We are commanded in the scriptures to “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). And so, many people, in particular religious people, seek for ways to live a life that is considered “perfect.” However, is the idea of being “perfect” even remotely possible? The question that begs an answer is, “How does a person go about living a perfect life in an imperfect world?” According to a new study, our quest to answer that question has significant bearing on our mental health.
Defining the Terms
When we hear the words “perfect,” “perfectionist,” or “perfectionism” what thoughts come to mind? The philosophical definition of perfectionism is “a doctrine holding that religious, moral, social, or political perfection is attainable, especially the theory that human moral or spiritual perfection should be or has been attained.” The Apostle Paul addressed the subject of being perfect in his treatise to the saints of the church at Philippi. In Philippians 3:12-16 Paul exhorts:
Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in any thing ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you. Nevertheless, whereto we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing.
What Paul is telling the saints is that he is not perfect, but he lives his life in such a manner as to daily strive to become perfect or more Christ-like. He further explains that he has left behind those things in his life which he once thought would gain him favor with God, and instead continues to look ahead and set the attaining of a Christ-like life (a perfect life) as his spiritual and moral target.
High Expectations and Striving for Perfection
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are taught to have high expectations and to strive for perfection, a task which frequently leaves members finding themselves falling short of the mark. This often leads to feelings of discouragement, dissatisfaction, anxiety, and stress. However, Professors G. E. Kawika Allen from the McKay School of Education at Brigham Young University, and Kenneth T. Wang at the Fuller Theological Seminary, argue that perfectionism, or striving for high standards, is not the problem.
In a recent study published by the American Psychological Association in Psychology of Religion and Spirituality which focused specifically on Latter-day Saints, they surveyed approximately 267 active members of The Church of Jesus Christ in Utah which consisted mostly of young adults in their mid-20’s, and asked questions ranging from their satisfaction with life to inward and outward commitment to their faith. From their study they were able to categorize the responses into three main groups:
The first group, 22% of people surveyed, were not perfectionists, that is, they don’t believe they hold themselves to high personal standards. The rest were considered perfectionists, but had an interesting split among them – a new type of perfectionism. Of the perfectionist group, 30% were classified as what Allen and Wang labeled maladaptive perfectionism, while 47% were classified as adaptive.
Allen admits that the populace surveyed for the test was perhaps the most appropriate as it is at that crossroads in a person’s life when they feel the most pressure to live up to the high standards of perfectionism as they contemplate going on a mission, getting married, and pursuing a higher education.
The study indicated that over half of the 267 LDS members surveyed could be classified as adaptive perfectionists which can be described as follows:
Adaptive perfectionists are likely to feel acceptance of themselves and their efforts, even when they fail or fall short of the high personal standards they have set for themselves. They are also more inwardly and outwardly committed to their LDS faith, which supports previous peer-reviewed findings that religious commitment plays a role in achieving better psychological health. That means adaptive perfectionism is actually healthy.
Taking this into consideration, the Apostle Paul would be classified as an adaptive perfectionist.
By contrast, however, members who were classified as maladaptive tend to feel less satisfied with their lives, and often experience depression and anxiety. They also tend to have a deeper fear of being punished by God for their sinful behavior. The study renders the following explanation about maladaptive perfectionists:
Maladaptive perfectionists are those folks who have high standards and high expectations for themselves, but when they are unable to meet those expectations, whether it’s school, family, or personal expectations, they struggle a little more with feelings of failure, feelings of not being good enough, disappointment, discouragement, and they feel down about themselves because they’re not able to meet those high standards.
Allen further commented that “adaptive perfectionists are more resilient to discouragement and create a ‘buffer’ for themselves if they fail —allowing themselves a chance to simply try again and again and again and do their best. He relates this to the repentance process.
How Members Can Achieve a Healthier Perfectionist Behavior
Allen offers three basic suggestions for helping members to become adaptive perfectionist versus maladaptive perfectionists. He states that the first step is for a member to figure out the type of perfectionist that he or she is. For those who struggle with maladaptive perfectionism, Allen states that, “Knowing that they have this negative tendency is half the battle. Then they can begin practicing more patience with themselves and studying the Atonement – both key steps to becoming an adaptive perfectionist.” He also states that it can be encouraging for adaptive perfectionists “because it reinforces the ‘Okay, I can be perfectionist in an adaptive way, and I can feel good about myself when I’m not able to meet those expectations.”
The second step in the process is to not allow fear to rule how the gospel is lived. Allen states,
Oftentimes we find ourselves doing things out of fear and anxiety rather than wanting to do it out of the love and out of faith—our own faith. When we’re driven by fear and anxiety, that’s when we need to take another look at the meaning of the Atonement and grace and our testimony of the living Christ.
He further emphasizes that adaptive perfectionists are motivated by love for the Savior more than they are by fear of repentance or punishment.
The third step is to apply the atonement in daily living and remember the unconditional love that God has for each of us. Allen commented:
As we let go of fear, we also need to strive to understand the Atonement and God’s love. When we understand that the Atonement allows us to strive for perfection simply by doing our very best and we remember that we are already imperfect, it helps us pick up the pieces and start again when we make a mistake.
Each of Us Strive for Perfection
None of us are perfect. “As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10). “For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). The psalmist also declared, “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good. The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God. They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Psalm 14:1-3).
The only One who is perfect is Christ Himself. He is our Exemplar. As mortals, being perfect is an impossibility, but yet we should continue to strive towards becoming perfect. If we would keep that as our perspective and goal in life, we will be able to become adaptive perfectionists, continuously working to improve ourselves. Allen concludes with this counsel:
The next time you find yourself feeling like a failure, and that achieving perfection is impossible, take a step back, pick yourself up, and remember that the beauty of the Atonement is our ability to frequently fail, but always be able to move forward, a little better than we were before.