I had originally titled this post as a book review. But, it’s not. It’s more of a book reflection. Reviews are so critical (by design) and I’m attempting to reflect on the merits of this book that was suggested to me that I read.
The book is titled, Perfecting Ourselves to Death: The Pursuit of Excellence and the Perils of Perfectionism. It was written by Richard Winter and published by IVP in 2005.
I recently discovered, after years of being in denial, that I have extreme perfectionist tendencies. So extreme in fact that I am what some call a “all or nothing” perfectionist. Something needs to be exceptionally pure and perfect but if the slightest imperfection becomes apparent, then that imperfect object or plan or work is doomed. It’s all or nothing. I live on the extremes of being perfect or a complete failure. Obviously this is not healthy nor is it reality.
I imagine many of you reading this post may live on these extremes. God, however, desires us to live within the tension of these extremes. This is the advice given in this book. And it’s absolutely correct.
Winter spends the majority of the book unpacking the different reasons that people are perfectionists. There are many reasons. Most perfectionists are a combination of all factors. They possess the ingredients for the perfect perfectionist storm, so to speak. They have the necessary genes and temperament, parental and family influences, along with pressures from the culture and media, and simultaneous pride and low self esteem (which are inter-connected). Add all these up and you get a person who has thought patterns of perfectionism complete with the worry, anxiety, obsessions, shame and guilt that come with them.
One section of the book which was very eye-opening for me to read was the difference between shame and guilt. Guilt is a good thing. It’s God’s alarm to us that we have sinned and stand guilty before Him. Jesus, however, has paid our penalty on the cross. Therefore, for those who have received God’s forgiveness of sin through Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, their guilt has been removed.
Shame, however, is something very different. Shame is what we feel when we don’t live up to our own (or someone else’s) perfect standard. These standards are neither moral or immoral. They just are. So when we don’t produce at that perfect standard (such as making a “B” on a test where we were expected to make an “A”) then we experience shame…or worse yet, are shamed.
Many perfectionists can’t decipher between guilt and shame so they live in constant fear of both. One is meant for our healing. One can destroy us.
If you find yourself living in the extremes of life, an “all or nothing” thinker, then you are a perfectionist. I recommend reading this book and learn how to live in the tension of these patterns of thinking. It is okay not to be perfect. It is okay to mess up. It is okay to fail. Failing is part of growing. Growing in Christ is what God has called you to do. And you must be okay failing if you are going to grow in Him.