Freedom for our Perfectionist Teens
Chicken liver. Pansy. Wuss. I can come up with a hundred, colorful ways to describe my adult life. But when it comes down to it, I’ve lost my nerve. So when I was approached about stretching my writing muscles again, my initial reaction was honor, followed very shortly by “Oh, no. I’m not good at writing anymore.”
Did you catch my key word there? “Good. Good at writing.” My fear of not being good enough has prevented me from sitting down to write for a long, long time.
As a professional counselor specializing in adolescents, I can spot a perfectionist a mile away. You know that kid – stressed about everything, super high achieving. But I’ve also come to recognize another type of perfectionist. It’s the procrastinator.
The reality is: a procrastinator is actually just an overwhelmed perfectionist. Ultimately it’s the exact same. Take me, for example. I’m a bit messy, scattered and clumsy. Not your stereotypical perfectionist. But my procrastination sheds light on my total fear of failure. I would rather just not try something, than try it and fail. I’m a perfectionist.
Adolescents struggling with perfectionism are deeply afraid of being left out or rejected, which often leads to saying “yes” to too many activities. They are too anxious to give their personal opinions. Think about kids who won’t offer an answer in youth group, even though you know they care passionately about the topic. And deep down, they’re angry. They’re angry when others give even constructive criticism, for example, or when parents suggest a different way to organize homework or their schedule. But most of all, perfectionist teens are incredibly ashamed of having emotions – fear, grief, embarrassment, and even excitement.
Emotions bring vulnerability. They expose pieces of ourselves that have been moved and are responding genuinely.
Take the Superbowl Budweiser commercial starring Clydesdales and puppies, for instance. It manages to consistently rip my heart out. It’s a commercial! And yet, I cry every single time I see it.
It evokes emotion in me that tells others a little bit about who I am. And as a perfectionist, I find that really embarrassing.
Emotion means losing control. Until you’ve been granted the window to a teenager’s soul, you’ll find few adolescents who are comfortable exhibiting vulnerability. The nature of adolescence is to maintain control, leading to many fights over curfews or hair color. It’s a control battle.
No wonder our clients and students deal with depression, eating disorders, alcoholism, and more; so much of it is rooted in perfectionism, in their need to control.
In Galatians 5:2-6, Paul has some intense words for those of us who look to ourselves, to control, to the law instead of to the grace of God found in Christ Jesus. Living under the unconscious standards of perfection we set for ourselves can be understood as a way we rely on the law to save us instead of Christ. The same sin that underlies our fabrication of our own ‘law(s)’ to live by fuels our demand to do life in our own time in our own ways. We want to rely on ourselves, on our ability to fulfill standards we’ve created instead of relying on Jesus, who has fulfilled the perfect standard on our behalf.
The gold medal for a perfectionist is to control circumstances. This craving for control is even more heightened during the teen years when very few things are actually in their control. But this is a recipe for futility. Nothing in this life, regardless of stage of life, is in our control! So perfectionism is the outworking of our efforts to protect and save ourselves.
But, we have another option! We accept the grace that God so freely gives and recognize that even on our best, most perfect day, we are totally and utterly incapable of saving or fixing ourselves. This is why Christ died for us. So we, along with the stressed out kids that we do life with, can dare to push ourselves through things that scare us without the fear of failure acting as the annoying backseat driver.
It is a relief to realize that we are not in control when the Holy Spirit enables us to trust that God is. We get to exchange our perfectionist preferences for Christ’s embrace, for His actual perfect work on the cross.
In addition to this, we get to receive the Father’s delight in our feeble efforts in lieu of the great self-condemnation and fear that perpetuates our perfectionism. When He looks down on us, he sees righteousness made perfect by His Son.
Moses was far from an orator, yet God chose him as the unlikely hero to boldly speak to Pharaoh. Our giftedness to complete a task perfectly is drastically different from our obedience in following the Lord’s will. Moses had experienced all the criteria for a perfectionist – rejection from both the Hebrews and the Egyptians, fear, embarrassment. He begged God to let him bow out gracefully because of his fear that he wouldn’t be “good enough.” Yet God didn’t ask Moses to save His people. God asked Moses to show up. God asked Moses to risk facing his perfectionism, and to be willing to fail.
Perfectionism is a tornado with debilitating power to prevent us from furthering the Kingdom. It stops us from having hard conversations with our students, or their parents. It prevents us from pursuing a degree that we feel may be ‘too hard.’
Anxiety and fear provide the foundational base to the pedestal of perfectionism. They are the law by which we attempt to control our circumstances. Irony of ironies. By relinquishing control, masked as perfectionism, and accepting the gift of peace that the Holy Spirit gives, we are truly free to be perfectly imperfect.