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Escaping the Perfection Trap

The late humorist Erma Bombeck once referred to guilt as “the gift that keeps on giving.” Her comment resonates with my own experience. Past mistakes, failures, and sins trigger my guilt even years after the offense. I’ve carried minor faults and shortcomings for so long that decades later I still cringe when I remember them. Guilt can, indeed, be the gift that keeps on giving.

The lasting impact of guilt and regret can lead to what I call the perfection trap. For most of my life, I have tried so hard to achieve perfection that my flaws, mistakes, and sins cling to me like Velcro. Whether it’s what I’ve done or something I failed to do, my guilt casts a shadow over me that’s hard to shake. I find myself living with a kind of “would have, should have, could have” list of shortcomings and accusations that I continue to hold against myself. From there, it’s easy to go down the rabbit hole of self-judgment and self-condemnation – neither of which is helpful.

There are two aspects of the perfection trap that give it the power over me. The first is a view of God as the divine scorekeeper – tallying both the good I do and the bad for which I’ll be held accountable. That view of God focuses my attention and energy on the divine ledger – trying to fill in the good side while keeping the bad side as empty as possible. Seeing God as a final judge who rewards or condemns was ingrained in me as a child, and it continues to have an emotional hold on me. Early on, I drank the Kool-Aid – accepting a flawed view of God as the real thing. The scorekeeper view of God results in adopting a kind of yardstick spirituality that is preoccupied with whether I measure up. If God is the divine scorekeeper, the purpose of life is to achieve perfection, and my goal is to earn the ultimate reward. It sees the divine ledger – my final measure on the yardstick – as determining my eternal fate: sheep or goat, saved or damned, heaven or hell.

A second aspect of the perfection trap is that it leads to an ego-centric view of the spiritual journey that is overly focused on my own behavior. Am I following the rules, am I resisting temptation, am I doing the right thing? Being preoccupied with my own actions can lead to being self-absorbed – causing me to both fail to see God’s forgiving presence and miss the opportunity to open myself to God’s healing power. When I think it’s all up to me, I close myself off from God’s mercy, grace, forgiveness, and love.

To break out of the perfection trap, we need words of wisdom from Jesus and advice from a saint who admitted she was a recovering perfectionist.

We’ve heard Jesus’ words of wisdom many times, but they may need to penetrate more deeply into the dark and broken places within us where we need forgiveness and healing. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus describes two men praying in the temple. The Pharisee trusts his own efforts and believes his religious practices have earned righteousness. The other man acknowledges his sinfulness and humbly asks God for mercy. Jesus is clear that it is the one seeking mercy who goes home justified – not based on his own behavior but because of the gift of God’s mercy. Jesus’ words of wisdom debunk the notion that we can save ourselves; they reveal the flaw in the perfection trap.

It’s important to grasp that this parable is hardly an isolated example. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus reveals God as merciful and forgiving in story after story and in parable after parable. That revelation is at the heart of his ministry of healing and reconciliation for outcasts and sinners.

St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower, was a recovering perfectionist.1 Early in her life, she was  strong-willed and – frankly – something of a drama queen. As a child, she would throw temper tantrums when she didn’t get her way. While she was growing up, she would be filled with guilt and tearful remorse if she made the slightest mistake. She describes experiencing what I call the double whammy of the perfection trap: first, she felt the guilt and remorse for making a mistake – such as being thoughtless. Then, she experienced guilt and remorse for being so emotional about it. Long before Erma Bombeck, Therese experienced the way in which guilt keeps on giving.

As a teenager, Therese had a powerful conversion experience that helped her break free of the perfection trap. Over time, it led her to adopt what she called her “Little Way.” For those of us caught in the perfection trap, Therese’s Little Way offers a possible pathway to recovery.

Simply stated – and simplicity is one of Therese’s gifts – the Little Way involves three profound changes: a shift in our self-understanding, a shift in our view of God, and a shift in how we respond to our mistakes, shortcomings, and sinfulness.

The shift Therese made in her self-understanding was recognizing that she wasn’t the center of attention and didn’t need to be. She came to see herself as “little” – simple, humble, needy, and poor in spirit. Yet, she also trusted that even in her littleness, she was deeply loved by God as the unique person that she was.

Therese also experienced a shift – or a deepening – in her view of God. She came to trust that God loved her no matter what – not because she had earned that love but because she was God’s precious daughter. Trusting that God loved and cherished her no matter what allowed her to reject any notion of God as the divine scorekeeper. She placed her trust in God’s mercy, grace, forgiveness, and love. She lived with a confidence that God’s love for her as a given – not as something she needed to earn based on her own behavior or even as something that she deserved.

Therese’s view of herself as little and her view of God as forgiving and loving led to the third shift – a transformational change in how she responded to her faults, shortcomings, and sins. Whenever she fell short, she would seek out the embrace of God and accept forgiveness, reconciliation, and love. Her trust in the unfailing mercy and love of God freed her from the need to be perfect or to be guilt-ridden by her failures and sins.

The image of being embraced by a loving God was so strong for Therese that she once counseled a priest to abandon the notion he had to fall at Jesus’ feet in order to ask for forgiveness. She urged him to run to God standing up and receive God’s mercy and forgiveness as a loving embrace. Being little didn’t mean groveling; it meant being humble, honest, and open.

Therese’s Little Way gives us profound wisdom for escaping the perfection trap. It begins with accepting being little – humble, honest, and open about our shortcomings, failures, and sinfulness. It requires abandoning our view of God as the divine scorekeeper and trusting the God that Jesus reveals as merciful, forgiving, and loving. It urges us to abandon responding to every failure and sin by being filled with guilt and doubling down on our attempt to be perfect. Instead, it calls us to respond to our weakness by running to the loving embrace of our God who is infinitely patient, merciful, and forgiving.

Questions to Ponder

  • In what way does the description of the perfection trap resonate with your own experience?
  • What are some of the ways in which Therese’s Little Way could help free you from the perfection trap?
  • What could you do to embrace being humble, honest, and open about your shortcomings, failures, and sinfulness?
  • How could you more fully embrace God as merciful, forgiving, and loving?

1 I am indebted to a great book for my understanding and interpretation of St. Therese of Lisieux and her Little Way. 

Joseph F. Schmidt and Marisa Guerin, Life Lessons from Therese of Lisieux (Frederick, Maryland, The Word Among Us Press, 2022).

 I highly recommend it for discovering ways to escape the perfection trap by embracing Therese’s Little Way.