Young People Ask . . .
How Can I Stop Trying to Be Perfect?
“Perfectionism has basically taken over my life.”—Carly.
PERFECTIONISM—the belief that one has to be absolutely perfect in everything he or she does—afflicts the thinking of many youths.
Says the book Perfectionism—What’s Bad About Being Too Good?: “There’s a big difference between the healthy pursuit of excellence and the unhealthy striving for an impossible ideal. People who strive for excellence may have a strong need for order and organization and high expectations for themselves, but they also accept their own mistakes and have positive ways of coping. . . . Perfectionists, on the other hand, live in a constant state of anxiety about making errors. They have extremely high standards.”
Does that describe you? If your standards are impossibly high, you can easily become immobilized. You may find that you avoid doing anything new. Or you may tend to put off doing important things because you are afraid you will fail. You may even feel inclined to reject anyone who fails to meet your standards, and you may find yourself friendless.
If the above is in any way true of you, consider the Bible’s words at Ecclesiastes 7:16: “Do not become righteous overmuch, nor show yourself excessively wise. Why should you cause desolation to yourself?” Yes, a perfectionist can “cause desolation” to himself! In fact, perfectionism has even been linked to such life-threatening eating disorders as anorexia nervosa and bulimia.*
‘How can I stop trying to be perfect?’ you may therefore ask. Admittedly, changing one’s thinking in this regard can be challenging. But with God’s help, it can be done. Let us therefore look at God’s view of perfectionism.
Perfection—An Attainable Goal?
First of all, is it possible for you to be perfect in the absolute sense? Not according to the Bible, which says: “There is not a righteous man, not even one . . . All men have deflected, all of them together have become worthless.” (Romans 3:10-12) Thought-provoking words, aren’t they? They indicate that anyone who tries to be absolutely perfect is going to fail.
Consider the apostle Paul, who obviously was an outstanding example of spirituality. Yet, even Paul couldn’t serve God without error. He confessed: “When I wish to do what is right, what is bad is present with me. I really delight in the law of God according to the man I am within, but I behold in my members another law warring against the law of my mind and leading me captive to sin’s law that is in my members.” (Romans 7:21-23) It was only with God’s help that Paul could be faithful as a Christian.
Fortunately, God neither demands nor expects absolute perfection from any of us. “He himself well knows the formation of us, remembering that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:14) Only in God’s new world will humans finally reach the state of perfection.
In the meantime, then, it is unrealistic to think that you can be absolutely perfect. In fact, you should expect to make mistakes from time to time. (Romans 3:23) Why, sometimes we are not even aware of our mistakes! Psalm 19:12 says: “No one can see his own errors.” (Today’s English Version) A youth named Matthew puts it this way: “You’re not perfect—no one on Earth is. If you expect perfection of yourself, you’re never going to be happy. . . . It’s not realistic, it’s not possible.”
With that thought in mind, why not work on revising some of your expectations? For example, are you wearing yourself out trying to be the very best at something? The Bible indicates that such an exhausting effort can, in effect, prove to be “vanity and a striving after the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 4:4) The fact is, few ever succeed at being the best. And even when someone does, it’s usually just a matter of time before another comes along who is better.
The apostle Paul advised: “I tell everyone there among you not to think more of himself than it is necessary to think; but to think so as to have a sound mind.” (Romans 12:3) Be realistic! Revise your expectations to reflect both your abilities and your limitations. Seek excellence, but don’t seek perfection. Set a specific but attainable goal.
For example, Paul encouraged Timothy to become “a workman with nothing to be ashamed of, handling the word of the truth aright.” (2 Timothy 2:15) Yes, Paul encouraged excellence, but not perfection. In a similar way, set reasonable goals for yourself. And if you’re not sure what “reasonable” is, talk things over with your parents or another adult whom you trust.
Some even recommend that you deliberately try doing some things that you are not good at, such as taking up a new sport or playing a musical instrument. True, as you learn something new, you’re bound to make lots of mistakes. But that is not entirely a bad thing. Perhaps it will help you to see that making mistakes is simply part of the learning process.
Whatever you seek to accomplish—whether it’s writing a school report or mastering a piano sonata—consider another piece of advice from the apostle Paul: “Do not loiter at your business.” (Romans 12:11) Yes, do not put things off, or procrastinate, simply because you’re afraid to fail.
One youth made a practice of putting off school projects by using the excuse that she was “organizing herself.” While personal organization may be a good thing, be careful that it is not an excuse for procrastination. This girl came to realize that “faced with the choice between turning in a school paper that doesn’t completely satisfy you and not turning one in at all, the better choice is always to turn one in.”
Banish Self-Defeating Thoughts!
Admittedly, it may not be easy to handle doing a less-than-perfect job. Critical, negative thoughts may still flood your mind. What can you do? The fact is that dwelling on negative thoughts is destructive, self-defeating. So make a conscious effort to push from your mind unreasonable thoughts about yourself. Have a sense of humor regarding your mistakes. After all, there is “a time to laugh.” (Ecclesiastes 3:4) Remember, too, that Jehovah does not approve of abusive speech—even when we direct it toward ourselves.—Ephesians 4:31.
Instead of constantly berating yourself, apply the words of Proverbs 11:17: “A man of loving-kindness is dealing rewardingly with his own soul, but the cruel person is bringing ostracism upon his own organism.” So consider this question, Has having excessively high standards made it easy for you to have friends? Probably not. Maybe you’ve even rejected people because they were not perfect. So, what can you do?
Apply the Bible’s command: “Continue putting up with one another and forgiving one another freely if anyone has a cause for complaint against another.” (Colossians 3:13) Yes, by being more reasonable in what you expect of others, you will make it more possible to enjoy friendships!
‘Why,’ you may wonder, ‘would people tend to avoid me because of my perfectionism?’ Well, consider the effect that voicing high expectations for yourself may have on others. The book When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough explains: “Complaining excessively whenever you get less than an A on an exam may be insulting to friends who have to struggle to get a B or C.” So work on being less negative and self-centered. People will find you much more pleasant to be around.
Young Carly sums the matter up when she says: “I have to basically tell my perfectionism to back off.” How can you do that? Meditate on God’s view of matters. If you still have difficulty managing your thinking in this regard, talk to your parents or to a mature Christian in your congregation. Go to God in prayer and ask for his help in changing your thinking. Prayer can be a powerful tool in fighting perfectionism.—Psalm 55:22; Philippians 4:6,7.
Always remember that Jehovah does not demand perfection; he simply expects us to be faithful to him. (1 Corinthians 4:2) If you are striving to be faithful, you can truly be happy with who you are—even though you are not perfect.
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Fear of failure could immobilize you
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Trying to learn new things can help you to cope with making mistakes