We all want joy and contentment. Much of that desire is God-given; before things in the world went terribly awry, we were created to live in perfect peace and harmony with our own selves, the world around us, our role in the world and our relationships with others. It’s a longing for heaven, but that means it won’t be fulfilled until we get there. Living in a broken world, there is then a danger in pursuing forms of perfection as a means to joy in the here and now.
If you’re like me, you’ve found yourself exhausted, frustrated or discouraged from this pursuit time and time again. It’s important to recognize the lies about perfectionism so that we don’t sacrifice our hearts pursuing what will never deliver; instead, we learn to look to and rest in the Perfect One who alone can be our sufficiency when all else fails.
Sometimes we call this “perfectionism,” which can be a good (if annoying) thing. Other times, this attitude can drift into a kind of narcissism—putting yourself at the center of everything you do and everything around you—that not only won’t satisfy, it will actively rob you of joy and peace.
Here are four warnings you might be turning attempts to be perfect into a narcissism.
1. You always lack fulfillment because you compare your achievements to those ‘ahead’ of you.
You think “perfect” life achievements will bring you joy.
We live in an age where the charmed life seems to be all around us. Even for Christians, we can fall into a subtle trap of boasting about “blessings” without realizing we’ve simply thrown a Christian label on our charmed-life posts. The result is the same: falling for the “best life now” illusion, hook, line and sinker. You think things like, “Once I achieve that level of success in my career …” “Once I become that Instafamous …” “Once I move on from singleness to marriage …” “Once I enter into (or get out of!) that season of parenthood—then I’ll feel fulfilled.”
We don’t realize—or fully believe—there are challenges and new issues of discontentment tied to the role “ahead.” This is why Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes:[lborder]
So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.
There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” (2:9-11, 24-25)[/lborder]
Nothing is owed to us, but grace is given for today to enjoy what is before us here and now.
2. You think if your friends/family/coworkers just recognized—verbally or maybe on Twitter—how valuable you are, you’ll be happy.
When we fall for this lie, we are always looking for something new, better, funnier, flashier to keep the stream of praises flowing our way. We should sense a red flag if we feel unsettled when there is too quiet a pause in the praise.
The praise of people can be addicting; beware of placing the weight of your self-worth on its shoulders. It can rise and fall with trends, attention spans, moods and others’ own insecurities and issues. And its supply often has more to do with others and less to do with you.
The only One who is more than able to bear the weight of all of yourself is Christ.
3. You think the absence of conflict means joy and satisfaction.
While it’s true we need general health in our relationships, we need to be careful not to equate “healthy” with “conflict-free.” It is impossible to avoid a clashing of will or personality, and for this peace-loving people-pleaser, it can be relationally confusing and exhausting. That’s until I come back to the realization that it’s not the absence of relational conflict that will bring me true joy.
Because in my core, what I really want in my relationships is not to be conflict-free, but to be loving, patient, godly, self-sacrificing and renewed in spirit.
These attributes are gold, but they only come about through the often-painful refinement experienced in working through the relational conflicts, big and small.
4. You think when you are at your worst you cannot be truly loved.
This lie encapsulates the others because we tie up our life achievements, our public images and our closest relationships, with our very selves. Fundamentally, the perfectionists in us will be tempted to pursue perfection of self in the pursuit of joy.
What then, when we have bad moments, as everyone does? I mean, really bad moments. I mean, your worst moments when you’ve totally lost your rational mind and you’re throwing an adult-style tantrum.
The truth is that in your worst moments, when you’ve given into that sin once again and the voices of shame and hypocrisy are deafening, it’s easier to think God is merely tolerating you. But when we find ourselves in the shoes of the prodigal son is when we find He has already run to us.
When Jesus took the sin of the world on His holy self and suffered the horrific consequences for them, the Father still loved Him, and eventually raised Him to new life. Now that we have received His forgiveness for all our sin, past, present and future and have been donned with the robe of righteousness, how could the Father love us any less? It is profound, and it is our healing.
This is what the apostle Paul is talking about when he writes,
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8).[/lborder]
To pursue perfection in achievements, in the opinions of others, in our relationships and in ourselves is to chase an illusion. Recognizing these narcissistic thoughts is the first step toward freedom from their entanglement and the subsequent exhaustion. And it’s a step toward the only One who really satisfies.
This article appeared in an earlier version here. Used with permission.
Alina is a pediatric ICU nurse, wife to one, and mommy to two littles. She is passionate about writing about God's gracious presence in the midst of our real-life messy struggles. She has written for Inheritance Magazine, Susan Cain's Quiet Revolution blog, and Adam McHugh's Introverts in the Church blog. You can find more of her writing at http://pilgrimslens.wordpress.com.