Nobody’s Perfect: Excellence Instead of Perfection

By Joanna Benson and Lara Jackson

Guest Blogger Lara Jackson

Lara Branscomb Jackson has her BA in psychology, her master’s in counseling and is completing her PhD in counseling. Lara has a private practice and works at a Wellness Center that focuses on eating disorders, addiction, diabetes, bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety.  She grew up in North Carolina in the LDS faith and is an active member in the  LDS church. An interesting aspect of Lara’s experience is that her parents were converts to the church from the Baptist faith. Her parents were the only converts to the LDS faith of her extensive family. Lara has been in numerous callings in the church including multiple opportunities with the Young Women’s program.

 

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If I had access to a time machine, I would go back 20 + years in my life and change a moment that took 5+ years out of my life. I was a young working wife and mother trying the best of my ability to live the gospel.  Having grown up in the Mormon culture, I was well acquainted with shaming perfectionistic standards.  While sitting in a lesson in Sunday school, a lengthy to-do list to obtain a place in the Celestial Kingdom was passed out to the class.

This “list” became a great source of sorrow for me, as I unwisely tucked the “list” into my scriptures and reflected upon it, and my many imperfections, for the next 5 years or so.  I shed so many tears and prayers over this stupid list!  I think I even made copies and handed it out to others, thus spreading the dysfunction! So Sorry! If I could go back into my fantasy time machine, I would snatch those stupid handouts out of the instructor’s briefcase, before they ended up in my hands, and toss them in the trash where they belong!   My quest for Toxic Perfectionism only led to unhappiness and dissatisfaction. I later discovered happiness was attainable when I accepted that G-d loved me, even in my imperfect state, and Jesus was my Savior, not some ridiculous list. I had not yet learned to let go of perfectionism, in order to struggle for true excellence. I was not learning how to Follow Him.

While it is unrealistic to assume we can change the LDS church culture as a whole in regards to Toxic Perfectionism.  First we must recognize exactly what are toxic behaviors.  Most of us are unaware of exactly what behavior is toxic. Once our eyes are opened, we can help others overcome these behaviors in our sphere of influence: our families, our ward/branch, and especially ourselves. The first thing we need to do in eliminating Toxic Perfectionism is: CUT EVERYONE SOME SLACK, ESPECIALLY OURSELVES!

PRESIDENT DIETER F. UCHTDORF said it best in April 2012 General Conference entitled:

The Merciful Obtain Mercy

 

“This topic of judging others could actually be taught in a two-word sermon. When it comes to hating, gossiping, ignoring, ridiculing, holding grudges, or wanting to cause harm, please

apply the following:

Stop it!

It’s that simple. We simply have to stop judging others and replace judgmental thoughts and feelings with a heart full of love for God and His children. God is our Father. We are His children. We are all brothers and sisters. I don’t know exactly how to articulate this point of not judging others with sufficient eloquence, passion, and persuasion to make it stick. I can quote scripture, I can try to expound doctrine, and I will even quote a bumper sticker I recently saw. It was attached to the back of a car whose driver appeared to be a little rough around the edges, but the words on the sticker taught an insightful lesson. It read, “Don’t judge me because I sin differently than you.”

We must recognize that we are all imperfect—that we are beggars before God. Haven’t we all, at one time or another, meekly approached the mercy seat and pleaded for grace? Haven’t we wished with all the energy of our souls for mercy—to be forgiven for the mistakes we have made and the sins we have committed?

Because we all depend on the mercy of God, how can we deny to others any measure of the grace we so desperately desire for ourselves? My beloved brothers and sisters, should we not forgive as we wish to be forgiven?”

 

We all (young middle age and old) need to understand is, if we want G-d to be merciful unto us, we must be merciful unto our brothers and sisters (Psalms 18:25, 3Nephi 12:7, Matthew 5:7)”

 

So given that we understand, if the measure of mercy we will be allotted is the amount we show others, should we not be the most forgiving, charitable people on the planet!  As an aside, Lara and I speak to our selves in this regard as well.

 

One point of doctrine we found to be a consistent in Toxic Perfectionism is the misunderstanding over the word “Perfect” and the scripture, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48)

 

The article “Be Ye Therefore Perfect:” The Elusive Quest for Perfection Frank F. Judd Jr. an associate professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University addresses this issue well by analyzing the word “perfect” and how is misinterpreted by western culture. The English word “perfect” is defined as “being in a state of undiminished or highest excellence” and “flawless.” In Greek the word is ”teleios” which means “complete or entire or whole-heartedness”. In Hebrew the word “perfect” is “tamim” which means “whole, sound having integrity” What western culture is calling flawless, is instead wholeheartedness in faith and deed.

“If disciples are completely devoted to applying the teachings of Jesus Christ and if they utilize his Atonement when they make mistakes, they are perfect. If disciples are filled with love that is free from anger, lust, and vengefulness to the utmost degree that they possibly can, they are perfect. Simply put, if disciples are earnestly doing their best to live the gospel of Jesus Christ—including repenting as often as they need to—they are perfect.” Frank F Judd Be Ye Therefore Perfect:” The Elusive Quest for Perfection

This is the correct doctrine of Matthew 5:48 and needs to be taught as such.

We also need to beware of the destructive dangers of passive aggressiveness:

 

“Perhaps the most harmful result of coercion is that children may learn to behave well only to retain their parent’s love, attention, and approval, not because they’ve internalized sound values. “As they focus on trying to comply with a parent’s psychological demands, they have a hard time learning inward control. They don’t learn how to regulate their emotions and their behavior from the inside rather than from external pressure, and that makes for a difficult adjustment to adulthood,” -Craig H. Hart, professor in the School of Family Life BYU.

LDS people have a high percentage of passive aggressive behaviors.

 

Passive-Aggressive behavior leads to depression and is essentially “anger turned inward”. The Passive Aggressive person feels the conflict to please others, rather than self. They are often mild mannered, but filled with resentment. Passive Aggressive people are often described as “control freaks”.

Toxic Perfectionism and Passive Aggressive behaviors keep us from becoming “teleios” and “tamim” or “perfect” in G-d’s eyes.  These behaviors bind us up so we are not free to be honest and brave, and thus keeping us from becoming our true selves.  Both Enos in the Book of Mormon, and Jacob in the Old Testament, are examples of men who ”wrestled with G-d”. It is in this “wrestle” we, like them, can find our faith and our true selves.

Our spirits crave this “wrestle”. It is while in this “wrestle” we gain a greater testimony.  In the case of Jacob (Genesis 32:24-32) he encountered G-d or Jehovah or a representative of Christ, and “wrestled” with this being all night. This “wrestle” was in the form of prayer as we see in Enos 1:2 (1–12); Alma 8:10. These examples teach us when we have difficulties we take our troubles to Christ.  In our sorrow, depression, and grief we should not be afraid of the “wrestle”. As we pray to Him in a familiar form, humbly, talking to Him as a close friend, we lie out all our troubles, all our sins, imperfections, and all hard questions and ask for His help. Jesus stands at our door knocking, and we need to heed his knock and open the door! Revelations 3:20

Knowing He has suffered and died for our sins, gives us the confidence that He understands us like no other and will help us gain strength and heal.   To do this, we have to let go of Perfection. We have to acknowledge we are weak without Him, not in a self-shaming way, but with honesty. None of us are perfect, and Toxic Perfectionism is a form of gross pride. Letting go of perfectionism will humble us, and allow us to gain a stronger testimony of G-d, and a better relationship with our Savior.

Dr. Brene Brown, a researcher, speaker, and author encourages individuals to “seek excellence versus perfection”. Brown wrote,  “perfectionism keeps us from showing our true selves and living in the “arena“.

Man in the Arena

“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”- Theodore Roosevelt “Citizenship in a Republic,”
Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910

Living as the “Man in the Arena” causes us to reach beyond our perceived abilities, allowing ourselves to let go of control and make mistakes; developing a personal relationship with G-d and Christ, and as a result, we strengthen our souls in a way we would have otherwise not known.

Also see: http://www.millennialstar.org/nobodys-perfect-a-look-at-toxic-perfectionism-and-depression/

 Crosby, Alan E., Beth Han MD, LaVonne A G Ortega MD, Sharyn E. Parks Phd, and JOseph Gfroerer BA. “Suicidal Thoughts and Behaviors Among Adults Aged ≥18 Years — United States, 2008-2009.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 21 Oct. 2011. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 01 Mar. 2013 <http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss6013a1.htm>.
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 Gronley, Marie. “Types of Depression.” Mrie Gronley Psychiatrist. Scottsdale Mental Healthcare P.C. 1 Mar. 2013 <http://psychiatristscottsdale.com/>.
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 Jensen, Jack L., Cameron R. JOhn Dr, and Haylee Adamson. “Utah: The Happiest or Most Depressed State?” UVU Review. Utah valley State University. 01 Mar. 2013 <http://www.uvureview.com/2009/09/21/utah-the-happiest-or-most-depressed-state/>.
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 Lockhart, Ben. “UVU professor’s study puts focus on LDS women and depression.”DeseretNews.com. 31 Jan. 2013. 01 Mar. 2013 <http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865571984/UVU-professors-study-puts-focus-on-LDS-women-and-depression.html?pg=all>.
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 Neeley, Karissa. “UVU Press Releases » Blog Archive » Depression Study by UVU Professors Yields Insights on Cultural Impacts.” UVU Press Releases » Blog Archive » Depression Study by UVU Professors Yields Insights on Cultural Impacts. 14 Oct. 2010. Utah Valley University. 01 Mar. 2013 <http://blogs.uvu.edu/newsroom/2010/10/14/depression-study-by-uvu-professors-yields-insights-on-cultural-impacts/>.
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 Psychology Today. “Psych Basics: Perfectionism.” Psychology Today. Psychology TOday. 1 Mar. 2013 <http://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/perfectionism>.
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 Ruiz, Don Miguel. “The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom (A Toltec Wisdom Book) [Paperback].” The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom (A Toltec Wisdom Book): Don Miguel Ruiz: 9781878424310: Amazon.com: Books. 1997. Amber-Allen Publishing COmpany. 01 Mar. 2013 <http://www.amazon.com/The-Four-Agreements-Practical-Personal/dp/1878424319>.
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 Seay, Steven J. “OCD Perfectionism: Perfectionist or OCD Sufferer?” Center for Psychological Behavioral Science RSS. 25 July 2011. 01 Mar. 2013 <http://www.psychologyandbehavior.com/perfectionism-ocd-symptoms-perfectionist/>.
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 Shaw, Tim. “LDS women deal with depression.” U N I V E R S E. 12 Feb. 2013. Brigham Young University. 01 Mar. 2013 <http://universe.byu.edu/beta/2013/02/12/be-ye-therefore-perfect/>.
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About JA Benson

Joanna entered the world as a BYU baby. Continuing family tradition, she graduated BYU with a degree in Elementary Education and taught for several years. Growing up in Salt Lake County, her favorite childhood hobbies were visiting cemeteries and eavesdropping on adult conversations. Her ancestral DNA is multi-ethnic and she is Mormon pioneer stock on every familial line. Joanna resides in the Southeastern USA with her five children ranging in age from 8 to 24. Her husband passed away in 2009. She is an avid reader and a student of history. Her current intellectual obsession is Sephardic Jewish history, influence and genealogy. She served as a board member for her local chapter of Families with Children from China. She is the author of “DNA Mormons?” Summer Sunstone 2007 http://www.bycommonconsent.com/2007/04/dna-mormons/ and “Becoming Hong Mei`s Mother” in the Winter Sunstone 2009 http://theredbrickstore.com/sunstone/becoming-hong-meis-mother/.

15 thoughts on “Nobody’s Perfect: Excellence Instead of Perfection

  1. This post should be read far and wide. We have a complete misunderstanding of what Christ means by “be ye therefore perfect,” in my opinion, and it causes a lot of unnecessary pain for a lot of people.

  2. We’ve published a number of essays on perfection and completeness at Real Intent, and I agree, Geoff, it’s a subject we need to return to over and over again. I think the discussion of passive-aggressiveness and people-pleasing instead of pursuing excellence (which really is pursuing perfection) is a needed addition to our gospel conversation. I don’t think we’d have the high incidence of depression in our faith if we understood the arena better and the need to be marred and messy and dirt-smudged. Very nice essay.

  3. Hi Bonnie,
    Thanks for stopping by and for your comment. Could you link in the comments your posts at Real Intent on this subject? I think our readers could benefit from your perspective.

  4. For many years, we had certain leaders who would state that “obedience is the first law of heaven” or something to that effect. I joined the Church in 1975, and after reading, hearing and studying the teachings of some leaders, I’d become convinced that I would have to save myself, or at least earn my way into heaven. Grace was a minor part of the equation. You might as well have told me that Jesus had already accomplished his work in providing the resurrection. I was convinced that the Telestial and Terrestrial kingdoms were an extended form of hell and damnation, rather than kingdoms of salvation the scriptures speak of.
    I am very pleased we are moving away from such teachings. I am happy to see us discussing more on grace, conversion of the Spirit, and the mercies of God. I just wish we could go around to the homes of members who have inherited their parents/grandparents’ old books that still contain such teachings that affected me in such a negative way.
    What saved me? Pres Benson asking the members to make the Book of Mormon a lifelong study. As I studied it (now many dozens of times), I came to realize that what it taught and what was being taught were often two different things. I chose to believe Pres Benson and the Book of Mormon, and am grateful that Pres Uchtdorf and others now also teach more on grace, and less on following a modern Mosaic law.

  5. Well, I’ll take a similar but different approach. Christ commanded it in the NT, but left himself out. In the BoM, the exalted Christ included himself.

    If the mortal Christ felt he should exclude himself, and then include himself in the description of perfect after exaltation, it should shed some light on the issue. Perfection in the scriptures means more than “merely” doing everything right, as the mortal Christ clearly did that and still did not apply the label of perfection to himself until after resurrection.

    The anxiety this issue causes is really a meat before milk problem of teaching. Many aren’t at the right stage of personal study and lived discipleship when they hear this and start thinking of checklists and things to do in order to earn the label, or something like that.

    All that being said, it would not do well to disminish this teaching in order to be more comfortable with our failings. Christ taught a lot of hard things and asks what seems to be impossible (indeed would be without the change in nature made possible over years of applying the atonement through study, reflection, service and sacrifice). The temple clearly points to the path of discipleship, and if we truly try living up to those covenants there is an awful lot we could weed out of our lives.

  6. I agree with Chris. Checklists are the milk before the meat. Paul was indulgent of some of the checklists of the Jewish Christians, yet for others, he advocated his Christian liberty, which focused on spiritual submission to Christ first, afterwhich good works supposedly come naturally. But of course they don’t come naturally. Even Paul admitted as much, saying, “I do that which I would not, and I don’t do that which I would.” But that’s OK. Paul also said, “I judge not myself.”

    Mormons are cursed with the knowledge of eternal progression, growing line upon line, precept upon precept, striving, learning, building up treasures in heaven, becoming gods. This may be OK to start out, but eventually, you are going to see your ladder is against the wrong wall. Aspiration is fundamentally selfish and flawed. We should not strive for the future, we should surrender to the present. Eternity is now. Heaven is now. Hell is now. He that seeketh his life shall loose it, he that looseth his life shall find it. It’s a state of mind and heart, not of works. There is no end to progress. We are not striving for a goal. There is no goal. There is no “perfection.” There is no end. The goal is the journey itself. Like Uchtorf says, we are always “in the middle.” We are just as much “in the middle” today as we will be in the Celestial Kingdom.

    Perfection comes from being perfectly present in this moment, surrenduring to Christ, or the universe, or the light within you. That is real. That is true. Like Lehi said to Jacob, “you are just as blessed as those who Christ will see in the flesh, because you have experienced Him in the Spirit.” Heaven is now.

  7. I get tired of people (A) blaming people (B) for the inability of people (A) to have been reading their scriptures and understanding the doctrine of grace. Church leaders (B), for the last 100 years, have been admonishing church members (A) to read and study the scriptures. Church members (A) have by and large, ignored this counsel and have instead relied on homiletic teachings which reflect behavior changes needed by people (A). Church members need to take responsbility for their own lack of reading (and understanding) the scriptures instead of blaming church leaders. The former is an emotionally healthy individual. The latter is an unorthodox, liberal, Mormon.

  8. I’m not arguing against the premise of the OP, but I am curious as to how to relate this to the scriptural (in the D&C) and modern prophetic (JS) admonition to progress to the point of making one’s calling and election sure.

    I think one key is to be _willing_ to be obedient in all things (I can’t find the D&C reference, but I believe that is a phrase JS used), and _seek_ to keep all the commandments (DC 46:9).

    We aren’t going to be perfect or sinless in this life, but the scriptures and the modern prophets do seem to refer to a point or condition, based upon intent and effort as well as compliance in keeping the commandments (and working hand in hand with the Lord to not only avoid sin, but submit sufficiently to Him so He will remove the desire to sin from us), which opens a door, or crosses some threshhold. And we seem to be admonished to make efforts to progress in that direction.

    The Holy Ghost is described a sanctifier. Yet, the scriptures also say “sanctify _yourselves_” too. So I take it that willingness and “real intent”, along with good faith real-world efforts to make progress are both needed.

    I have a tendency to rest too long and get lazy after I have reached any level of compliance with the commandments. I tend to resist spiritual promptings for further progression, or adding new areas of compliance and growth. It’s like Heavenly Father is trying to get me into middle school, and I’m trying to stay in grade school.

  9. Thanks Geoff, I agree. I was thrilled to find the Judd article.

    Rame- I completely agree. I am a life long member and I had the same experience as a youth growing up in the 60’s 70’s in several different wards on the east bench in SL County. A friend in California has said the same thing. I even asked a few adults why we didn’t talk about Jesus more, and was told by each one that Christ was too sacred to talk about. I kinda understood about Jesus in Seminary and really did not receive a testimony of him until I was in Robert Matthews NT class at BYU. I think the church is different place now than when I was a child, and it has certainly changed from when my parents were children.

    Chris, Thank you for your brilliant comment. I pondered it for awhile and I agree the mortal Christ was not “perfected” until after the Resurrection. “Checklists”, to me are like the Mosaic Law. To use R rated movies as an example. It is easy to agree to not see R rated movies, and not think anymore about decency, violence, and good taste, while seeing every sleazy PG-13 rated movie available. For me, it is living the higher law to evaluate every movie I want to see whether it is worth seeing. For me, Only a handful of R’s and PG-13 movies do I actually see. I don’t think letting go of perfection is an easy thing done correctly. If we are really a disciple of Christ we want to do His will. We live by the spirit that Paul called “looking thru a glass, darkly”. It’ not always easy to do the right thing. Also a lot of fervent prayer gets us thru the difficult times in our life. You are right we need to weed out a lot of the unnecessary elements of our life.

    “Heaven is now”
    Wow Nate! I had to sit for awhile in lotus position ( I am not kidding!!) to take that all in! You are young, but wise indeed.
    “Eternity is now. Heaven is now. Hell is now. He that seeketh his life shall loose it, he that looseth his life shall find it. It’s a state of mind and heart, not of works. There is no end to progress. We are not striving for a goal. There is no goal. There is no “perfection.” There is no end. The goal is the journey itself.”
    Wow!

    You are right Hu_nu, generally speaking, but let’s be kind. Liberals are lovely members of Christ’s church too. ;)

    Thanks Bonnie, I will read my homework and get back to you. :)

    Thanks Bookslinger, I think you have hit the nail upon the head. There is a struggle to find the right balance to follow Jesus, and it is in this struggle we find Him. Checklists are just so much easier. You do the task, check it off, and don’t think about it again; the danger comes when you put too much on your plate and it gets in the way of the things He really wants you to do. I am reminded of this story from Mike’s life: http://www.millennialstar.org/a-tale-of-a-good-samaritan-on-the-road-to-chattanooga-tennessee/
    Mike was at a very stressed out point in his life. He had a million things on his check off list. He could have easily ignored the promptings to pick up the old man. But G-d wanted him to serve the old man, and Mike was blessed with a spirit of peace that helped him bear his burdens easier.
    You do the same thing with your Books of Mormon.

    Howard, Thanks for stopping by, you are right awesome discussion folks! I have learned a lot from you all.

  10. Great article. I often reflect on the many “park days” I spent with LDS women where we gathered with our young children for a play day. I was a young mother with 3 young children. After each park day I left feeling more inadequate and deficient as a mother than the time before. Finally I realized that I didn’t have to take part in this unhealthy exchange of parenting opinions and judgements. Now I have a daughter at in the same stage of motherhood with two young children. She is experiencing the same feelings of low self esteem and not measuring up to where someone says she should be. Why do we do this to each other? I hope that I can do more to “Lift and Build” rather than judge.

  11. Debbie,
    Sounds familiar. ;) I told my teenage daughter the other day, I was so glad pintrest was invented after I was a young mother, cause that thing would have sent me over the edge! Homemaking craft night was bad enough! I think some of this toxic perfectionism is the period of life young mothers are in. We/they are insecure, and want validation for our/their opinions. I guess it is up to us “seasoned” mothers to show how to lift and build.

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