The Illusion of Control

Control allows us to adjust our environment so that everything is in its right place—at least, according to us.

Perfectionism isn’t simply striving to do well. Striving to do well is good, worthwhile, and commendable. The Bible calls us to it (Col. 3:23). If that’s what we’re doing, we’re not worried about what other people think, and we’re not judging ourselves for our poor performance. For example, if we’re learning to play the guitar, we simply keep practicing to get better. Perfectionism only arises when there is shame involved. And how do we try to preserve ourselves from shame? Through control. 

 

istakes don’t feel good. The sharp pain of regret after a mistake is a terrible feeling. The fear of making a mistake is terrible, too. “I’m afraid I’ve made a mistake.” How often have we said that to ourselves? How often have we made not just one mistake, but several? How we wish we could avoid our mistakes and also the constant fear of making them. We can try to avoid them, but they happen nonetheless, and the fear remains. In order to avoid mistakes, we try to be mistake-less, or perfect. Yet, inevitably, we fail again, and we feel ashamed. The root of perfectionism is this fear—the fear of shame. Shame is the painful feeling that there’s something wrong with us. And the truth is, deep down, we know there’s something wrong with us. That’s why we try to hide it. We are like Adam and Eve in the garden, knowing something isn’t right, and so we sew fig leaves for ourselves. But fig leaves make for poor clothing.

Trying to hide our shame is one way to deal with it. That’s what Adam and Eve did. They hid their shame with fig leaves, and then they hid among the trees. They were perfectionists. Perfectionism is striving in our own strength to make everything right so that our shame is concealed. There are other ways to deal with shame, though. There’s also the way of Cain, who broke out in anger and killed his brother, Abel. This is the way of open rebellion. Many Christian parents would prefer to have children who are perfectionists rather than children who are openly rebellious. But the shame of not measuring up is still there, and oftentimes, the effects of a perfectionistic attitude last longer than the effects of open rebellion. Just look at the story of the prodigal son. He embraced open rebellion, only to return home repentant to his father. Yet the older brother remained a perfectionist. “Why did you kill the fattened calf for him?” The older brother thought he had done everything right. He thought he’d hid his shame rather well. The older brother’s real question was, “Don’t I measure up?”

To clarify: perfectionism isn’t simply striving to do well. Striving to do well is good, worthwhile, and commendable. The Bible calls us to it (Col. 3:23). If that’s what we’re doing, we’re not worried about what other people think, and we’re not judging ourselves for our poor performance. For example, if we’re learning to play the guitar, we simply keep practicing to get better. Perfectionism only arises when there is shame involved. And how do we try to preserve ourselves from shame? Through control. Control allows us to adjust our environment so that everything is in its right place—at least, according to us. If Cain could have controlled God, he would have made sure that God accepted his sacrifice and not Abel’s. But Cain couldn’t control God. How frustrating. If things are outside of our control, we can’t ensure our shame is hidden. Things inevitably go awry, and our flaws are exposed. We’re met with shame again. We’re reminded that we can’t fix things. We can’t hide. Adam and Eve, though they sewed fig leaves and hid from God, were eventually found out. God came walking in the cool of the evening, and He asked, “Where are you?” Adam responded, “I was afraid.” Similarly, our own perfectionism, despite our best efforts, leaves us scared and ashamed.

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