Perfectionism is not healthy. Perfectionism causes emotional suffering. Although perfectionism is not classified as a mental illness, it can lead to OCD and OCPD (obsessive compulsive disorder and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder), anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and self-harm. Statistics show that women have more perfectionistic tendencies than men.
When Dr. Jacqueline Mitchelson found a gender difference in perfectionism, she was surprised. She wrote: “According to some studies, this is something that largely affects women. A U. S. survey in 2009 found that women are also more likely than men to experience feelings of inadequacy at home and at work, and a larger proportion felt they failed to meet their own high standards. An internal survey of women working at Hewlett-Packard also found women applied for a promotion only when they met 100% of the qualifications. Men applied when they met just 50%” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/8072739.stm).
Such studies show woman of all races, cultures, and religions fail to meet their own expectations and have perfectionistic behaviors. That means that a perfectionist culture is not unique to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or even to Bible-believing Christians. Given that fact, it doesn’t follow that perfectionism is due to the Savior’s command, “Be ye therefore perfect.”
It seems illogical that my love for Jesus Christ and my desire to serve Him would cause ulcers, anorexia, or depression as Elder Holland mentioned in his 2017 conference talk, “Be Ye Therefore Perfect—Eventually.” Loving the Savior and trying to be like Him should bring joy, trust, and peace that surpasses understanding (Philippines 4:7). If it causes health problems, the perfectionistic mindset is misaligned.
I came to a sorry awareness of my misaligned mindset by tracing the stages of perfectionism in my life.
When I was about to be baptized, my parents and teachers taught me about repentance, which seemed like a lot of embarrassment and inconvenience. I decided I could avoid all that messiness by being perfect. My piano teacher unknowingly fed into my unrealistic standard by saying, probably every week, “You know, Marilynne, practice makes perfect.” So, I tried to be perfect in everything. Looking back on years of trying, I realize I did not understand the role of the Savior. I was trying to save myself.
I wish I could report that I quickly overcame this doctrinal misunderstanding, but it continued. One Sunday in Gospel Doctrine class when I was forty, that’s 40, the teacher asked each of us to write down a private list of five goals for life. I saved my list because I thought it was “perfect.”
- Surrender my heart to Jesus Christ
- Know the gospel perfectly
- Love perfectly
- Serve perfectly
- Do all that Heavenly Father sent me here to accomplish.
Yes. I was still in the business of trying to save myself, thinking my good works would make up for my sins and failings. Today, if I were asked to make a list of five goals for life, it would not have a single reference to perfectly or all.
In my next stage of perfectionism, I blamed my desire to be perfect on the statement: “Just be a little better today than you were yesterday.” This was my mother’s favorite phrase. When she said this, I felt sad and assumed I was a disappointment to her. As a teen, I got a little sassy, and every time she would repeat her admonition, I would say, “I can’t. I don’t know how.” I did not know how to be good enough to meet her expectations or Heavenly Father’s. And that is not good.
“Be a little better each day” sounds nice, but for me it was perplexing. As I relive those times of pushback on innocent motherly advice, I wonder why I didn’t just say, “I’ll try.” The problem was I understood Mother’s words to be both expectation and requirement, and I just didn’t know how to be a little better today, tomorrow, and the day after that. My sisters accepted our mother’s advice. To them it was a way of saying, “Keep trying. Do your best.”
For me, however, it was a math problem. How could I do seven things to improve this week and 365 this year? For example: What if I chose to improve my scripture study by reading one more verse of scripture per day? By the end of two years, I would be reading 730 more verses per day than at present. What if I thought to improve my prayers by thanking Heavenly Father for one more thing daily? At the year’s end…. Well, you get the idea. How would I measure or keep track of improvements with plus signs because there also were days I needed minus signs when things turned south and I was a little worse than yesterday?
I stayed in that rut for a decade or two. Fortunately, I am no longer triggered every time I hear “Be a little better,” and it’s about time because the saying is going to continue. It is imbedded in our Latter-day Saint culture. Now, when I think of my mother’s love for me, I think she meant exactly what my sisters thought.
When all of the above came together, I came to a convicting realization. (I wish somehow at this point I could insert a dramatic trumpet introduction to emphasize the power of the Lord’s promise more than the words on this page can convey.)
I have always wondered why in Ether 12:27, the Lord uses weakness in the singular, not weaknesses when he said to Moroni: “I give unto men [and women] weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men [and women] that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.” Weakness seems like there is just one that all humankind shares. What is that common weakness?
I think it is pride, the worldly philosophy that encourages us to live life our own way, to do our own thing. An ad for perfume proclaims: “This fragrance is for women who don’t follow the rules.” A famous song by a famous person says: “I did it my way.” Pride destroys individuals and nations. Ether 12:27 is the antidote to pride, which is to accept the grace of Jesus Christ and do things His way. This is how we become His disciples. My perfection is not about “Be ye therefore perfect” but rather about arrogance, hypocrisy, and competition. The incrimination from this insight was/is a hard pill to swallow.
I think, perhaps, the General Relief Society presidency and board were also thinking about the dangers of self-imposed perfectionism for appearance sake when they produced a three-minute video titled, “Just Like You,” (https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/media/video/2019-05-1000-just-like-you?lang=eng). I hope you will watch it and count how many of the life experiences mentioned in the video apply to you—financial problems, infertility, family who identify as LGBT+, addictions, chronic illness, divorce, stepmom, loved ones incarcerated, death of a spouse, anxiety or depression, lived internationally, stay-at-home mom, graduate degree, worked outside the home. I did the math. Of the fourteen situations listed, the total number experienced by the ten women is 73. When divided by ten, the average is 7.3 or just over half. If you have had or are experiencing six to eight of the situations, compared to this very select group of women that you may have thought had perfect lives, you are just like them, learning and growing through adversity.
My concern, now, is how to prevent pernicious perfectionism from passing to the coming generation. My three-year-old granddaughter is already exhibiting behaviors. She and I were cutting out Play Doh hearts. We made five in different colors. The fifth one tore coming out of the cookie cutter. “Oh, no,” she moaned. “It’s not perfect. I have to do it again.”
How do we help the coming generations understand they won’t be good at everything? How do we help them gain a healthy attitude toward success and failure with a try, try again mentality? How do we teach the way to show gratitude for the talents they have received from Heavenly Father is by working hard and relying on Jesus Christ’s grace? How do we teach them to appreciate the gifts and talents others received without comparison or competition? How do we teach them that it’s okay to make misshapen Play Doh stars and hit wrong notes on the piano? How do we teach them that pride is doing things your own way and unrelated to “Be ye therefore perfect”?
Ether 12:27 is the model: God gave us weakness. His grace is sufficient to overcome that weakness. If I humble myself before Him in faith, then He will I make weak things become strong unto me. His way will always and forever transcend my way.