Lessons From a Recovering Perfectionist

FREEDOM is the moment you finally stop resenting yourself for not moving at the crowd's pace, for not hustling harder, for not arriving sooner. The very moment you finally understand this important life truth – you have ALWAYS been worth the wait.  -- Cortney Farmer

This quote describes where I am today. In this blog, I share what triggered my recovery from spiritual perfectionism and the lessons I learned that got me to a place of freedom.

How does one know if they need to recover from perfectionism?

I knew because I couldn’t shake off the struggles listed below:

  1. Never felt good enough in any endeavor I attempted. I expected myself to be better than I was.
  2. Way too concerned about what people thought about me.
  3. Paralyzed by fear of stepping out and making any of my dreams come true, I often quit what I started.

Perfectionism keeps us from enjoying life, living in the moment, and loving God, others, and ourselves.

In 2022 I got serious about addressing these sad, self-condemning thoughts and feelings that were my constant companion. There were days, months, and even years I thought I had recovered in this area, but those ugly thoughts would start to take over again. I had to get to the root of the problem.

I asked myself, “Why would someone who has dedicated herself to God and enjoyed reading the Bible every day for the past four decades have a problem with self-esteem?”  

Then it dawned on me that perhaps what I believed about God and the church culture I was in was the obstacle to loving God, myself, and others. My beliefs were not life-affirming but instead put me in a small box and had me judging other Christians and myself.

In June of 2022, I started to do a full audit of what I believed Biblically and how that had impacted my mental, emotional, and spiritual health. The first task was to read my diaries from the 1980s, which I consider the most vulnerable and impressionable decade of my Christian life. During those years, I was a single professional in the International Church of Christ, referred to as the Boston Movement at that time.

My passion for documenting my life since high school has proven to be very helpful in my recovery from perfectionism. In June 2022, after I read about my life in the 1980s, it produced a river of tears that wouldn’t stop for three days. On the aging paper, the ink revealed truths about myself and the church culture that my memories could not have produced.

While reading my diary, I realized what I experienced in the 1980s was still with me the entire time I was in the ICOC. It came with me into all the subsequent decades into the present. I had thought I could put all that behind me but hadn’t.

The words I wrote in my 20s revealed the following to me in 2022.

In my endeavor to be a good disciple of Jesus, I was often spoken to in a demeaning way in the name of God to do the church’s work. I treated my mother and grandmother terribly in the 1980s when I was bent on converting them to the doctrine of my church. I was so disrespectful to them but unaware of my self-righteous behavior at that time.

Works-based doctrines train people to become full-blown perfectionists, whereas grace-based ministries allow people to fail and learn without judgment. 

My diary revealed that my obsession with bringing people into the church and attending all the church meetings kept me from developing my career. By the end of the decade, I had no savings, furniture, or ability to live independently, so I shared apartments with at least three other girls. I had also become very uptight about dating; no one thought it was weird that I wasn’t developing personally. It was the norm to live a rushed, overscheduled life.

The other ah hah moment while reading my diaries from the 1980s was I kept getting re-baptized. I thought I needed to be baptized for the 3rd time in 1988 because I had struggled terribly with comparison and competition with other sisters in Christ, which indicated to me and the church leaders that I didn’t truly repent of my sinful nature. A leader in the Chicago Church of Christ told me, “Yeah, you are probably not a Christian, so you should get baptized again. Can you imagine following Jesus with every ounce of energy you have but never feeling good enough, so you had to keep getting baptized to ensure your salvation? Where is God’s grace? It was absent.

From June 2022 to August 2022, I spent countless hours researching the restoration movement – the Church of Christ’s roots. I compared it to reformation theology and historical Christianity’s view on grace and justification by faith. Then I researched spiritual abuse which lead me to reach out to a therapist who wrote the book Understanding Spiritual Abuse and Recovery. He has helped me frame everything I have gone through in the church.

Here are some spiritual lessons I learned about my perfectionism during my audit and the actions I took with the help of the Holy Spirit.

My perfectionism was rooted in a works-based doctrinal belief.

I finally accepted it was impossible to overcome feelings of not being good enough as long as I adhered to a works-based doctrine of salvation. I couldn’t keep attending a church that pays lip service to grace. I needed to find a church that teaches salvation by grace through faith. I made this leap in September 2022 and I am a member of a wonderful Christian fellowship, building new friendships.

My perfectionism was fear and shame base, the opposite of the living water that Jesus promised.

How do you get rid of shame and fear in your life? You must get honest about the people who do not help you in your relationship with God and be willing to walk away. I found people who are teaching me about the grace of God.

My perfectionism was enabled in cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is a state of conflicting beliefs that causes discomfort. There is discomfort because we need congruency between our thoughts and behaviors. Since I lived an unexamined life, not dealing with the shame I felt in the 1980s and continued allowing those feelings to rule my entire life; I could not be my authentic self. My obligation is now to my relationship with God rather than a religious organization. For once, I have asked myself, “What do I believe, and how do I want to live?”  I worked hard at testing everything I believed about the Bible and decided to have confidence in what I see as truth, and now I am living the way I truly want to live.

Isaiah 61:1-2 is an old testament prophecy of what Jesus will do for those who need to be set free from their prison – in my case it was my spiritual perfectionism. Please don’t mistake my firm resolve that my recovery has been easy. I’m seeing a therapist to help me frame what I have been through in the ICOC. However, amid painful realizations, I believe in the Jesus of Isaiah 61:1-2. And for me, in my story, my ashes have been exchanged for beauty.

He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
    and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
    and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
    instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
    instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
    instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    a planting of the Lord
    for the display of his splendor.

2 thoughts on “Lessons From a Recovering Perfectionist”

  1. Only Jesus has the power to set us Free.
    He was there all the time. No working our way to heaven. Its a Free gift.
    God offered it to everyone on Ressurection Day.
    Read Isaiah 53.
    Love in Christ…
    Nina Jawnyj

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