The struggle of people-pleasing perfectionism

There’s an all too comfortable voice living and lurking within. It goes by the name of “perfectionism”. And even though it can cultivate driven, commendable, hard work – it’s crippling.

Recently I’ve become increasingly reluctant to write, because I’ve been believing the lie that what I write isn’t worthy of sharing. It’s not interesting enough, it’s not helpful enough, it’s not impactful enough. Essentially it’s not good enough, because it isn’t perfect

I’ve had many interviews over the past four months, and theres always that classic question “tell us one strength and one weakness you have”. I always pause for a split second here, because my honest first thought is “I’m a perfectionist – there’s your answer to both.” 

It’s a trait that’s always been described to me as both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because you work so hard and strive to always put the best forward. But a curse, because there’s a constant fear that what you put forward is never good enough. Coming from someone who is a said perfectionist, I don’t think that it’s ever a blessing. There’s beauty in hard work but you can work hard without pulling yourself apart.

As a creative, this constantly challenges me. On a day to day basis, my work process heavily relies upon frequently sharing and obtaining feedback. In my ideal world, I would love to just work away until I’ve completed a polished product – no interruptions and no comments butting in. And then, only once I am happy with it, when it is “good enough”, I would present it and seek feedback.

But that’s not how it works. Ironically, in order to create and present the best work I can, I need to show the incomplete picture. I need to expose the not-so-great ideas so that I get help to identify the good ones. Producing a polished product doesn’t happen all on my own.

The heart of people-pleasing

When it comes down to the core of it, the real reason why I hate revealing the process is due to a fear of inadequacy. Fear that what I’m revealing will be rejected… or more specifically, won’t please the person I’m giving it to. 

I can try and pretend otherwise but really, I’m a people-pleaser. I don’t like it when people don’t like me for no known reason, or when I really spend time investing in another and it doesn’t make them happy. I like to feel needed, connected and meaningfully engaged with those around me.

Lately, this has all been on my mind a lot. I’ve really noticed how draining and disheartening this trait is. At the end of the day, purely working to please people isn’t what I should ever strive to do. I will always put my best effort forward, but I’m slowly becoming far less focused on the reactions I receive. The core of my efforts has shifted from seeking the validation of those around me, to focusing on pleasing God. This means living out what I feel I am called to be doing, and loving everyone around me without expectation or anything in return – because that’s what Jesus did.

I played the piano and violin for many years growing up and I loved it. Music was something I was naturally quite good at – I nailed all my exams and knew this brought my Grandparents a lot of joy. But I remember, quite often when we had guests come over to our house, I would be asked to play. I absolutely hated it because the impromptu request stressed me out. I couldn’t play well without having practised and prepared. My hands shook like crazy, I had to re-start multiple times and correct many off-tune notes – it was messy. I can still vividly see our guests awkward smiles and sympathetic glances.

I didn’t find any joy in playing for others because I was so obsessed with needing to play perfectly. This need stressed me out so much that I played as though I hadn’t taken a music lesson in my life. The memory of that still haunts me and I realised recently that since a young age I’ve hated feeling like I have let people down. Looking back I wish I could have shaken my younger self. I wish I could have told her to play just like she did when no-one was watching.

If you relate at all to perfectionism, chances are there will be that same core fear of inadequacy present. It may also be linked to something deeper. Personally, I realised the negative core to my perfectionism is striving to present perfect to please others. 

Our worth is defined alone by God

When I give my all to what I do, it shouldn’t be because I want to see someone’s face light up because I’ve done that. The joy in hard work should be found within. I should be content in knowing the one who created me, sees me and all that I do. That is where fulfilment should be found. But unfortunately, being real, too often I dismiss my efforts and let someone else tell me whether or not something is “good enough”. 

There is nothing wrong with earned acknowledgement. But the trouble with seeking out acknowledgement and needing it, is that we end up placing our worth in the hands of the person we’re presenting to.

Do not give another imperfect being the power to define you and your efforts. Take on feedback, listen intently, sharpen your skills and learn from others – but don’t let your self worth be determined by anyone other than God. Don’t let yourself find joy in being acknowledged by other people. 

God’s love is constant and the more we find our worth in Him, and desire His love, the less we need what others may give.

Known and acknowledged

The one who knows us through and through; every thought that passes through our mind, every hair numbered on our head, every desire of our heart – He intentionally made each and every one of us unique and in His own image. Writing this, I’m almost shaking my head thinking “you yourself forget this.” But merciful grace exists. Our God also understands that we get confused and out of sorts – that we strive so convinced that we’re working with good intention. Then those gentle nudges prompt us to take a second – to realise we aren’t really working to just give.

We need to lean into the fact that every effort is known and acknowledged. When we are working away, be assured this isn’t missed or brushed over. That sinking feeling that says “no one has even noticed”… its a lie. Know that we have a Father beaming with pride when we pour our efforts into what we do. No matter the outcome or how “good” it is. When we work hard to serve and love others, while finding comfort and fulfilment in Him – that’s exactly where He calls us to be. That’s most definitely known.

Our abilities don’t define us

Our abilities are treasures, given to us embedded with purpose. But we can use them for all the wrong reasons. If I use what I’m good at, and work incredibly hard just to please others around me – I imagine that doesn’t please God. Those precious gifts are given to me to be used for Him: to love and serve others. Not to seek personal gain or praise from others. My work doesn’t define me – in fact it doesn’t mean much at all if it isn’t used for good. 

I’m pretty certain how much or how little I please others isn’t what God wants me to focus on. The love that I carry in my heart and intention behind my work is where He’s searching.

I hope there will be at least one person’s life I positively impact. Impacting just one person alone would be an incredible gift. But at the end of my life, I don’t want to stand before God with any trace of pride in my heart, knowing that I loved people because I needed to feel satisfaction in what I did for them. I want to stand there and say “Lord, I used the gifts you entrusted to me, to love selflessly, unconditionally, with patience and without ambition. I loved and served people purely because you called me to do so.”

You are already enough

Finally, I need to end with this: we are loved perfectly by our God. No matter how desperately we search, no person on earth can satisfy or fulfil us. Working tirelessly to obtain affirmation from another person will always lack the depth you really want. It’s a dangerous cycle of dissatisfaction and beating yourself up. 

If any thought along the lines of “oh if I just do ______ better, then they’ll think more of me” crosses your mind – please capture it. Recognise this longing for love and know you can find this in God. Pray more and tell Him how you’re feeling. If you are lonely, feel unloved, or like you aren’t appreciated and acknowledged for all that you do – tell Him and He will reveal the truth. Because please trust me when I say you’ll actually find love here. Wholesome, encouraging, affirming and proud love – the love that takes all of the pressure away, lifts your eyes and tells you “well done”. 

When we seek love and affirmation from Him, the pressure and need to be perfect for others diminishes.

This love has always existed, it can always be found and this love it is waiting to be poured out. Just ask. 

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