Sunday, February 1, 2015

An LDS Psychology Student's Thoughts on Perfectionism

As a Latter-day Saint who has struggled with anxiety (I've been in therapy and tried medication for it, and I stressed myself out enough on my mission that I only served 10 1/2 months before my body started to give out), and as a Psychology student (I'm not a licensed therapist, but I have gone to graduate school in psychology-related fields), I'd like to share my personal study of perfectionism. I'll begin with three talks and one book that really helped me, and then I'll introduce my own thoughts.

First, Cecil O. Samuelson presented a difference between "doing your best" and "perfectionism." If you're really struggling with this issue, his article is indispensable. I still remember discovering his comparison list at the bottom of the above link, and being floored at how precisely I fit his definition of perfectionism. It was quite a dramatic thing for me. (This isn't terribly important, but there is one inaccurate statement in his article: there's no consensus in the psychological community that perfectionism is a "medical condition." You can't be diagnosed with perfectionism, according to accepted criteria. You can be diagnosed with anxiety, which may center around your fears of failure or imperfection.)

In his article "Perfection Pending," Elder Russell M. Nelson explained the difference between mortal perfection and eternal perfection. We can become perfect at some things in this life, but even Jesus never described himself as "perfect" until after his resurrection. This article is also an essential read. A favorite quote: "When comparing one’s personal performance with the supreme standard of the Lord’s expectation, the reality of imperfection can at times be depressing. My heart goes out to conscientious Saints who, because of their shortcomings, allow feelings of depression to rob them of happiness in life. We all need to remember: men are that they might have joy—not guilt trips!"

The next article, Elder Dallin H. Oaks's "Good, Better, Best," is especially close to my heart, since he gave it while I was a missionary. It's an important principle that I apply to many facets of my life, and it can help tone down perfectionistic anxiety. Just realizing that you didn't make the best choice, but you still made a good choice, can lessen your panic. I wrote a more detailed article about my personal experiences with this a few months after I came home.

A prominent LDS psychotherapist named Wendy Ulrich wrote a book called Weakness Is Not Sin, which explains something very profound. Sin is disobeying God. All other failures are less important to him, and may even be success in his eyes. You didn't get your project done on time? You disappointed a friend? You forgot about one of your goals? That's too bad, but it's not necessarily a sin. Somehow... I made it into adulthood without realizing this. Now, it's a big part of how I deal with failures. First, I ask myself, did I fail God? Or not? Do I need to repent, or just try to do better next time? She did a wonderful job with this book. It's a short read, too.

After reading Elder Nelson's Perfection Pending, and hearing him repeat those insights at a mission fireside, I still felt something missing. I thought and prayed about it, and I came to the following conclusion: there is a difference between perfect obedience and true perfection. I believe that we should never go to the opposite extreme from perfectionism and justify our sins to any degree by saying, "Well, nobody's perfect." (That phrase is a fairly healthy way to respond to weakness, but not to sin.) Instead, we should immediately ask for forgiveness, because perfect obedience is possible in this life. In fact, there are special promises in the Book of Mormon of peace and prosperity to those who "keep the commandments of God." I suspect that those scriptures aren't talking about being mostly obedient, but being 100% obedient, and developing perfectly obedient habits is the work of a lifetime. Find me a scripture that says otherwise. 1 Nephi 3:7 actually confirms that perfect obedience is possible, because of...

The enabling power of grace! This is touched on in the famous works The Infinite Atonement by Tad Callister and The Continuous Atonement by Brad Wilcox, and the apostle Paul never seems to stop talking about it. My first real understanding that Jesus helps us keep the commandments at an internal, psychological level came through a book called Willpower Is Not Enough, and I now make praying for grace part of every self-improvement goal I set, and every repentance process I go through. Without grace, we are nothing. See also: the entire scriptures. For me, perfectionism includes the temptation to be so prideful as to wish that I weren't dependent on the Atonement of Jesus Christ. (Never gonna happen--even perfectly obedient people need the Atonement.)

However, while we take hold of that enabling power, we still have to deal with today's shortcomings somehow. King Benjamin spoke of "retaining a remission of your sins from day to day" (Mosiah 4:26), and the Lord told Alma the Elder, "Yea, and as often as my people repent will I forgive them their trespasses against me" (Mosiah 26:30). As long as we are moving forward, God's forgiveness can come today, not after we are perfected. We can have the peace of knowing we are on the right path. This is a sacred topic, and a personal one, yet it is reflected in the sacramental prayers: we covenant that we are willing to keep all the commandments, but we don't claim that we actually do. We do always remember our Savior; we repent when we sin, and we try to do better when we fail.

Various psychologists have divided perfectionism into several dimensions: good and bad, self-focused and other-focused. Good ("adaptive") perfectionism means high standards, challenging goals, and pushing yourself. Bad ("maladaptive") perfectionism means obsessing over failure, being dissatisfied with your performance no matter what, and unrealistic goals. (See also President Samuelson's article at the top of this post.) Self-oriented perfectionism is a strong concern with your own perfection; other-oriented perfectionism is a strong concern with others' perfection. Other-oriented perfectionism involves being judgy and unkind. If you do it, stop it.

As I have transitioned from bad perfectionism to very high (but realistic) expectations for myself, I have found something interesting: when I fail, I can't just fail. I have to take some time to mourn my lost goals. As a perfectionist, I give my heart to my goals, and failing at a big goal feels exactly like a bad breakup. Is something wrong with me? Or with my old goal? Will I ever succeed at anything? Do I still know who I am? Why did this happen? etc. And if I rebound onto a new goal too quickly, I can't really commit. I'm still living in my last failure. Sometime writing my feelings out helps; lots of psychologists recommend a feelings journal to work through things like this.

Anyway, good luck. May the Force Be With You. This is not a perfect ending to a blog post, and I accept that. *takes a deep, calming breath*