The definition of Perfect is one that often weighs on my mind. I think it is one of those words that is defined by the Lord in one way but used in a different way by our current society. Some speak it with adoration describing something so beautiful and wonderful it is beyond description. For others, it brings fear of overwhelming and unattainable standards. In trying to find a way to enjoy the beauty of perfection without being crushed by it, I’ve started to distinguish Perfectionism from actual Perfection.
I used to be excited about my perfectionism. I enjoyed designing the perfect masterpiece, doing the very best I could, or even performing the perfect experiment using all the proper controls and not forgetting a step so that everything would work just as it was supposed to do. I could focus for hours on what I wanted to accomplish, excited about the final product, and also thrilled when there was a problem to solve for it kept my mind fully engaged on something worthwhile and wonderful. I would get a tremendous rush when I finished something I was proud of, and that got me a good grade, but somehow, as I grew up, all of these things turned into a burden.
I first noticed that I could not be as fully engaged in my projects as I wanted to because there were so many of them. Mother’s with full lives, however, cannot cut out everything. There are so many things to try and do perfectly. I became impatient with myself for not moving faster, doing more, being better. The pictures in my head, my dreams of what I wanted to accomplish, seemed so far away. Problems were no longer exciting puzzles, but more indications that I lacked ability or talent. I couldn’t do anything the way it should be done. Eventually, projects became so daunting that I would abandon them. I was afraid to try.
In Christ’s sermon in Matthew chapter 5 he says, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” This seems like a very tall order. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we emphasize that faith without works is dead and we do tend to keep ourselves very busy. However, defining Perfect, or Faith, or Value according to what I could do had become my problem.
President Nelson taught in a 1995 General Conference that the word perfect in this scripture was translated from the Greek word telios meaning complete, finished, fully developed. He continued by saying, “Please note that the word does not imply ‘freedom from error’; it implies ‘achieving a distant objective.’” In 2017, Elder Holland taught us to “strive for steady improvement without obsessing over…’toxic perfectionism.’” We are to look forward to perfection, to be patient and forgiving of shortcomings for we are not yet finished.
While I love these messages, and I do try to be more patient and gentler with myself, I still get frustrated. About a year ago, I looked around and noticed I had not finished anything in a very long time. I had started various projects and worked intermittently on them, but never completed them. And I realized that one of the fears of Perfectionism is that you won’t reach the end unless you do everything right. Where is my hope to come from that I will reach that “distant objective” if I’m stuck and I don’t know what to do?
I started again, determined to finish my goals, even if they still held errors. I simply wanted to finish because I thought these small things would be my progress markers and boost my confident that I could do larger ones. I told myself, Christen, just finish something-even if it’s flawed, it will be done. And I couldn’t. I found that my efforts never met my expectations of what I wanted, and thus held me back from getting any joy from any accomplishment. Were my standards too high? Did I need to lower my dreams, accept less from myself, just so I could finish something that didn’t make me happy anyway? I took a long look at what was actually holding me back. This is when I really started to see the difference between Perfectionism and actual Perfection.
The fear of Perfectionism still held me back because I kept thinking about what other people would say. When I presented my finished product, what would be my grade? Would they see my errors? I realized that I was trying to prove myself, individually, to others who were outside waiting to judge me. Perfectionism is very disconnecting. We are like neighbors throwing things at each other over a fence. I, striving to meet the expectations thrown at me, throw my projects out, only to have them thrown back with criticism or praise, probably a mixture of both. But I am never with my neighbors—we never actually work together. I work by myself and then await the judgement. And they do the same in their own way, in their own yard.
My favorite part of the intercessory prayer, found in John 17:21-23, is when Jesus pleads with the Father, “that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us;…that they may be made perfect in one.” As I have thought about all of this, I have come to the conclusion that Perfection and Unity go together hand in hand. I cannot be whole if I allow others to dictate what I should do at the expense of my own yearnings. Neither can I be whole without true compassion, the ability to learn from others such that they can fill the holes left from my own limitations. No one can be truly Perfect alone. The final achievement of this is after this life when we are reunited with God and loved ones in a way that cannot be fully accomplished here. That is our distant objective. Yet, we can find unity here and now and thus have the assurance that we are going the right way.
I’ve approached my projects again with a determination to finish them and do it correctly—not by looking for flaws but by looking for unity. What is the motivation behind this goal? What is the purpose of this project? Am I trying to create something I can hold up to others or am I trying to connect with others?
Unity with myself means that the goal must be mine and mine alone. That is not to say that my goals are selfish or that I’ve completely cut myself off from others. Rather, seeking someone’s praise is very different from seeking to help them or to be their friend. I make an effort to involve others in my goal. Asking for advice, learning from them. While their input changes the appearance of the final product and the methods to achieve it, the end goal is the same. And it’s easier to have patience when you can feel that it is working.
Unity is love, peace, patience, understanding, joy, strength, and friendship. Doesn’t that sound Perfect.