Guidepost #2 in The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown smacks us right between the eyes, doesn’t it?! One of my friends talks about the importance of being “acceptable outsiders.” Meaning as foreigners, we are probably never going to perfectly fit in to the culture we live and serve in. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t strive to be acceptable.
How many of us inadvertently assume “acceptable” is Christianese for “perfect?”
I’ve written about perfection before in a guest post for Mary DeMuth and in part wrote:
“I just want to do it perfectly.” She’d probably been saying variations of this for months before it finally clicked that one of my co-workers wants to do everything perfectly.
This theme did not show up in just her work, relationships must be perfect too. But it didn’t end there, reactions, didn’t escape the need to be perfect and she’d beat herself up when she didn’t respond perfectly or perfectly anticipate how someone else might respond. Having tuned into it, I began to notice it in every nook and cranny of her life and would jokingly point it out.
Fast forward to coffee with a woman I mentor. I asked about a work project and she had made zero progress since our last conversation because she wanted it to be, you guessed it, perfect.
Because the pumped had already been primed, out popped the question: what’s the difference between perfect and excellent?
These are two people who are not opposed to working hard, but in their desire to be perfectionists, the irony is that they were not as productive as they could have been.
Though it might appear that there is a fine line between doing something perfectly instead of excellently, it turns out that the difference is fairly easy to spot.
1. When you approach a task do you feel overwhelmed or engaged? Perfectionism is a cruel task master that will suck the life and joy out of any task. She will bring up all of the things that could go wrong and remind you of all that is riding on this meal, conversation, proposal, or performance. If, however, you find yourself energized as you think through and plan for something, you are more likely to be an excellentist. (My perfectionistic friends don’t like the word excellentist because “it isn’t a word and, therefore, not perfect.” But I’m sticking with it.)
2. Which message do you hear as you talk to yourself, “I can’t” or “I can?” Perfect probably is not doable, leading you to tell yourself why try because you can’t have the perfect project, your children won’t behave perfectly, or there is no way to time something perfectly. But doing something excellently is doable. You can have an excellent project, well behaved children, or a well-timed project.
3. At the end of something do you have the sense that your work is never good enough or do you have a sense of accomplishment? When an excellentist finishes something they hear “well done, good and faithful servant!” But a perfectionist sees all of the things she should have done better and areas she blew it. If you ask her what went well, it probably will take some time to come up with something.
Both of these women lived overseas. Both loved the Lord deeply and desired to serve him wholeheartedly. Both opened my eyes to the unique ways perfectionism can worm its way into our thinking when we are “outsiders” and desire to be be salt and light.
I appreciate the distinction Brene made when it comes to focus. Am I other focused or self focused? As believers we are to be other focused, but I’d say more in serving and being with them, than concerned (dare I say obsessed) with what they think of us or our service.
I looked up Dr. Neff’s self compassion scale. She’s got both a longer version and a shorter one — under “scales for research” How does the idea of self compassion sit with you? Brene links compassion and perfection and says, “Perfectionism never happens in a vacuum. It touches everyone around us… Thankfully, compassion also spreads quickly.When we are kind to ourselves, we create a reservoir of compassion we can extend to others.”
A reservoir of compassion that I can extend to others.
Wouldn’t it be great if one day what is inscribed on my tombstone is “She had a reservoir of compassion she extended to others.”
How much of a struggle is perfectionism (since we’re all somewhere on that continuum!)? How do we help those around us who wrestle big time with perfectionism — be them our kids, teammates or locals? What ways work for you to extend compassion to yourself? (One of the big ways for me is I give myself permission to go to the gym even if I’m “too busy” — the time moving my body helps restore my soul.)
Next week we’ll talk about Guidepost #3: Cultivating a Resilient Spirit.
Get a fun drink and join us in the comments for a chat on perfectionism, compassion, and reservoirs.
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