Last Saturday, I was working on some research with a classmate when he suggested that we check our grades. I was reluctant to do so because I was having a pretty good day and I knew that if my grades were beneath my expectations, I would be upset. Sure enough, they weren’t. My grades were actually pretty good. Most people would have been satisfied with them, but I wasn’t because I had created this fantasy about getting through this program with a 4.0 even though the reality is that no one cares about GPAs at the PhD level. I think I was more upset that I got my lowest grade in the course that had the lightest workload all because I wasn’t strong with respect to class participation and I was a bit distracted while writing my final paper due to some issues with my father. It’s just hard to accept getting less than an A in a course where an A was clearly within my reach.
I fought hard to get myself together after seeing my grades because I didn’t want to be too much of a downer while I was working with my classmate. (Instead, I began texting some of my very understanding friends who were compassionate, but still alerted me to how crazy I sounded given that my GPA really hadn’t dropped much.) My whole reaction made me wonder what was actually going on with me. The reality is that my academic performance in undergrad, divinity school, and even my prior PhD program had been nowhere near as high as it is currently. In addition, I am actually working toward my goals outside of the classroom and becoming the person I have always wanted to be. Still, for some reason, that wasn’t enough.
The unfortunate reality about being a perfectionist is that nothing short of perfection is enough. At the same time, being human makes perfection impossible. I have often talked about the inability that ministers have of living up to the unreal expectations set by their congregations. However, my expectations for myself are probably worse. For instance, in addition to this site, I write occasionally for Examiner.com and for Yahoo Voices. Neither site pays all that much, but I figured that I would force myself to try writing across multiple styles. Things were going pretty well at Examiner.com until I realized that I disagreed with their internal rating system that they use to decide how much they will promote an article. It felt pretty arbitrary to me. After receiving a lower rating than I had expected on an article, I sort of lost interest in writing for them. From the outside, it would appear that I was really motivated by an clear issue with Examiner’s ranking rubric. The reality is that I just didn’t want to put myself through those feelings of inadequacy again. (It seems to have gone over my head that I only write for Examiner.com and Yahoo Voices for fun.)
Being a perfectionist also affects my friendships as well. I’m typically the cautious one in my group of friends because I am always analyzing probabilities of success before I act. (If you know anything about Myers-Briggs tests, I am a classic INTJ.) As a result, I am not always the most fun person to be around in nightclubs where I become too busy calculating who is watching me before I decide whether or not to make a fool of myself and attempt to dance (even though I have learned that most people at nightclubs are horrible, horrible dancers.) Likewise, even though I have learned how to play a convincing wing man, I have never been the guy who would walk up on a woman who piqued my interests upon our first meeting because I’m always too busy calculating whether or not I actually have a chance.
As expected, being a perfectionist also affects my spiritual life as well. Last year, I was talking with a friend of mine about my relationship with God. We both expressed having trouble dealing with the fact that we have sin in our lives. No, it wasn’t a sort of denial. We both possessed this hyperawareness of our sins to the point where it was sometimes crippling and we couldn’t take comfort in God’s grace. Through that conversation, he suggested that I read Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero. He had read it previously and said that it had helped to understand that God isn’t just sitting in heaven criticizing us for our wrongs. In contrast, God wants us to be open and honest with him about our feelings–even when we believe they are things that some faulty theologies have taught us as Christians that we are not supposed to feel (like any emotion except for love, joy, and happiness). Needless to say, the book helped a lot.
The moral of the story is that being a perfectionist causes me to go to great lengths in order to avoid what I consider to be unfounded criticism. I am finally learning to accept that God gives us grace because he is fully aware of our imperfections, I sometimes feel like I am so hard on myself that no one else has any grounds to be hard on me. On some level, I understand that the world actually doesn’t work that way. No matter how many flaws I try to address in myself, people will always find something else. Although my first instinct is to assume that many of these “points of discussion” are mere attempts to make me feel worse about myself, some are actually motivated by the desire to help me to improve. Indeed, I am thankful for the people in my life who have had to courage to point out legitimate blind spots that I would have missed.
For now, I will keep reminding myself that God’s view of me is not contingent upon my ability to reach an impossible standard of perfection.