I grew up in a fault-finding family. It was one way my father’s upper-class WASP culture and my mother’s working-class Jewish culture came together: analyzing what was wrong. We’d go to a phenomenal movie, but spend the car ride home talking about the not-so-good acting of one character. When I started preaching sermons, I always could rely on an assessment of my mistakes from my parents. “That was really good… but your children’s story was way too long, and your tone didn’t match your message in this part or that part.” Oh, and I did the same when it was my turn in the pew: taking the good for granted, finding the faults. In that way, we were perfect Unitarian Universalists: noticing, calling forth, calling out all that was not right. Taking careful mental notes on what was not perfect in every work of art.
Perfectionism is one of the hallmarks of Unitarian Universalist culture, and also a hallmark of what Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones name as white supremacy culture. There are some definite upsides to seeking perfection, especially when it keeps us always learning, always striving to live up to our professed ideals. But perfectionism has a cost, a serious spiritual cost. It keeps us focused on the negative, rather than nurturing the positive. Internally, it feeds our own shame and our own status anxiety. Relationally, it makes our friends, family, and coworkers feel less seen, less appreciated, less loved. And when we approach our faith communities from a stance of perfectionism, we fail to value our own and others’ contributions. We distance ourselves from the joy, the ministry, the blessings we can receive… because it’s not “just right.” We don’t tolerate the genuine human shortcomings of our communities, our ministers, our staff, our leaders… and we become resentful toward one another.
I also grew up in a loving, wholehearted family. The same family, with parents about to celebrate their 50th anniversary. Supportive and kind, nurturing of my gifts and embracing of my quirks. I also found this supportiveness in Unitarian Universalism: a deep acceptance, a profound ministry to me in my brokeness, and a powerful witness to who I am called to be in this world. Perhaps you have found this, too. We have the disease, but we also have the antidote. Okun and Jones name these antidotes to perfectionism, among others:
- develop a culture of appreciation, where the organization takes time to make sure that people’s work and efforts are appreciated;
- develop a learning organization, where it is expected that everyone will make mistakes and those mistakes offer opportunities for learning;
create an environment where people can recognize that mistakes sometimes lead to positive results.
When we are at our best, we are like this: appreciating, learning, accepting, falling down, trying again in love.
Brené Brown speaks of the antidote to perfectionism as wholeheartedness. In The Gifts of Imperfection she writes, “Wholehearted living is about engaging with our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion and connection to wake up in the morning and think, ‘No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.’ It’s going to bed at night thinking, ‘Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.” Yes! You, your UU congregation, and Unitarian Universalism as a whole: we are imperfect, and vulnerable and afraid, AND we are deeply worthy, brave, and loving.
We are a paradox of a faith community, containing both the problem and the antidote. In this new year, and new decade, let us live into the wholehearted promise of our faith, with gusto.
Here are some resources to guide you in a shift from perfectionism to wholeheartedness.
- Nothing We Do Will Be Perfect: To Work for Justice, Religious Liberals Should Let Perfectionism Go, by Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd, UUWorld Spring 2019.
- Berry Street Essay 2019: Truth, Trauma, and Transformation: Embracing the Cracks and the Gold, by Rev. Leslie Takahashi, delivered at The Ministerial Conference at Berry Street, June 19, 2019, Spokane Washington.
- Quest for Meaning: Wholehearted Living (thematic writings, prayers, and more from the UU Church of the Larger Fellowship)
- Reflections on self-respect from the UUA blog Braver/Wiser: Courage and Compassion for Life As It Is.
- Appreciative Inquiry invites organizations and leadership groups to grow stronger by nurturing what is good.
- Gratitude exercises for adults and children from PositivePsychology.com. Practicing and expressing gratitude for what is can ground us and connect us, especially when we are trying to make positive and much-needed changes in our faith communities.
- The Power of Vulnerability a 2011 TED Talk by psychology professor Brené Brown in which she talks about overcoming her own perfectionism and living into wholeheartedness while researching what makes people resilient.