Are You a Perfectionist, or Do You Actually Want to be Perfect?

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.

Book Review: Silent Souls Weeping by Jane Clayson Johnson

Silent Souls Weeping is a wonderful book both for those that have suffered, or are currently suffering, from depression as well as those that haven’t but would like to know how to help. I particularly love her descriptions of the disease and those who suffer. There is much about mental health that is confusing—there are situational, environmental, and individual factors—but, first and foremost, Jane Clayson Johnson emphasizes that it is a disease with a malfunctioning body part just like diabetes or cancer. How and why the brain is triggered into a depression varies according to the individual. Some of us have more of a genetic tendency, and the depression can come out of nowhere. For others, it is prolonged exposure to threatening experiences that has caused a system overload. And, as with so many things, the truth is a bit of both. I have learned that certain situations and environments will lead me into a depression when for others they might not. Those situations are extremely stressful, and would be for anyone, but I seem to shut down and respond in ways that others don’t. For a long time, I thought it meant that I was wrong, I was broken. My favorite part of this book was how Ms. Johnson separated this disease from the identity of the sufferer. I am someone prone to depression who has to monitor and care for my body just like someone who has diabetes. I am not weaker than someone who’s never had a depression.

This book is filled with stories and examples from others that have suffered and the different strategies they have taken. The greatest benefit to someone who is suffering is that they will realize they are not alone. I found some of my strategies described in this book, but there were times when her descriptions and examples gave me pause. I’m grateful that she reiterated how individual each experience is and states that her book is not for self-diagnosis or for self-help. If you are suffering, get help and don’t use every strategy in this book. Only use the ones that seem right at this time. Another strategy might be useful later, but not right now, or it will never be a good strategy for you. There were some I use constantly, some I have used but only under certain conditions. Others I love and rely on heavily, but I understand that others struggle with them, and some that scare me and I don’t know how anyone could possibly do it, but it obviously works for them. 

I hope that someone who has never had a depression and doesn’t understand it could find compassion and clarity from reading this book. Through out her entire book, Ms. Johnson speaks about depression coming with a sense of isolation and its cure is connection. I believe she’s absolutely right and I applaud her articulation of depression as a disease that can be helped by our society as we work together. The stated scope of her book is to “raise the blinds” on depression and ease the stigma. Too often people are too embarrassed to talk about their depression and this only enhances their feelings of isolation. If we could reduce the shame people feel and speak more openly, then we could start to see the disease become less severe and our communities as a whole would be greatly benefited. 

She focuses on the stigma around depression in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and in so doing, points out a few things within our culture that contribute to this stigma. We are a society of “do-ers,” she says, we love to serve and be constantly working. We take the Lord’s commandments seriously, including his invitation to be perfect. I wish she would have done more to dispel the misconceptions around these principles, but I understand it was not within the scope of this particular book. I still think we have a lot of work to do to be more inclusive, compassionate, and spiritually intentional in our communities and in doing the work of the Lord.

As a whole, I loved this book and wish that everyone would read it. It has given me a lot of food for thought, both with my own depression but also about how our society deals with it.

My final thought at the end of reading it is that our culture has become stronger than our doctrine. People that are prone to depression are not weaker than others. We do not need a lower standard or a different set of requirements. We need people to listen to us. Someone with diabetes cannot eat the same things that a healthy person could, but a healthy person could do quite well to eat a little more like a diabetic. I don’t have diabetes, but I still shouldn’t eat sugar all day long. Likewise, someone without depression could continue to live as our culture demands but that person would not be as connected to the Spirit or to the doctrine. If we were to listen to those who have had to fight depression and have done so with help from the Spirit and faith in the gospel, we would learn things we would be blind to otherwise. Depression makes us more sensitive to problems that others do not notice, and like canaries in the coal mines, we can be your warning voice that something has gone wrong. Building connections together will help the depressed person and will help the healthy person. We can all be made stronger together. 

Hard or Easy, Purpose of Commandments, part 1

When I was 13, my mother married my stepfather. It was strange in many ways to be moving into his house, to have this other person with his own stuff, his own history, be a part of our family. We were uniting our households by combining our furniture and decorations, sorting through what to keep, what to throw out, what to buy anew. We were also learning from one another in a new way due to our now close quarters.

In the hallway of my stepfather’s house there was a cross-stitch of the Savior’s face next to a quote that read, “I never said it would be easy, I only said it would be worth it.” One day, as we were moving in, I stood there in the hallway pondering that and really feeling that message. I thought, it’s so true. The gospel can be so hard, but it’ll be worth it. Just keep pushing. My mother then came down the hallway saw what I was reading and said, “I’ve always hated that saying. You know Christ never said that. What Christ said was, ‘take my yoke upon you, for behold, my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’”

I still feel those two quotes battling it out in my mind from time to time. Something in the gospel will get really hard and I’ll keep pushing and trying, knowing a blessing will come and then I’ll stop and think, wait a minute, this is supposed to be easy. How do I make this easy?

Just like uniting households forced us to reevaluate our furnishings and our daily habits, keeping in mind these two quotes helped me reevaluate the hard things in the gospel. I ask myself why it is that I find it so hard. Am I afraid? Confused? Doing it wrong? Missing something?

While I think this can apply to all aspects of the gospel, I started this process with commandments. As a teenager, I thought it was very hard to keep track of a whole bunch of do’s and don’ts. When I became depressed as a teenager, the commandments that were supposed to help me become better were instead weapons wielded against me. These lists I gave myself, the should’s and should not’s, turned into angry voices telling me how weak I was, how I would never be good enough. Even as an adult, I am susceptible to the perfectionism that comes with trying to live the gospel and it inevitably leads to periods of depression. I feel myself torn between pushing through to keep up with what I’m supposed to do and just abandoning everything altogether. When this happens, I know it’s time to reevaluate. I need to ask myself why I’m doing this hard thing, is there a better way, what would make this easy.

As I look back and think about what has become easy, what I’m still working on, and what I’ve thrown out I find that it centers around connection. The perfectionist and depressed side of me will use perceived failures as a way to sever any connection with the people around me, the Spirit, and my sense of self. Perfectionism makes me afraid to try something with new people because I might fail and embarrass myself. Perfectionism tells me the Spirit won’t come because I have failed. Perfectionism says that I am not right, I am broken. But when I find the Spirit anyway, I know that I’m loved, I’m doing fine, people are kind and forgiving, I’m never alone.

There is truth in the saying, “it takes effort for something to become effortless.” Building connections is not necessarily easy from the get-go. The easiest thing would be to quit entirely. But quitting has only made my depressions worse and then everything gets harder. The work of building and connecting always gets easier with the smallest amount of effort. Using commandments as a way to build connections makes everything easier.

We teach a lot about the purpose of God’s commandments and the benefits of keeping them. I think we need to be careful that we not allow perfectionism to stick in its ugly head. Keeping commandments connected to their true purpose will help us build the other connections we need. Why do you follow commandments? What purpose and goal do you have that helps you do hard things?