Let Go of Perfectionism
Freedom from Eating Disorders, LLC
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Christian Eating Disorder Recovery Course
Let Go of Perfectionism
At the conclusion of this lesson, you’ll have suggestions to help you let go of what drives you to perfectionism and change your mindset about your expectations of yourself.
I used to be so perfectionistic and driven, having highly unrealistic expectations of myself, that it’s amazing I ever pulled out of any of that. Certainly, God has done, and continues to do, a work in me in this area. May you experience his work in you, too, as you take to heart the insights in this lesson.
What kind of expectations do you have of yourself? Do you set the standard high, even unattainably high? What happens if you don’t accomplish your goals? You know things are out of balance when you mercilessly beat yourself up over anything, no matter how small. If you tend to be perfectionistic, you know what it’s like to drive yourself hard, berate yourself, and routinely feel like you’re missing the mark. Yet you may wonder why you’re like that.
Insights about Perfectionism
Consider why striving for perfection is so important to you.
- You may be performance oriented and find your identity in your abilities. You have to be perfect in order to even imagine feeling good about yourself.
- The fear of going to the other extreme may evoke your need for perfection. If you have an “all or nothing” mindset, you’ll think you’re going to be either driven or lazy, kind or mean, neat or sloppy, with nothing in between. You’re afraid you’ll go to the other extreme so you hold tightly to your perfectionistic ways.
- The approval of others may be especially important to you, and you reason that being perfect is the way to get it.
- You may be convinced that to prevent judgment you need to do things perfectly.
- You may feel you must appear strong and in control of your circumstances and emotions in front of other people. You can’t let them see any of your flaws. Your perfectionism is a way to hide what you don’t want others to see. You may fear others won’t like you if they really knew you, so you hide your true self.
- You hold things like mistakes and weaknesses against yourself. You may think that if you can be perfect, you can compensate for your missteps and shortcomings and not have to feel the associated guilt and shame. You may even think you need to be perfect in order to earn God’s forgiveness for your wrongs.
- You turn to the work or busyness of perfectionism as a distraction from the hurt, fear, anger or other pain you feel inside. It’s a way for you to focus on something else and avoid facing difficult underlying issues.
- You may have a difficult time completing tasks because you’re afraid they won’t be good enough. You may be afraid you’ll make a mistake, so you are indecisive.
- You have a case of the “shoulds.” For example, you think to yourself, “I should be able to do this, and I should be more like that, and I should not make mistakes.”
- Your perfectionism may be driven by fear – fear that you’ll appear foolish, make mistakes, be judged, lose emotional control, or any number of things. If you can be perfect, you can prevent your worst fears from happening.
- Having the perfect body might be worth so much to you that you’ll do anything to achieve it. Underneath wanting the perfect body, you are probably striving for perfection in other areas. If you can’t reach those expectations, you strive for the perfect body instead.
- Since perfectionism is an unrealistic goal, you often feel you’re missing the mark. You never feel you’re quite good enough. While it seems perfectionism will help give you what you’re seeking, it doesn’t deliver. You’re left with the same condemning thoughts and negative feelings that drove your perfectionism in the first place.
- Perfectionism fuels an eating disorder. The need to have the perfect body, make perfect impressions on people, complete projects perfectly, have a perfect recovery, and berate yourself for anything less than perfection is exhausting to say the least. Then, since perfection is an impossible goal, you end up with negative thoughts and feelings about yourself when you miss the mark. This draws you into food-related behaviors, which brings on more negative thoughts and feelings, and the cycle continues.
These are some possibilities, and you may recognize some of them in yourself, but there may also be other reasons you feel the need to be perfect. Just be honest with yourself and evaluate what is at the root of your perfectionism.
Living under perfectionistic expectations is a difficult way to live, and it consumes an inordinate amount of time and energy. Yet, it probably seems daunting, or even scary, to let go of perfectionism. It may seem that since you’ve been this way for so long, there’s no way you can change, but you can. It will take time, but it will be good for you. Examine some suggestions that may help you.
Tips to Let Go of Perfectionism
- Keep your expectations realistic. If you set your standard too high and criticize yourself for not meeting it, that will only fuel perfectionism. Seek help to determine what realistic expectations of yourself should be. Someone else can usually be more objective.
- Take responsibility for mistakes and then move forward instead of repeatedly judging yourself for them. They don’t make you a bad person. Learn what you can from your mistakes, then leave them behind. It isn’t necessary to berate yourself so you won’t do the same thing again. You don’t deserve that. Try to be gentle with yourself instead.
- Determine to do your best, and to let go when you know you’ve done your best, even if you didn’t accomplish what you intended. Think of it as a lesson in setting more realistic goals. Also, keep in mind that your best can change from one day to the next, and that’s normal.
- Realize that not everything has measurable results, and that’s okay. Not everything in life has to have a grade or formal evaluation assigned to it. So do your best and leave the outcome to God.
- Ask yourself, “Why should I be able to do everything right and not make mistakes? Why should I be superhuman?” It’s a heavy burden to place on yourself, and it’s unfair to do so. You don’t have to be anything more than human.
- Remember that you don’t need to be perfect for others. It may feel that way, and you may have people in your life who have unreasonably high expectations, but that’s a reflection on them, not you. No one should expect perfection from others.
- See that if your parents, teachers, coaches, or others in your life have unrealistically high expectations of you, reward you only for your performance, or stimulate your perfectionism in some other way, do your best to separate from that. Their ways and opinions don’t have to continue to influence you. You probably formed certain opinions of yourself and learned to set high expectations for yourself based on what they’ve said and done. That doesn’t mean you have to continue to do so. You can change your way of thinking and break free of the bondage perfectionism can cause.
- Temper the desire for the approval of others. You may like to receive others’ compliments; hear them applaud your performance in sports, school, or work; or to be acknowledged for your organizational skills or competency. Yet, remember that it’s God’s approval that matters most.
- Recognize that the acceptance and approval of others is not a necessity. It may feel like you should do whatever it takes to get it, but you can take the pressure off yourself. There’s nothing that says you HAVE to have their approval. You CAN learn to live without it and be content with that.
- Be yourself and let others think what they will. Keeping up with perfect impressions will be exhausting, and you’ll rob others of getting to know the real you. Most people appreciate authenticity. You might be surprised at how you’ll be able to reach out and minister to them in some way if they can see that you have flaws and struggles just like they do.
- Refrain from using busyness and perfectionism to numb your inner pain. It’s common to focus on things like being perfect as a distraction from issues that need to be addressed, but it only hurts you. Instead, get the help you need to deal with the difficult matters that trouble you.
- Realize that since it’s impossible for a human to be perfect, the voice that says you need to be is lying. Renounce that lie and replace it with the truth. The Change Your Thoughts lesson can help you replace lies with the truth.
- Know that you don’t have to overachieve in order to compensate for any wrongs or shortcomings. You don’t have to pursue perfectionism. Instead, you can accept God’s forgiveness, learn from your mistakes, and learn to accept yourself as the amazing person God created you to be.
- See that God is performing a work in you. You don’t have to hold yourself to perfectionistic standards to do this work on your own. He’s constantly available to lead you and promises to remain with you, just as Paul explained to the Philippians: “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). This verse doesn’t say you’ll reach perfection in this life. It’s okay to strive to do well and to grow, but rely on God to help you. He has a plan, and he’s promised to lead you in it as he molds you from the inside out. You don’t have to do it on your own. Seek him and then walk in that plan. Today isn’t the end. Give yourself time.
- Attempt to break free from “all or nothing” thinking. For example, you don’t have to feel hopeless just because your journey to freedom isn’t progressing exactly how you assumed it would. You aren’t lazy or undisciplined if you don’t experience perfect order in the various areas of your life. You aren’t uncaring if you learn to say no to certain commitments.
- Be aware that your performance doesn’t make you acceptable or unacceptable as a person. Underneath, you are still you regardless of what you do or don’t do. Your performance doesn’t define your identity. That’s God’s job. You can’t do anything to make him love or accept you more nor can you do anything that will make him love or accept you less. He loves you based on who you are, not what you do. He made you and loves you. Period. Focus on verses like Ps. 139:14. “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” And Isa. 49:16. “See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me.” For more on identifying your true self, delve into the lesson See Yourself through God’s Eyes Inside and Out.
- Keep in mind that it’s okay to relax. You don’t have to be active all the time. Taking a break doesn’t mean you’re lazy. Having free time doesn’t make you undisciplined. You need to be refreshed and rejuvenated to be at your best. Allow yourself to be human, and realize it’s healthy to have a balance between activity and relaxation.
- Face your fear of going to the other extreme. For example, if you let up on your standards a bit, that doesn’t mean you’re going to become too lax. Choose an area where you’re afraid and let up on yourself. Then celebrate that you found a little balance instead of going to the opposite extreme.
- Consider what balance might look like and how it might change things if you could move away from “all or nothing” thinking, set realistic expectations for yourself, or acknowledge what you did well and not berate yourself for what didn’t turn out as you’d hoped. Can you imagine a little more peace and calm in your life?
- Think about how you would talk with someone else who had unrealistic standards, was driven in every area, expected perfection, and was worn to a frazzle because of it all. What would you say to that person? How about taking that advice yourself?
- Give yourself credit for what you accomplished or how a project turned out instead of focusing on imperfections. Genuinely look for what’s good. Then, don’t downplay it, but recognize it for the success that it is. With practice, you might see that there’s more that went right than wrong.
- Look back at past accomplishments and consider that some of the details aren’t as important now as they seemed at the time. It isn’t worth berating yourself over every little thing. Remember this for future projects.
- Put things into perspective. Is the detail you’re concerned about today going to matter a year from now? Of course, some things will matter in the future. But the point is looking for what will and what won’t and then relaxing your standard for the things that aren’t going to make a big difference in the long-term.
- Determine to complete a project at the time you start it. Don’t let the fear of it not turning out perfectly hold you back from finishing. Decide ahead of time that you’ll do your best, but that you’ll learn to be content with any imperfections and celebrate all of the good things in it.
- Ask yourself what the worst thing that will happen is if you don’t complete a project perfectly, meet a deadline, or if you adjust an expectation. Yes, some things will have consequences worth avoiding. But others may not bring about negative results worth concerning yourself over.
- Examine how perfectionism affects you. Does it keep your focus on how you see yourself instead of seeing yourself through God’s eyes? Are you so tightly wound that you have physical symptoms? Do you often feel angry, fearful, and depressed? Consider the energy it takes to endeavor to be perfect plus the energy to deal with the effects of it. Think of what it would be like if you could break free of those effects. Imagine how your life might be different if you keep your standards in balance, see yourself through God’s eyes instead of the eyes of perfectionism, and feel better both emotionally and physically.
- See that being less than perfect is no reflection on who you are as a person. It doesn’t mean you aren’t good enough. It means you’re human. It’s okay to strive to do well, but be careful not to place your identity in what you do or don’t do.
- Know that endeavors to have the perfect body are just hurting your body on the inside and possibly on the outside, too. There’s so much more to you than your appearance. Focus on the real you instead.
- Acknowledge that there is no perfect recovery journey. It’s an up and down process full of learning experiences. Just do the best you can in the moment you’re in.
As you can see, there are many ways you can be kind to yourself, redirect your thoughts, and resist the lies of perfectionism. Start with one area, get to the root of it, make it a matter of prayer, and give that area over to the Lord. Then choose another area and keep going until you become a more balanced person who embraces how God made you.
Dear Heavenly Father,
I am beginning to realize that nothing will be perfect in this life. Please help me not to judge myself so harshly. Help me to have realistic expectations of myself so that I can accept my best efforts. I trust that you’ll show me what it means to find balance in my life as I give my perfectionistic tendencies to you.
In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.1
Must I be Perfect?
I must be
the perfect one,
perfect all the time.
I must not
react to anything
but keep my thoughts
and feelings to myself.
I must never
let anyone down,
do less than my best,
have inferior performance.
I must always
make them happy,
be a friend to all,
think of others always.
I must have
a perfect face,
a perfect body
in perfect clothes.
I must be
the perfect one,
perfect all the time.
At least that’s what I used to think,
but now I see
this isn’t God’s way,
that he wants better for me
and doesn’t expect me to be perfect.
I must not
expect more from myself
than God expects,
I must see
it’s okay to make mistakes,
I can’t please everyone,
my best is good enough
and that my thoughts and feelings matter, too.
I must believe
God doesn’t expect perfection,
he loves me as I am,
I’m beautiful in his sight,
and he wants me to live in freedom.
Change All or Nothing Thinking
Do you tend to engage in all or nothing thinking? For example, when you complete a project, do you see it as a failure if it contains just one small flaw? Do you see your performance as either great or terrible without giving yourself credit for anything in between? Perhaps you tell yourself that if you can’t do something right, there’s no point in doing it at all. This kind of black and white thinking leads to self-degradation, and that drives the eating disorder. But you can balance out your thoughts. Try these suggestions.
- Catch yourself when you’re engaging in all or nothing thinking. Make two columns on a page in your journal. In the left column, record your all or nothing thoughts.
- When you recognize an all or nothing thought, try to find some middle ground. When something you’ve done doesn’t quite meet the standard you had in mind, instead of thinking it’s horrible, realize it’s actually pretty close to the way you wanted it and celebrate that. Give yourself credit for what’s right and don’t berate yourself for ways you can improve. Record your new thoughts in the right column.
- Review your journal so you can remind yourself of healthier, more balanced thoughts
Stepping away from all or nothing thinking is important for dealing with perfectionism, but it’s also useful in other areas of recovery.
The remaining features for this lesson, as listed below, are printable. You may download the PDF file here.
Answer Key for Quiz
1Laurie Glass, Journey to Freedom from Eating Disorders, 2010.
All Scripture is taken from THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV®
Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.®
Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Find out about other lessons on the Recovery Course page.
Change Your Thoughts
Learn to Deal with Emotions
See Yourself through God’s Eyes Inside and Out
Address Your Relationship with Food
Invite God into Your Recovery
Let Go of Control
Face Your Fears
Experience Inner Healing
Let Go of Perfectionism
Let Go of Guilt
Let Go of Shame
Deal with Relapses