Being a perfectionist is exhausting.
Trust me, I know. I’m a recovering one. I’ve spent more of my life trying to get perfect grades, create the perfect resume, be a perfect leader, and preach perfect sermons than I care to admit. Even now, there’s a part of me that wants to write the perfect blog post about how it’s okay not to be perfect…and, no, I’m not kidding when I write that!
For me, the journey out of perfectionism hasn’t been about lowering my standards and embracing mediocrity. It’s been about developing realistic expectations and, even more importantly, learning to show myself grace when I don’t meet those expectations. I’m reminding myself of truths I already know: I will always have room to grow, my value isn’t found in my achievements, and those closest to me don’t love me because of what I accomplish. So, I’m still aiming high. I’m just learning how to cope when I fall a little short every now and again. Pretty simple stuff.
It just seems to be particularly hard for me to apply in the area of relationships. No where have I found perfectionism more damaging and harder to overcome than in relationships. I was reminded of that all over again in preparing for this past Sunday’s sermon at Restoration City. In that sermon, I shared a well-known quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic book about community, Life Together, “The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.” In other words, relational perfectionists kill community. It’s true in marriage. In dating. In friendship. In families. Really, in any relational system.
I’ve had to embrace the hard truth that one of the greatest obstacles to improving my relationships is my frustration with the fact that my relationships need improvement. I know how crazy that sounds but that’s how relational perfectionism works. I develop and fall in love with an idyllic picture of marriage, friendship, church, or work. It’s a gorgeous vision of relational perfection – everyone is getting along perfectly, everything is in its place, there’s good food, and everyone is saying and doing all the right things. It’s incredible. No filter required – it’s perfect all by itself. But, the real world never lives up to that vision. Laura and I have a good marriage but it isn’t perfect. I have three really great kids who often don’t act so great. I don’t get to see my friends as often as I would like and people move out of DC way more than I want. In other words, relationships aren’t perfect.
A lot of our relational fulfillment depends on how we handle those imperfections. Relational perfectionists are tempted to withdraw into a cave of frustration, despair, anger, and discouragement. We tend to blame ourselves and wonder why we can’t even get relationships right. We love to use comparison to beat ourselves up even more – look at everyone else, their relationships look so perfect on Instagram.
Here’s the problem and it should be obvious: it’s hard to build good relationships in the cave of frustration. Despair, anger, and withdrawal never improves our marriages, friendships, or parenting. It only makes things worse.
If we’re going to live in community, it’s crucial to develop realistic expectations for relationships and show everyone grace when life doesn’t live up to those expectations. I still have a long way to go but I’m trying to live in the second half of Bonhoeffer’s quote – just love the people around you. Stop being disappointed that our marriage isn’t perfect and just love Laura in the midst of the imperfect. Stop being sad that our family dinners aren’t exactly the thing of HGTV splendor and love my kids in the midst of the chaos.
Don’t let your vision of community suffocate the people around you. Stop being a relational perfectionist and dive into the mess of community. It’s isn’t perfect but it’s where life happens and where we meet God.