“You’re such a perfectionist!”
It’s a phrase many Latter-day Saints are familiar with. It’s something I’ve been told most of my life. Though it’s often said in a joking way, there’s no denying the negative connotation that comes with the word “perfectionist.” And in a church that strives for perfection and has high expectations, members frequently find themselves coming up short, which can lead to discouragement, dissatisfaction, and stress.
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But according to Professors G. E. Kawika Allen and Kenneth T. Wang, perfectionism, or striving for high standards, is not the problem.
In a recent study focusing specifically on Latter-day Saints, Allen and Wang surveyed around 267 highly active members in Utah. In their study, they asked questions about anything from satisfaction with life to inward and outward religious commitment. They ended up identifying 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.
“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,” their original study release explains. “They were 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.
However, not all types of perfectionism are healthy. “Individuals in the maladaptive group experienced less satisfaction with life, often feeling depressed or anxious. They showed increased scrupulosity, which is the fear of sinful behavior and punishment from God.”
Though Allen admits that circumstances limited their study largely to young adults in their early to mid-20s, it seems an appropriate population to study—it’s a time of life when there is perhaps the most pressure to live up to high “perfectionist” expectations of missions, marriage, and education.
When asked how the study could help Latter-day Saints who struggle with maladaptive perfectionism, Allen explained that, while he doesn’t have all the answers or solutions, the study can still be helpful. “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.”
On the other hand, adaptive perfectionists know how to strive for the best, but accept if they fail. “The only difference between the maladaptive and adaptive is the fact that, yes, they have high standards, but they don’t beat themselves up if they’re not able to meet every high standard and expectation they have for themselves.” Allen goes on to explain 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.
Sounds an awful lot like the repentance cycle.
Allen shared three suggestions for how members can use this knowledge to achieve a healthy type of perfectionistic behavior:
1) Figure out which kind of a perfectionist you are.
“I think the study, at the very least, can create awareness and insight for LDS individuals who may struggle with maladaptive perfectionism,” Allen says. Knowing that they have this negative tendency is half the battle. Then you can begin practicing more patience with yourself and studying the Atonement – both key steps to becoming an adaptive perfectionist.
“And it could also be encouraging for those who are adaptive perfectionists,” he continues, “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.”
2) Don’t let fear determine how you live the gospel.
Allen notes that often a sign that someone struggles with maladaptive perfectionism is their tendency to act out of fear rather than faith. “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.” Adaptive perfectionists are motivated by love for the Savior more than they are by fear of repentance or punishment.
3) Use the Atonement and remember God’s unconditional love.
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.
Allen reminds us that perfection is impossible, and when we keep that perspective, we are better able to be adaptive perfectionists, constantly improving ourselves and becoming better.
“No one was perfect except Christ Himself. So we go back to ’He loves us regardless,’ regardless of if we are perfect in all things and if we’re not perfect in all things. He loves us, there’s the Atonement, and for folks who are struggling with maladaptive perfectionism, perhaps redefining what the Atonement means to them in their lives can help them move away from a fear-driven pattern of living.”
As we apply these suggestions, Allen also advises we keep in mind something said in a recent BYU devotional by President Kevin J. Worthen. “In our quest for perfection, how we respond when we fail will determine how well we will succeed. My plea for you today is to learn how to fail successfully."
“We have high standards, we have high expectations of ourselves, but sometimes we don’t give ourselves a break and we don’t successfully fail – we drag ourselves down,” Allen concludes. So 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 beauty of the Atonement is our ability to frequently fail, but always be able to move forward, a little better than we were before.
Professors Allen and Wang recently submitted a follow-up study for publication looking at perfectionism in relation to shame, guilt, and grace. For more on this study, which explores the importance between believing that God gives grace and love freely in comparison to having to work towards grace and love from God, keep an eye out on education.byu.edu/news.