3 Ways to Cultivate Joy as a Perfectionist

Implement these tips into your daily life for a more delightful relationship with God.

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- Posted on Jul 10, 2019

A joyful woman relaxing in tall grass.

Are impossible expectations stealing your joy? Do you spend your days comparing, complaining and worrying you’ll never be enough for anyone—even God? 

If so, you may suffer from spiritual perfectionism, a fixation on flawlessness rooted in the belief that we can earn God’s love. It drives a toxic cycle of pride, sin, shame, blame and despair that dulls our faith and leads us to view others through the same hypercritical lens we think God is using to view us.

The good news: We’re not the first to fight this battle. Countless believers fought it before us, even canonized saints. And one of their best weapons was joy. From Paul of Tarsus to Benedict of Nursia and Francis of Assisi, the recovering perfectionist saints all took seriously those words from Scripture, “the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh 8:10). Here are three lessons they taught me about cultivating joy in daily life: 

1. Don’t compare and despair: Our social media age tempts us constantly to measure ourselves by the flawless personas others project online. Don’t take the bait. Those shiny, happy images we see are only one carefully curated sliver of reality, not the full picture. And while we’re gawking at someone else’s callings and blessings, we’re missing our own. Francis of Assisi cautioned his followers not to compare themselves to anyone, even him: “I have done what was mine to do. May Christ teach you what is yours.” It was good advice in his day; it’s still good in ours.

2. Make time for joy. There’s a saying attributed to Corrie Ten Boom: If the devil can’t make us bad, he makes us busy. So many of us today are crazy busy, wearing ourselves out doing all those good works we believe are God’s will for us. But what if an equally important part of God’s will—a bigger part than most of us perfectionists realize—is that we make time each day for joy? Scripture commands us to “rejoice in the Lord” even in barren times (Hab. 3:18) and “rejoice and be glad” in His gifts (Ps. 118:24). For saint Teresa of Ávila, following that directive looked like dancing on the tables to cheer up long-faced nuns. For me, it looks like blowing off my to-do list to ride bikes with my kids or scheduling an impromptu midweek date night with my husband. If joy is “the serious business of heaven,” as C.S. Lewis said, then cultivating it needs to be our business, too.

3. Get offline and outside: It’s easier to make time for joy and avoid the comparison trap when we’re not living in a virtual world. Omnipresent screens may be a new phenomenon, but even saints from centuries past struggled with distraction. To refresh their souls and renew their focus, most of them made time each day for prayer and recreation, for reconnecting with God in silence and in the beauty of His creation. Recovering perfectionist saint Thérèse of Lisieux explained some of her most memorable spiritual lessons using truths she encountered in nature. Francis of Assisi based his famous “Canticle of the Sun” on his vision of nature as a love poem written for each of us, one in which every marvel we see shouts the Creator’s goodness. Imagine what the world would have missed had these people of strong faith spent all their time distracted by screens, oblivious to God’s wonders around them—and within them.

Cultivating joy is the work of a lifetime and can bring peace to the hearts of recovering perfectionists like me. Even better, it prepares us for the perfect joy of that encounter with God at life’s end, when “your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16: 22).

Colleen Carroll Campbell is an award-winning author, print and broadcast journalist, and former presidential speechwriter. Her latest book is The Heart of Perfection: How the Saints Taught Me to Trade My Dream of Perfect for God’s.

Tags: Joy,Success
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