Recently got a card with this on the front:
“And then the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was greater than the risk it took to bloom.”
– Anais Nin
I’ve been thinking a lot about perfectionism recently, and how it’s a barrier to caring for others. I think it’s often an extension of the fear of getting hurt that I talked about in the last post.
Perfectionism is a response to insecurity. We feel unsure of our worth, we fear the criticism of others, so we look for some objective way of measuring our worth and assuring ourselves that we have value. Being ‘perfect’ becomes our touch-stone: it allows us to tell ourselves that we’re ‘ok’, we’re safe…as long as we keep living up to our perfect standards (or those we imagine belong to others). But it’s an extremely brittle coping strategy because the underlying problem isn’t fixed. To use a medical metaphor, the wound is still there – perfectionism doesn’t heal it, it just protects it from being ‘poked’.
And the really big problem with perfectionism is that it’s demands are impossible to meet, and it only protects our wounds as long as we are perfect. We all naturally make mistakes all the time, so to achieve this artificial, protective state of ‘perfection’ we have to employ two strategies:
1. Avoidance of all situations in which we’re not in control or in which we risk failure.
2. Refusing to acknowledge the mistakes we (inevitably) do make to ourselves or others.
(2) makes us vain hypocrites and shuts us off from the possibility of grace – because we can never experience the joy of repentance and reconciliation if we can’t bring ourselves to admit that we’re in the wrong.
(1) drives us to live lives within an ever-narrowing circle, as we retreat from all sources of challenge and risk. We will do only what we can guarantee to do perfectly, and so we will never grow. And one of the biggest sources of risk is loving others. One of my favourite quotes from CS Lewis:
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
And that’s where I think the card quote comes in. Because when we begin to count the cost of perfectionism – to ourselves and others – we may finally decide that blooming is worth it.