You might blame my parents. Or maybe my teachers. Or maybe it was the other students. But it was none of them. It was me. I was the one who needed to be perfect. I knew that my parents would love me no matter what. I knew that my teachers would be pleased with my work even if it wasn’t perfect. I knew that my classmates would still like me even if I wasn’t top of my class. But none of that mattered. None of that stopped me from wanting to be perfect.
I was the one who was obsessed with perfection. I was the one who absolutely needed everything to be perfect. If it would have my name attached to it, there could be no error. Flaws were unacceptable. There might not have been a flaw to be found in my schoolwork, but I was blind to the biggest flaw of all, my obsession with perfection.
Over the years, it really had become an obsession. It had begun as a desire to please my teachers in elementary school, when I would do everything in my power to make sure that they would approve of my work. It was not yet an obsession, but the breaking point was near.
My need for perfection was born a week before I graduated from elementary school. I received a phone call informing me that I was Valedictorian; I was going to graduate at the very top of my class. The change was immediate. Now that I was at the top, I needed to stay there. I couldn’t fall. I had to stay on top, no matter what.
And so it became an obsession in high school. I took all honors courses, and I signed up for AP courses when they were offered. I stayed up late into the night finishing homework assignments, reading papers three or four times before accepting that there were no errors. I studied for hours before every test and quiz, even though I knew that I probably could have done it in one or two. I needed to know that I would succeed, that I would get the coveted A. I was never satisfied until an A seemed guaranteed. I needed to be perfect.
It was years before I realized what a flaw this need for perfection was. After years of exhaustion, I finally recognized that my obsession was not healthy. I realized that if I continued to live as I was, I would eventually break. You cannot be a perfectionist forever. Eventually it just becomes too difficult. You become too tired. You begin to fade. This need for perfection is rooted in pride. I only needed to be perfect because I was proud. There is the perfection that comes from sanctity, and then there is the perfection that comes from pride. One is to be worked towards throughout our lives, but the other is to be avoided. We do not need to be perfectionists. We need to be saints.
If I’m going to be honest, perfectionism is something that I still struggle with. Even now, my friends have to remind me that some things are more important than schoolwork. Sometimes they have to remind me that I don’t have to get a perfect score on everything, that I don’t need to read every word of every assignment. I don’t have to try to be perfect. The kind of perfection that comes from pride can never be achieved. There is always more that can be done. But I don’t need to be perfect; I don’t need to do everything. I am loved even though I am not perfect.
I will probably always struggle with my need for perfection, but at least now I recognize it for what it is- pride. And pride is not a blessing, but a curse. It is not something to be desired, but should be avoided. An obsession with perfection will destroy you if you do not fight it. While many of my classmates envied me for my perfection, they did not see the fullness of the truth. They did not see the damage inflicted by my desire to be perfect. We do not need to be perfect in the eyes of the world. We just need to be perfect in the eyes of Christ. And that is a much more reasonable demand, even if it will still be difficult. At least it is possible. We certainly have reason to believe that we can be perfected in Christ, and that’s all that matters.
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!