To know God and to make Him known.

The Pitfalls of Perfectionism - Part I: Protectionism and Power

Classical Conversations Writer's Circle

Classical, Christian education upholds a vision of excellence: in character (best described in terms of ethics), in knowledge and understanding (perhaps viewed as academics), and in biblical worldview (quite likely, wisdom: the fear of the Lord). It is important to remember, however, that there is a tension between striving for excellence and living with the sure knowledge that in this life—and of our own accord and merit—we never achieve the full vision of excellence.

This is a difficult walk. We must simultaneously strive with perseverance (aiming towards biblical standards), yet do so with great humility, all the while embracing the understanding that God—and not we ourselves— is the origin of and reason for every single achievement.

This path is, therefore, filled with ambiguities. It requires ever-deepening self-knowledge, self-assessment, repentance, and submission. The training to walk this path is, perhaps, a primary point of classical, Christian education: to inculcate in our children such sensitivity to the trail that they will intuitively know when they rightly walk upon it. One might even postulate that this constitutes the knack of being in the world, but not of it.

Picture a man walking a narrow path. There is a cliff on either side as he threads his way along the high ridgeline. These chasms represent the dangers of falling off. One chasm embodies the reaction to this tension in which the man throws up his hands and gives up all together, refusing to walk towards excellence and giving way to complacency and total compromise. Ultimately, this is a rejection of the biblical worldview, because it denies the validity of objective standards and excuses so much that it eventually stops condemning sin. The other chasm embodies the opposite extreme: instead of giving up on all standards, it becomes perfectionism, applying legalistic—usually self-defined—standards to self and to others.

To plunge off the path in either direction is disastrous. For Christians, it is perhaps the second case which poses the greater struggle, because we may appear to remain on the path when in reality, we have plummeted off just as surely as the man who gives way to complacency has done. This is because we tend to fall into perfectionism from a genuine desire to seek godly excellence. We claim to be on the road, but in reality, we have lost the trail. We need only think of Jesus’ struggle with the Pharisees of His time, and of His profound parable of the prodigal son (thinking of both the older and the younger brothers), to realize that this is a significant truth for Christians to ponder.

There are two (at least!) very human motivations to which we may be succumbing, whether we are aware of them or not, when we fall into perfectionism:

(1) Protectionism is the desire to shield ourselves from criticism, from the experience of failure, from the unpleasantness of shame, and from the personal discomfort of being judged and found wanting. Protectionism is a movement inward, into a selfish search for false security, surrounded by high, insurmountable walls—or thick, dense, shadowy veils—from behind which we survey the world happening outside. It manifests itself by a lack of real openness and vulnerability, by the presence of excuses, rationalizations, blame, and disguises. It embraces high standards, for self and others, but sets up barriers. "How can we be judged if we are actually special? Our circumstances were extraordinary. It was that other person's fault. Therefore, the standards which are applied to others, for whatever reason, should not be applied to us!" The propositional foundation of protectionism claims: "We cannot be judged if our failures cannot be seen through the complex explanations, through the illusions, shadows, and thick walls!"

(2) Power, on the other hand, is to—consciously or unconsciously—exert supremacy or authority over others, to set our standards, and along with them our 'selves,' above others. Self-empowerment is the tyranny of self over others in an attempt to set the standards by which judgment can occur in the first place. "How can others judge us when they do not see or understand the standards as well as we do? Therefore we will make the standards clear to them, and see that they understand how well we perceive them and strive towards them while they do not." The propositional foundation of power claims: "We cannot fail if we are the ones setting the bar!"

Notice that in the end, both are, in a sense, identical because they produce the same result:

  • Protectionism removes the presence of a force 'outside' of us, an objective standard by which judgment of us can occur by hiding the self away where it neither can be clearly seen nor clearly judged.
  • Power also removes the possibility of a force 'outside' of us by exerting our own will and demanding that the standard be set by our 'selves,' by the force 'inside' us—in which case the self cannot be judged inadequate because the self is determining the standard of judgment.

Both protectionism and power are opposed to the humility which allows us to truly approach God with repentance, in search of forgiveness. Both protectionism and power are refusals to look our Adamic, fallen state in the face. As a result, both are barriers to real fellowship with God and with others and to the walk along the ridgeline toward eternity.

The gaping chasms on either side of the path are antithetical to the Truth, Goodness, and Beauty that transcend situational assessments and judgments (i.e., relativism). As such, these are pitfalls that hinder us in carrying out the biblical mandate that sums up all the others: “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5:14). For example, protectionism shuts us off from working with others, from receiving helpful feedback, and collaboratively endeavoring towards common, worthy, goals. It locks us up, trembling, in our own self-imposed boxes where we hope no external judgment will touch us. On the other hand, power often imposes our ‘selves’—our standards—on others in such a way that no matter what they do, they are unable to ever satisfy them. This is because these standards are, by their very nature, ours! Even if they stem from transcendent principles, they are rooted in our ‘selves.’ Unless other people literally become ‘us,’ they can never fully meet those kinds of standards. Power exalts us so that we rule from the tyranny of our own truth.

The twin desires for protection and for power are therefore terribly destructive to fellowship both with God and with others; the one insulates and isolates our ‘selves’ while the other imposes and enforces our ‘selves.’ In each instance, we are pretending to be god-like; we have succumbed to Satan’s age-old question, “Did God really say…,” and just like Adam and Eve we have put ourselves first.


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