Perfectionism and Procrastination

Anna Smith
Monday, February 29th 2016
Mar/Apr 2016

I am one of those tragic figures who is both a perfectionist and a procrastinator. I am such a perfectionist that the very idea of failure terrifies me to the core of my being. I am so afraid of doing things wrong that I am afraid to start, because I will probably not do it (whatever "it" is) perfectly and correctly. So I have to wait around until the fear of failure-by-not-finishing-at-all becomes greater than the fear of failure-by-not-doing-it-perfectly. Once the scale tips the balance, I can then scramble to try to get it done in the little remaining time, my normal fear of imperfection having been overwhelmed by the terror of it not being completed by the deadline. If this doesn't sound like a healthy pattern to you, that's good, because it isn't. But let me tell you, it works. In high school, college, and graduate school, I became skilled at balancing those fears and I was a successful student, but often a miserable one.

Now that I am out of school, I have found that this strategy doesn't work as well in normal life. My job and life have few deadlines, so the fear of not doing a task perfectly doesn't have any counterbalance. Effectively, that means I spend most of my time with a to-do list that I never properly tackle, and so I am always haunted by things that should be done and aren't, which is not a pleasant way to live. It might seem as though self-imposed deadlines are the answer, but let me assure you that they are not. Self-imposed deadlines cannot generate nearly enough dread to counterbalance my perfectionism, because part of my fear of deadlines is my desire to please other people. If I get it done by the deadline that no one knows about, it still very well could be imperfect; and since no one knows about that deadline, I will hang on to it so I can agonize over it for as long as I actually have, which could be forever.

Unfortunately, this means I need to tackle my perfectionism at the root. My perfectionism consists of many fears’fear that I will fail, fear that people will find me lacking and no longer love me, fear that I am not good enough for anything, fear that I will be judged and found wanting, and the strange fear that somehow failure will destroy me rather than be a learning experience or a hilarious story to tell my grandchildren. These fears exist because I build my self-worth on my performance. If you can only love yourself (and believe that others will love you) as a straight-A student, then a B+ becomes an existential threat.

But why even have that standard? Isn't it silly to base your self-worth on your GPA? Well, yes and no. It has its perks. For one, it means that I am limiting my worth to something that is easily measurable. It's hard (or at least depressing) to determine whether or not I am a good person; it is easy to calculate a GPA. We all like things we can calculate; other popular measures of self-worth include the amount of money in the bank, the number on the scale, the sports statistics, the number of followers, the hours we spend volunteering. This is external evidence we can point to in order to say, "I am doing well and I am worthy of love." It gives us assurance and security to have the facts in black and white. But what about when the numbers go against us? That's not a nice experience, but this system, even with its downsides, still keeps my own justification under my control. Maybe I didn't do well on that test, but I will work harder for the next one. Maybe my bank account isn't that great, but I can get it to where it needs to be, and then I will be worthy. The whole process of determining my worthiness is in my hands.

If I want to escape the perfectionism/procrastination cycle, I need to let go of the whole project of establishing my own worthiness. I'll never succeed. I make mistakes, I fail people, I hurt people. Busily engaging in my own pathetic attempt for perfection in limited areas doesn't fix those things. These projects, which seem so terribly important, just distract us from the real issue. The real issue is that I am a sinner and there is a holy God, and I do not deserve good things from him. I need someone to fulfill the demands of the law on my behalf and suffer the judgment for my failures. Christ has done this exact thing for me and extended his worthiness to me by grace, and it means that my worthiness is no longer up for me to determine. Because of Christ I am good, I am safe, and no B+ (or worse!) can vouchsafe that reality.

I believe these things because they are true, and then the truth goes on to set me free. The truth frees me from my obsession with achieving perfection, and actually allows me to do my jobs well. This paper, or this assignment, or this blog post, is not a referendum on my worth as a person. It's just an attempt to be faithful where God has placed me. I will fail from time to time, and I know I'm going to fail, and God knows I'm going to fail, and everything will still be ok. I do not need to procrastinate, because I am no longer driven by fears in any direction; so I don't need to balance them.

Seeing things this way also enables me to have a much more accurate view of my abilities. When I'm in perfectionist mode, anything less than an A++++ is total failure. I never enjoy any of my hard-earned accomplishments, I'm overly self-critical, and all my friends and relations get tired of assuring me that getting three questions wrong on that test doesn't mean the world is coming to an end. But when I am no longer trying to justify my personal soul, I realize that I am a pretty darned competent human being. I do not do things perfectly, but I do a lot of things well and it's not wrong to be happy about that. Having confidence in my abilities enables me to try newer and scarier things. When my standards are so high that failure is inevitable, and when failure is emotionally devastating, it's difficult to try new things. But when I have reasonable expectations, I can accomplish reasonable things that bring joy and fulfillment.

Taken altogether, letting go of my perfectionism is all gain and no loss. But it is still a difficult thing to do. What if God didn't really mean this whole grace business? What if only the superficially perfect inherit the kingdom? That's where faith, and trust, and resting in the promises of God come in. In repentance and rest is your salvation; in quietness and trust is your strength. Some trust in their achievements (including me!), and some trust in their own facades (me too, quite often!), but we (are working to) depend on the Lord our God.

Monday, February 29th 2016

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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