Perfectionism is a slippery topic. When does a healthy desire to strive for excellence slip over into an unhealthy self-centeredness where no one else quite measures up? At what point does a highly organized person become controlling? When do high standards become unrealistic, so that life takes on a frantic, driven quality? How do we determine whether we value ourselves primarily for what we accomplish rather than for who we are?
Perfectionism is slippery for another reason. Many perfectionists deny their problem, and fear facing it because letting down even a little seems like accepting mediocrity. The trouble is, perfectionism can easily become an prescription for failure. Some people are paralyzed by it, even defeated, others become domineering and self-centered, and still others are caught in eating disorders. Unchecked, perfectionism can become a cancer, while the perfectionist is, sadly, the last to recognize they have a problem.
In Perfecting Ourselves to Death, psychiatrist Richard Winter invites us to think through perfectionism, so that our lives can be marked by the healthy, not the unhealthy variety. The book is informed by the latest research yet never burdened by technical jargon. It is intensely practical, with discussion questions at the end of each chapter and a final section which explores strategies for growth and change. And though Dr Winter has a distinctly Christian perspective on his topic, he has written the book in a way that will appeal to non-Christians as well. When he explains freedom from the bondage of an unhealthy perfectionism, Winter shows how more than do-it-yourself-strategies are necessary to achieve liberation, and how this can only be found in the transforming grace of God.
Throughout Perfecting Ourselves to Death, Winter is helping us see more clearly, to look again at things we usually so take for granted that we seldom examine them closely. People who find themselves in the strangle-hold of unhealthy perfectionism didn’t intentionally adopt that as a goal for their lives. Rather, through the myriad influences of societal views of success, genetic tendencies, parental modeling, false values, and so much more, we find ourselves subtly shoved into a mold that is unrealistic, but which feels natural. It’s usually far easier for us to see the perfectionism in other people than in ourselves. So, we get impatient with them, and dismissive, or expect they will see their problem clearly the first time we point it out.
Perhaps a place to begin is to recognize how easily our perspective can be unrealistic, even dishonorable. Dr Winter reflects, for example, on how the Christian perspective of people is shaped by the biblical story. In Creation we know each person is made in the image of God, but because of the Fall we know each is less than they were meant to be—what Francis Schaeffer referred to as a “glorious ruins.” Winter asks us to pause and consider how we see the people who are closest to us. To remember how quickly we notice faults, take those we love for granted, and get impatient with their mistakes and imperfections. Winter doesn’t just challenge us to do this, but uses his relationship with his wife as an example, admitting that he so often tends “to notice her defects and shortcomings rather than her gifts and dignity.” He then quotes Dan Allender and Tremper Longman: “To view our spouses from the perspective of glory is to be overwhelmed by the privilege of being face to face with creatures who mirrors God.” The power of this insight comes from its simplicity, and from how often we fail to allow it to shape our perspective.
In the end, the yearning for perfection we feel is not a defect, but a hint of what we were meant to be, what we have fallen away from, and what we hope for in the future. As Dr Winter explains:
“Just as looking forward to a good vacation keeps me going in the difficulties of day-to-day life so, in the bigger picture, we remember with Paul that “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” The whole creation, including us, he says, is groaning for the day when it will be liberated from its “bondage to decay” and imperfection. For now we wait eagerly for “the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Rom 8: 18-25). When Christ returns, we will not have to struggle with the imperfections of a fallen world anymore. The creation will be renewed and restored. Our old nature will be completely gone, so we will no longer have to deal with pride, self-centeredness or the desire to be in control. We will, for sure, still be finite creatures of our Creator, but we will be able to accept this limitation without rebellion and fighting.
“C. S. Lewis says it well: ‘The command Be ye perfect is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command… He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said.’
“It may be difficult for perfectionists to hear that there is no shortcut to perfection. They want the change completed immediately or not at all. And the fact that it is painful—painful because sin is deeply embedded and the process of God teaching us is slow—is hard to endure. But he will never let us go. We can rest in that deep security and know that we have significance in being made in his image and in being a child of God, saved by his grace, not by anything we have done or earned. At the deepest level, understanding and experiencing God’s grace is the key to unlocking the prison of perfectionism.”
Richard Winter often lectures on perfectionism, and if you have the chance to attend those lectures, be sure to do so. Perfecting Ourselves to Death is written clearly with good illustrations, careful explanations, and a thoroughly helpful grasp of the topic, but Winter is an even better lecturer than a writer. He uses PowerPoint creatively, using images and film clips to help his listeners learn. It’s worth traveling out of your way to hear him.
Please read Perfecting Ourselves to Death. It can help us understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy perfectionism, examine ourselves afresh, and map out practical strategies to help us grow to maturity. Consider working through it together with a group of friends. The discussion questions with each chapter will prompt good conversation, and our hearts are deceitful enough that we all probably need the unflinching love, gentle probing, and gracious safety of dear friends to face the perfectionism that lurks within our souls.