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Confessions of a recovering perfectionist

Perfectionist cleaning kitchen

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Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 03/10/24

When it comes to the topic of perfectionism, I know a thing or two. Experience shows that only love can really set us free from the desire to be in control.

Last week, in the high school theology class I teach, the students were having a vigorous debate as I walked through the door to begin class. The previous class period we had been in Mass and one of the students, because he felt he’d done a poor job paying attention, decided to refrain from receiving communion out of reverence for the Eucharist. A lively discussion then ensued in the hallway after Mass and spilled into my class. Is it possible to ever perfectly participate in the Mass? Doesn’t our attention wander at least a little bit at some point? Isn’t there some lingering sin? Some defect in our love?

In most schools, I imagine that the students spend the time in between classes staring at their phones, goofing off, or scrambling last-minute to finish homework. Not to brag, but at mine they debate high-level theology. I absolutely love teaching in a school with a strong Catholic identity.

As the bell rang to begin class, I decided to inject some structure into the discussion and make it an official part of our class time.

A former(?) perfectionist on perfectionism

When it comes to the topic of perfectionism, I know a thing or two. I’m a recovering perfectionist myself. It was exhausting. I used to study for tests late into the night even though I already comfortably knew the material because, for some reason, it was important to me to receive a 100 rather than a 98. I got the 98 anyway, because I was too tired on test day. Running long-distances without enough recovery time? Yeah, I did that. It got to the point I was actually hurting my body. I thought I could get my mile time a few seconds faster but, instead, I got slow and injured from pushing my body too hard.

In my spiritual life, perfectionism was particularly harmful. I never thought I was good enough for God to love me. I doubted his forgiveness, worried that I wasn’t sorry enough. You can see how this would be a huge problem.

If I want to do something I want to do it perfectly. I still remember the first time I sang unaccompanied at Mass as a priest. I chanted the Eucharistic preface. It was okay, but I made a mess of parts of it, increasingly so towards the end. Because of my desire to never make a mistake, I was unable to relax and sing through the small mistakes calmly. My voice-box tightened up. Then my pitch wavered. My perfectionism had, ironically, made the singing much worse.

The funny thing about it, too, is that literally no one else in the church that day cared that I made a few mistakes. The parishioners were all on my side. They weren’t looking to embarrass me or call attention to my shortcomings. The problem was entirely in my head.

Perfectionist lining up paper clips

Wanting to be in charge

Thinking it through over the years, I’ve become convinced that perfectionism is related to a desire to exert control. I feel uncomfortable when I’m not completely in charge of a situation. This is why I want to know literally every single answer on the test, have a body with no physical weakness, and perform perfectly when speaking or singing in front of other people.

There’s a lot of pride involved in an attitude like that, to think I can and should be perfect all the time. This isn’t reasonable. It also wastes a lot of time and effort. For years, it contributed to my spiritual struggles and depression.

Acknowledging our imperfection

For better or worse, we are who we are. We can’t control our strengths or weaknesses. Perfectionists benefit tremendously from acknowledging honestly that we are not perfect and, this side of purgatory, won’t ever be perfect.

Doing so might seem like admitting defeat. But it’s not. It’s making room for community and empathy and love. We’re all flawed, and one of the opportunities we have as imperfect creatures is being vulnerable about with others and allowing them to be imperfect with us in return. This is how we love each other, learn from each other, and support each other. We carry each other’s burdens and, in the end, if we win, if we make it to Heaven and by God’s grace enter into the fullness of our individual potential, we will cross that finish line together.

Knowing this, that our success is defined not by perfection but, rather, by love, perfectionists are set free from our need to exert constant control. As I’ve been able to let go, what has surprised me most is that I’m now actually able to make progress. I’m easier on myself with exercise and am now running better than ever. I don’t worry about making mistakes singing and now my voice is more confident. I don’t feel I have to be perfect in order to earn God’s forgiveness.

All I have to do is take my sins to the sacrament of confession. The first time I went to confession was the first time I ever knew I was truly forgiven. Because of this, my relationship with God began to heal and the beauty of the Catholic faith unfolded before my astonished eyes.

A strange but joyful dichotomy

This, by the way, is why I was extremely proud of that student in my class who refrained from communion. As we discussed it that day, it became abundantly clear that he hadn’t done so from a misplaced sense of perfectionism. He had done so out of love for Jesus.

Today, at the altar, I sing the Mass all the time. There’s no end to amusement for me in the strange dichotomy that I’m sure many other parishes also experience: When I chant and a response is called for in the liturgy, the voice of the cantor who responds is so much better than mine, the priest.

There’s much-needed humility in that contrast, and even as I strive to continue improving my voice, I’ve begun to take joy in it. The cantor offers God his best gift. I offer my best gift. God loves and accepts them both.

I’m singing this year, for the very first time, one of the sections of the extended Gospel readings during Holy Week. We’ll see how it goes.

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