What would drive a student to rework problems numerous times even after mastering the concept? Why would one be fearful that he could never learn the material well enough? What would cause a student to believe he failed if he did not achieve a perfect score on a diagnostic or pretest even though he had never been exposed to the material? Why would a student be frustrated over forgetting even the most insignificant details or be heartbroken when he is not the top student in every subject? Why might one student study 6 hours for a quiz when every other student only studied 20 minutes? The answer to all of the above questions is perfectionism: an acceptable, perhaps even encouraged, addiction. What parent or teacher has never encouraged a student to excel or to be his best? Unfortunately, a student may misinterpret this seemingly good directive. Fuller (2008) explains, “Although my parents frequently insisted that they simply expected me to ‘do my best,’ I learned through their modeling that doing one’s best actually means being the best. As a result, I developed strong perfectionist tendencies, particularly in the area of academic achievement” (p. 46). Some of the brightest students are not only wrestling with perfectionism, but are unknowingly being encouraged by parents and teachers to continue their struggle.
In this article I seek to describe the addiction of perfectionism in education, explain our inadequate solutions for perfectionism, and show how perfectionism is an addiction of desiring to be God by wishing to be perfect and needing to be in control.
Basco (1999) has defined perfectionism as “an endless striving in which each task is seen as a challenge and no effort is ever good enough, yet the person continues in desperation to avoid mistakes, achieve perfection, and gain approval” (p. 5). Seamands (1991) described it as “the pressure of feeling caught in a trap where we are expected to live up to unrealistic and impossible demands put upon us by God, ourselves, and other people” (p. 168).
But in the classroom, is it not the goal of every teacher to see students strive for excellence? Perfectionism is not the same as wanting to excel (Greenspan 2000). Mallinger and De Wyze (1992) expound that “it’s important to distinguish between perfectionism and a healthy will to excel, which is a reasoned desire to perform competently. The latter is flexible and reasonable, while perfectionism is self-defeating, rigid, and driven” (p. 39). Stoop (1987) clarifies that for many “the line between excellence and perfectionism is difficult to discern. The perfectionist often starts out in a search for excellence and then moves into the area of perfectionism, reaching for an illusion–an ideal that is yet to be achieved in reality” (p. 30).
As it relates to perfectionism in education specifically in those under the age of 18, some suggest that family dynamics promote perfectionism. Through modeling, a parent’s own perfectionism may teach a child that perfection is the standard (Adelson & Wilson, 2009). Stoop (1987) observed “that perfectionism can be fostered within the family by a spirit of criticism, through the observation of parents’ expectations of themselves, and through the setting of extremely high standards by the parents or significant others. (p. 75). Seamands (1991) contends that some “parents promote perfectionism through conditional love and an excessive emphasis on the do’s and don’ts of the Christian life” (p. 96). Basco (1999) adds that “many perfectionists grew up with parents who either directly or indirectly communicated that they were not good enough” (p. 10). Even parental praise may motivate perfectionism as Fuller (2008) suggests that, “my capacity to perform well in this area [academics] generated praise and affection from my parents, which in turn led me to seek ever higher levels of academic achievement and subsequent parental approval” (p. 47).
Although family dynamics may be a significant contributing factor, the North American worldview has certainly promoted perfectionism as well. The key components of self-reliance, living as though everything depends on one’s own actions; individualism, living by doing one’s own thing; and activism, living under the assumption that one can obtain anything by working harder have certainly done nothing to subdue the addiction to perfectionism (Seamands, 1991).
Some claim that Scripture encourages perfectionism. They attest that Jesus’ command in the Sermon on the Mount to “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48) proves that perfection is not only endorsed by God, but commanded of all followers of Christ. This thinking lacks the understanding of the word “perfect” as it is used in scripture. In the Old Testament,
The Hebrew word for perfection is tamim. The root of this word means to bring to completion . . . the New Testament concept of perfection is found in the word teleios, meaning, ‘design, end, goal, and purpose’. It is this word teleios that Jesus uses when he tells us to ‘be perfect.’ The tense of the verb is future indicative, implying that this is our goal; it is not something that is expected right now. (Winter, 130-31)
Parrott (2003) further adds “to be perfect in the sense that Jesus means it, is to make room for growth, for the changes that bring us to maturity. That’s the goal” (p. 70). Winter (2005) illuminates that since “Jesus uses the word perfect not in relation to performance or appearance but in relation to maturity in personal development” (p. 169), clearly then, perfection is not what Christ is commanding, but rather growth and maturity in one’s walk with Christ.
World’s solutions for perfectionism
The world’s answers for perfectionism seem to agree that change must begin at the thought level. Some advocate cognitive restructuring which includes identifying detrimental thoughts, challenging those thoughts, and restructuring those thoughts (Domar & Kelly, 2008), although defining which thoughts were problematic or exactly how restructuring was to occur seemed left up to the individual. Greenspan (2000) mentions “the healing of perfectionism involves not only the discovery and counteracting of perfectionistic internal messages, but also the development of feelings of unconditional acceptability as a person” (p. 209). Mallinger and De Wyze (1992) summarize the behaviorist answer by explaining, “you are choosing to think these thoughts. They are obliterating your chances at happiness. You can start making significant changes right this minute, even with little or no insight into your obsessiveness” (p. 55). The integrationists suggest that one makes change a priority, courageously chooses to be less than perfect, keeps a journal of emotions, is selfish, and obtains help (Stoop, 1987). Adelson and Wilson want teachers of perfectionists to “encourage students to try and to take risks, and let them know that they are not always expected to succeed on their first try” (p. 124). All of these answers seemed to give little hope or clear direction as to a permanent solution.
Perfectionism has twin needs of being in control and being perfect (Mallinger & De Wyze, 1992). Because these character traits are reserved exclusively for God and are impossible to achieve as finite man, perfectionism, at its core, is an addiction of desiring to be God by wishing to be perfect and needing to be in control.
Perfectionism desires to be God by wishing to be perfect
The first example of perfectionism that we have recorded for us in the Bible is Lucifer. Stack (2000) declares that “perfection, with all its power and glory, is precisely what he craved most. He saw it firsthand, too. Authentic, immaculate, glorious, pure perfection – and every bit of it was God’s alone. . . . But he observed perfection long enough to know this: It couldn’t be stolen. It couldn’t be created. But it could be faked” (p. 89-90). Lucifer’s determination to “be like the most High” (Is.14:14) was precisely what cost him his position in heaven. From then until now, he has been trying to convince mankind that perfection is still possible. The desire to be “as gods, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5) was at the heart of the serpent’s temptation to Eve in the garden, evidenced at the Tower of Babel through their desire to “let us make us a name” (Gen. 11:4), and continues today.
Stoop (1987) firmly asserts that “the promise of perfectionism is basically a lie. It says that things can be perfect even though all the evidence indicates the exact opposite” (p. 52). Ever since the Fall in the Garden, imperfection saturates everything (Seamands, 1991). Mallinger and De Wyze (1992) explain that unfortunately, “at an unconscious level, perfectionists believe that mistake-free living is both possible and urgently necessary” (p. 37). Thus, Stoop (1987) declares “when people are faced with the choice between what is possible and what is desirable, they usually choose what is desirable, whether it is possible or not” (p. 52). Stoop also remarks that in an educational setting, “it is like aiming for 11 on a scale of 10” (Stoop, 1987, p. 54). For example, a student will strive for nothing less than an A-plus and may consider even that a failure if it required too much effort (Domar & Kelly, 2008). Since no one can achieve perfection one hundred percent of the time, a perfectionist is often disappointed both in himself and others around him (Parrott, 2003). In fact, Greenspan (2000) remarks that “in true life, not only is perfection impossible, but the cost to those who seek it is inordinately high” (p. 209).Hurst(1991) contends that “trying to be perfect can generate tremendous feelings of failure. It is not uncommon for people to try to control these feelings with drugs, etc.” (p. 98).
Is there anything wrong with attempting to be perfect? Is not that a normal desire of every human being? Unfortunately since the fall, desiring perfection is no longer an option (Seamands, 1991). Stoop (1987) adds that “this haunting desire to be like God is motivated by our pride and by our need to be self-sufficient” (p. 78). Scripture clearly states that all “come short of the glory of God” (Rom.3:23) and that “there is none righteous, no, not one” (Rom.3:10), but that certainly has not stopped Satan from promising the lie of perfection and tempting mankind with desiring to be God by wishing to be perfect.
Perfectionism desires to be God by being in control
Domar and Kelly (2008) explain “perfectionism is an act of control. If things are perfect, they feel more ordered, more in control. Some people tolerate a lack of control; perfectionists feel overwhelmed by it” (p. 48). Deep down, a perfectionist believes that control guarantees safety in life (Mallinger & De Wyze, 1992) which entices him, according to Brownback (2008), “to wrest our circumstances away from God when he doesn’t act as we think He should” (p. 56). Parrott (2001) contends control lures a perfectionist into believing that he has “power over everything that seems beyond real control, namely time and other people” (p. 174).
How does perfectionism originate? Do students intend to begin such a lifestyle? Stoop (1987) suggests “no one does it by design – it starts out as a way to avoid the anxiety of life. It starts as a way to control life, not to destroy the real self” (p. 71). Mallinger and De Wyze (1992) believe perfectionism
results from a child’s fanciful attempt to guarantee his security among others, and his sense of adequacy by excelling, and generally leaving no room for criticism. The child destined to become a perfectionist views perfection as the only fail-safe way to ensure that he won’t be vulnerable to such dangers as criticism, embarrassment, anger, or the withdrawal of love by his parents and others. (p. 38)
Overcoming perfectionism through understanding God’s grace
So, what help does Scripture contain for the perfectionistic student? In counseling the perfectionistic student, the idols of wanting to be the top student, earning the perfect test, and obtaining every possible point in a class will not be difficult to identify, in fact they will be obvious to both counselor and student. And unlike many addictions, none of these actions necessarily have to be stopped because they are harmful. In fact, these are the very actions that have been praised for so long that they have been deeply reinforced as acceptable and desirable.
Therefore the majority of the work with a perfectionistic student will not be at the temptation level, but will be at the secondary level, the roots behind the desire to achieve perfection. Questions that should help reveal the idols of a perfectionist at this level include: if I do it perfectly then. . .? Or if I make a mistake then. . .? The student’s responses to these statements should help reveal what he truly hopes his perfection will accomplish. Common idols of a perfectionist include, but are not limited to desiring to be loved, wanting approval from others, or fearing being rejected or criticized. Although initially he may say that his motive is to do his best, which appears to be a very Biblical goal, continue probing. If his desire to be perfect is out of fear of rejection, self-centeredness or pride, then it is not pleasing to God. As Winter (2005) mentions, there is nothing wrong with seeking “to be the best that we can be, with all our intellectual and artistic abilities, but the motive is all important” (p. 169).
These idols then drive the heart-level responses of desiring to be God by wishing to be perfect and needing to be in control. Stoop (1987) explains that a student may think, “on the one hand, I am trying to be God through my perfectionism. I fail to meet these standards, so I must punish myself by trying harder to do the impossible – that is, to be God” (p. 85). However, Winter (2005) expounds, “we are obstinate creatures, and perfectionists are especially fearful of and resistant to change. . . . Giving up control and learning to trust that God is in ultimate control is scary” (p. 172). What would cause a perfectionist to be willing to surrender the control of his life and relinquish his desire to be perfect? Surrender will only come through an understanding that he can possesses this unconditional acceptance by God’s grace in a relationship with One who is in complete control and One who epitomizes perfection. Seamands (1991) remarks that “God’s grace makes us worthwhile and valuable for who we are, and not because of what we successfully accomplish” (p. 36-37). Understanding that one is completely and unconditionally accepted by God erases any need of needing to be in control or being perfect.
An excellent passage for in-depth study with a perfectionist is Galatians 2:21-3:14. Verse 21 begins with Paul’s explanation that if salvation could be obtained through the keeping of the law, Christ’s death on the cross was unnecessary (Longman & Garland, 2007). Schreiner (2010) expounds that “those who require the law for salvation reject God’s grace and try to establish a right relationship with God by means of keeping the law” (p. 173). Throughout this section of Galatians, Paul contrasts the difference between the keeping of the Jewish law which is governed by doing (Gal. 3:12) and the system of faith. McKnight (1995) expounds Paul’s position “the law, he argues, is not of faith (and faith saves); the law demands ‘performance’” (p. 155). The perfectionist will most certainly relate to the demands of the law requiring a perfect performance. The verb “received” (elebete) in Galatians 3:2 and again in Galatians3:14 explains Paul’s theology of grace. George (1994) asserts that “’to receive’ in these texts does not refer to a self-prompted taking but rather to a grateful reception of that which is offered,” further reinforcing Paul’s point that the Galatians had not been saved through any effort on their part (p. 211). Reminding the perfectionist that God’s acceptance of him and his standing with God is based on God’s grace alone, not anything he can do (Eph. 2:8-9) removes the need for perfectionism if he is willing to surrender to Christ in salvation.
For the perfectionist who already professes salvation, the strongest point that needs to be made will not be that grace alone is necessary for salvation, but that grace alone is necessary for living the Christian life. Longman and Garland (2007) contend Paul makes the same point in Galatians 3:3 when he combats the false teaching that the Galatians needed to be ‘“observing the law’ in order to perfect their salvation in Christ, to ‘attain their goal’ (epiteleō, ‘be made complete’)” (p. 590). Unfortunately, Schreiner (2010) asserts, “Many believers are taught that justification is by faith alone while sanctification is by faith and works, as if sanctification were a cooperative effort involving both ourselves and the Lord” (p. 187). Even though a student may know salvation comes by grace through faith alone, he may assume God’s approval can be earned or won by good works or may perform perfectly to prove himself worthy of the salvation he has been given (Seamands, 1991). A Christian may incorrectly believe that the rewards in heaven are based on some heavenly scorecard that God is keeping (Stoop, 1987).
Students may have learned from parents or teachers that because humans can be manipulated, loving responses are earned or achieved. Such is certainly not the case with God, as May (1988) emphasizes, “there can be no secrecy between the soul and God, and therefore there can be no manipulation” (p. 121-122). Since God’s grace cannot be earned, there is no need to work to obtain the acceptance and approval that a Christian already possesses (Stoop, 1987). Schreiner (2010) affirms Paul teaches the Galatians that both in salvation and sanctification “the believer trusts God and does not rely on the flesh or on any native ability to produce good works” (p. 187). Paul reminds them through the answer to his rhetorical questions that both salvation and growth are not “by keeping the law” (ex ergōn nomou), but “by faith in the gospel message” (ex akoēs pisteōs) (Fung, 1988). In Galatians 3:1, Paul even calls the Galatians foolish, which to some people seems rather harsh. Yet the Galatians were unwise, as McKnight (1995) expounds: “the term foolish, however captures Paul’s point: they were illogical in committing themselves to the Pauline message of God’s grace in Christ and then succumbing to the Judaizers’ Moses-gospel” (p. 136). George (1994) reiterates their actions were foolish “since they had certainly received the Holy Spirit and witnessed his mighty works, why were they now retrogressing back from the Spirit to the flesh, that is from faith back to works and from grace back to law” (p. 206)? The counselor can show the student through this passage that God’s grace guarantees him God’s unconditional love and acceptance. Since nothing a human can do will increase or decrease God’s opinion, striving to be perfect and desiring to be in control are idols in a Christian’s life that are completely unnecessary and should be confessed as sin and forsaken.
This article has described the addiction of perfectionism in education, explained the world’s inadequate solutions for perfectionism, and shown how perfectionism is an addiction of desiring to be God by wishing to be perfect and needing to be in control which can only be overcome with a correct understanding of God’s grace. Rollins (2011) indicates that Christians must be aware that a perfectionists will probably not come seeking help “because from their perspective, their pursuit of perfection is totally rational” (p. 44). Parents and educators then must recognize the signs of perfectionism and confront students with this dangerous addiction. Believing the lies of perfectionism leads to many sad consequences. The unfulfilled and often impossibly high expectations of perfectionism lead to disappointment (Parrott, 2003). Therefore it is not surprising that perfectionism has been linked to depression even in students as young as high school (Erozkan, Karakas, Ata, & Ayberk, 2001). Though this article addressed perfectionism in education, the principles used in helping a student struggling during the formative educational experiences would certainly apply to perfectionists in many other situations.
Why is perfectionism as an addiction so dangerous? As with all addictions, the lies of perfectionism will expand beyond the educational realm. A student who does not learn to surrender control of his life and the desire to be perfect over to the Savior will continue to feed those appetites in every area of his life. Stoop (1987) avows that “someone who may have wanted to be at the top of the class during school years may be just as compulsively driven to make the most money or to live in the nicest house in town” (p. 68). Perfectionism in education may transition into a person expecting to be a perfect parent, perfect church member, perfect housewife or any number of other unrealistic desires. Stoop (1987), a pastor, commented that perfectionism “just seemed to keep cropping up as an issue with almost everyone who came to see me for counseling” (p. 13). Besides perfectionism being an affront to a perfect, loving, holy God, Seamonds (1991) contends that “perfectionists have a problem, are a problem, and create a problem for those who live with them” (p. 19). Therefore, every parent and teacher must be vigilant to confront and help students struggling with perfectionism as early as possible.
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