I’m not interested in what you do, I’m interested in who you are.
It was the first time in my thirty-two years of life anyone has ever said that to me. The words echoed in my ears, reverberating like an unexpected clanging of a cymbal in elevator music.
It was just so unexpected.
The conversation that carried the explosive statement surprised me because it was with someone who was getting to know me. We had been chatting for almost an hour, sharing coffee and connecting the dots of life together, so much of what had been shared were factual statements about the adventures life has taken me on. People have always asked me what I do, particularly when they are getting to know me. Who I am is never a question that comes up.
I’ve always been a doer, an achiever; I learned at a young age that it is easy to define myself by my accomplishments, inspiring me to strive for success in everything. As a kid I excelled at every sport I did, as a student I was always top of my class and as a young adult I was adventurous, lived abroad and maximized every opportunity that came my way. By the age of twenty-five I was making six-figures, owned my own home, and had completed a full Ironman triathlon. It was natural for me to identify myself by what I was doing and by what I accomplished because the world around me celebrated me for just that: for what I did and not for who I was.
But this new friend is bold, and honest. She doesn’t want to pay attention to the perfectionistic and performance-based elements of my personality. No, she wants to know me for me.
I have been proactively fighting perfectionistic thinking in my life for well over a year now, but this friend has urged me to identify sneaky ways perfectionistic thinking is still seeping into my perspective. I know the mindset of perfectionism is rooted in a need for success, a need to impress others. The antidote to such thinking lies in uprooted the base need – success – and substituting it with something else: significance. So, as I pursue significance with my life – which, coincidentally comes from focusing on valuing yourself for being who you are, being someone of great character, rather than by what you do – I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about other impediments that perfectionistic thinking has introduced to my life. Perfectionistic thinking has brainwashed me to believe I always need to be five pounds skinnier, just a little bit more successful and to have just an extra hour of time in my day. It was that little whisper that niggles in the back of my mind always convincing me that I am not enough. The question we must ask ourselves when we find our minds echoing with these whispers that have become shouts is, “When will enough be enough?” That’s a hard question to answer because the answer always changes, which is why we need to stop chasing that which does not make sense. Rather than chasing the changing whimsies of success in what we do let us instead learn to chase significance in who we are.
Here are some of the things I’ve been learning about perfectionism recently:
- Perfectionism is an effort to cover up anything that we feel vulnerable about, ashamed of or not enough. In many ways, it is our attempt to cover up our flaws, our faults and our fears. As a Christian, my perfectionistic thinking is in direct conflict with the truth of who Jesus is and with my belief that He makes me whole, He covers my shame, He takes my not enough and makes it enough.
- Perfectionism is the thief of wholeness. I think we all want to be and feel whole, yet, when pursuing perfectionism, we cut ourselves in parts, it’s an inevitable side-effect of what happens when you pick yourself apart. How can we expect to feel whole when we pick ourselves apart?
A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day.
A string of such moments can change the course of your life.
-Christopher K. Germer
- Perfectionism’s performance-based mentality brainwashes us into thinking that we are what we do, not who we are. Perfectionism is about performance; it convinces us that life is a series of effort-based progressions. As we climb the never-ending ladder of success, we find ourselves feeling more and more exhausted, more and more unfulfilled by each accomplishment. If we believe that our value is based off of what we do it is no wonder we are exhausted, for we have believed the lie that we must earn our worth. When we can learn to believe that who we are is enough – particularly for those who come from a faith-based background – that because of God’s great love for us we are enough, then we can find true freedom from the insanity of chasing our value in exhausted desperation.
A student of words and lover of quotations from great thinkers, in the past I have justified some of my perfectionistic thinking based off Aristotle’s classic line on excellence:
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
I love the idea of excellence, but I now realize my definition of excellence has been skewed. Aristotle instructed me to “do” – and that I was what I repeatedly did; I pushed myself from achievement to achievement, thinking all along the way that my efforts to achieve were etching excellence deep into my identity.
After extensive reflection I am challenging the value of this classic quote. I do agree that excellence is a habit, and I know that habits are formed as a byproduct of repetition, but I still think the quote is missing something crucial. Yes, we can become excellent in what we do by demanding excellence of ourselves repeatedly, but I believe that excellence is more than that. Excellence, true excellence, is a character trait. It is not an identifier we can earn, but rather a value within ourselves we can esteem.
I want to be a person of excellence. I want my heart and the nature of my character to be committed to excellence, that is the quality of being outstanding. I don’t want to be outstanding in my actions, no; I want to be outstanding as a human being. I want to have an outstanding amount of love. I want to possess an outstanding amount of compassion and patience. I want to be outstanding in my kindness. I want to be outstanding in my commitment each day to authenticity. I want to be an outstanding version of myself – I want to live out who God created me to be…an excellent reflection of His love. Being excellent in these ways isn’t something I can earn, or do, or work on, it is part of who I am and who I can be.
I’m declaring myself an anti-perfectionist and I invite you to join me. Let us put aside the pursuit of performance-based approval and instead strive for excellence in the traits that make us who we are. This is a rebellion against perfectionism. It may feel weird at first to be proactively challenging your perfectionistic thoughts and tendencies, but I promise you, like any revolution, the fight is worth it.
Yours In Anti-Perfectionism,
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