Sunday, July 29, 2012

Be [exactly] Like Jesus

So I'm reading this journal article called "Pastoral Care for Shame Based Perfectionism" by Pembroke (2012), and a few scriptures spring to mind:

Matthew 5:48
48 Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

2 Corinthians 7:1
1 Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. 

Doctrine and Covenants 98:15
15 For if ye will not abide in my covenant ye are not worthy of me.

If you don't recognize that third one, it is part of scriptural cannon in the LDS (mormon) faith.

The journal felt like a call to repentance, if you will, to pastoral psychologists who largely ignore research surrounding shame-based perfectionism. Shame-based perfectionism is associated with inferiority shame, and such perfectionists never reach satisfaction because they are constantly reaching for the next level of achievement.  It's all the rage in China right now.

As a shame-based perfectionist, I guess this article hit home with me a bit as I thought about what role my devout religious upbringing may have played in this aspect of my personality. I think the possible religious influence for this is the idea that: a) you CAN be perfect (as the scriptures above imply), and b) if you're not, you're doing something wrong (sinful) or failing to do something required (also sinful).
Doctrines include that of eternal progress and a goal of perfection while believers have embraced the notion that if you are not rising, you are falling; there is no standing still.  I'm not the least bit interested in assigning blame- I'm actually quite happy with a life that always looks for ways to better itself. I think if more people looked critically inward, targeted areas for improvement, and then concentrated some effort in modifying those behaviors, the world might be a better place. The word shame is quite heavy in this sense, but it's true that if I am not striving for a new level of achievement I feel an anxiety associated with waste of time/talents or inferiority to others.

While I do see positive aspects to shame-based perfectionism, the ideal is to be motivated by an excitement about whatever project one is working on rather than a comparative need to tirelessly climb. One way I can see to alter unhealthy motivations is through Bradshaw's (1988) approach to self-acceptance. He suggests that a person identifies 5 people that you hate, and then list the trait that you most dislike in that person. He then suggests that each of these traits represents parts of the "disowned self." Bradshaw affirms that it is important to find our darker sides, then rather than disavow them, accept that they are okay.

Pembroke (2012) finds Bradshaw's approach useful in areas of personal achievement, but expects that when it comes to issues of personal morality, abhorrent traits such as sloth, rudeness, or dishonesty should not be accepted as okay. I diverge a little from Pembroke's criticism in this last aspect as I feel like it smacks a bit of Christian judgement or intolerance. I don't disagree with him, except that I think there is an acceptable step in self-improvement (even if it falls under the category of repentance) during which one accepts his or herself as flawed and imperfect. It becomes paradoxical to try to improve while clinging to the idea that there is something wrong with ones self.

So what do you think? Is there something wrong with striving for perfection? Or is it all about the attitude we have while doing it and what our motivations are? Is it better to accept those dark sides of ourselves, or should we improve without self-acceptance in morally reprehensible areas?

Pembroke, Neil (2012). Pastoral Care for Shame-Based Perfectionism. Pastoral Psychology 61 (2012), pp. 245-258.


  1. I feel it depends on what the person´s definition of perfection. I remember I thought perfection ment never making a mistake and being symmetrical in the way you walk and think. My definition has changed over the years to where I feel it means never giving up. I also feel that the definition of perfection will be different for me in the future.

    Striving for perfection can work for some people and not for others depending how they look at it. When I hear that now I don´t worry about it, but in the past I would try to hard in accomplishing something that I would always come up short of. In my response, if striving for perfection becomes too anxiety provoking then I don´t think it´s a good idea. Not that anxiety should be avioded but if becomes to debilitating then I think there are other thought patterns one can use to become a better person.

  2. I think so long as one does not manifest these "darker" tendencies behaviourally, then it is generally fine to have personality features that are unattractive, vengeful, egoistic, or otherwise undesirable.

    So long as one can evaluate their own thought and behaviour, recognise what is conducive to the shared good of oneself and others, and foster prosocial behaviour and temper or redirect antisocial thought into prosocial behaviour, that person should be free of blame, whether it is self-imposed or otherwise.

    I think one factor that can frustrate personal development is one that you've identified in this post; christian values which are socially present and that have been inculcated into individuals in western society condemn one for thoughts, desires, wishes etc. even if they are not acted on.