Shame obsesses. Often, instead of seeing the big picture, shame focuses obsessively on one or two instances of supposed failure. I say “supposed failure” because the “thing” shame obsesses about might not even be a real failure. But if our shame-based minds feel even a smidgen of doubt about just one aspect of our performance in a relationship, conversation, work assignment, sermon, parenting role or household project, we tend to lock in on the possibility that we were less than perfect. And we obsess about what that lack of perfection or supposed failure says about our worth, about our acceptance, about who we really are in the world. The question that is never asked: who gets to judge what is success, failure or something in between? Unconsciously we automatically hand the judgment seat over to shame. And shame always judges harshly.
Because I am a public speaker, this obsession often occurs for me around some aspect of a talk I have recently given. Even if the feedback is overwhelmingly positive, sometimes all it takes is a fleeting, doubtful thought in my mind about something I said “not quite right”. Something I could have said, should have said or might have said if I’d been on my game. Or what if something in the talk is interpreted differently than I mean it…possibly even unintentionally offending someone?! Or maybe my mind says, “Not bad but you know the talk was too long or too short…too deep or too shallow…too loud or too soft… too passionate or not passionate enough.” Twenty people might wait in line to say thanks or for me to pray with them – a sure sign that God somehow used my gift in good and redemptive ways. But shame always focuses on the one who falls asleep, seems disinterested or walks away apparently unmoved and untouched.In other words, shame is a perfectionist. Shame says we need to be a 10 in everything we do and are, in every moment of every day of our lives. A 6 or 7 won’t be enough, especially in those areas of living where we invest most of our heart and passion – certain relationships or our careers or maybe our gifts and talents. These are areas where we think we “should” be excelling and where our shame won’t tolerate less than stellar performance.
But this shame-based obsession with perfectionism is a trap…from hell. Only one 10 has ever lived amongst us. And because He was a 10, He was able to atone for the imperfections and failures of the rest of us who are not. When we obsess about not being a 10 on any particular day or in any particular experience, we are subtly, arrogantly acting as if we expect to be Him. At best this satanic trap causes us to over-focus on self [we become egomaniacs with an inferiority complex], shuts us down [no way I’m going to risk falling short again!] and overwhelms us with anxiety. At worst – in our moments of shame-based obsessing about our possible blemishes – we become idol worshippers. Ironically, in those moments, the idol we worship is us.
How to recover from this obsession with perfectionism? Many healing thoughts come to mind but two especially stand out. First, trust – that God has and will continue to gladly use even less than perfect us as we offer ourselves to Him in every moment and situation. [Rom 12:1] How else has God gotten anything done for His Kingdom in the last 2,000 years? Second, acceptance – believe that God accepts us in Jesus Christ [Eph. 1:6] not only when we are a 6 or 7 but even when we grade out at zero. And if our perfect God accepts imperfect us, maybe it’s time we begin to learn, one less than stellar performance at a time, to more fully accept ourselves.