Kathi Lipp: I think when we’re stuck in that place of perfectionism, we’re letting other people determine how our lives are going instead of checking it out with God and saying, “How – you know, am I at peace?” Am I doing what I can to be submitted to God and submitted to His plan?
End of Excerpt
John Fuller: Kathi Lipp, and you’ll be hearing more from her and Cheri Gregory today, on Focus on the Family about how you can release yourself from unrealistic standards. And your host is Focus president and author Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller.
Jim Daly: You know, perfectionism is something that so many struggle with. And today, we’re going to discuss how to identify some deeply rooted beliefs that you may have on this topic and hopefully, help you find your identity in God, not in how you perform. We’re reminded in Zephaniah 3:17, the Scripture says, “The Lord your God is in your midst. A mighty One who will save. He will rejoice over you with gladness. He will quiet you by His love. He will exalt over you with loud singing.” And I hope today that as you’re listening along that you’ll hold on to that truth that God accepts and even sings over you. Here at Focus on the Family, we want to help you in your walk with God and for you to grow stronger in your faith.
John: And, of course, a great starting point would be our website where we have resources like the book by Kathi Lipp and Cheri Gregory called, You Don’t Have to Try So Hard. Look for that and the CD or free download at focusonthefamily.com/radio.
Kathi and Cheri are speakers, podcasters, and they’ve written a number of books together, and let’s go ahead and hear the conversation now on Focus on the Family.
Jim: This is such a sensitive subject. I think so many people are paralyzed in this area of perfection, particularly Christians and Christian women. So let’s start there, Kathi. For that Christian woman who isn’t measuring up in her own mind, I mean, you said it so well, but you’ve arrived at a point where you can be comfortable in your imperfection.
Kathi: Well, I still struggle with this and I think as human beings, we’re never at a place of, “Oh, we’ve got this totally cured.” It’s – it’s a daily process. But yeah, it’s a struggle and especially I think with the younger women that I work with on a regular basis, that they have an image of what they’re supposed to be and what they’re supposed to be doing and it doesn’t match up with their reality. So, there’s tension and hopelessness a lot of time in their lives.
Jim: Cheri, in the book you’ve coined this together. I don’t know who came up with it, but it’s this phrase, “Try harder living.” It doesn’t sound good – try harder living.
Kathi: Yeah, that was Cheri.
Jim: What does that mean?
Cheri Gregory: Well, a couple years ago, before the book was conceived, Kathi told me that I was one of the hardest working people she knew. And I looked at her and I was like, “No, no, I don’t.” And she’d been tellin’ me this for years and I just…
Kathi: I thought I was giving her a compliment.
Cheri: Exactly. And I’d be…
Jim: Well, how did that feel to you when…
Jim: …she said that?
Cheri: …for most of the time, it felt good, but I was at a place in my life where I was re-evaluating a lot of things and realizing that all this hard work had gotten me nowhere. I didn’t have any trophies. I didn’t have any discount coupons coming my way for it and I was realizing, I had worked really hard and pretty much had nothing to show for it.
Jim: What was driving you to work that hard?
Cheri: There was only one thing. I was trying to avoid criticism at all costs.
Cheri: And Kathi shared with me a quote which I will probably slaughter, but basically, to avoid criticism, you need to do nothing, say nothing and be nothing. And I realized, “Wow! I’ve got 20 years behind me of nothingness. And I’d like to actually have a life where maybe I’m the funniest person.” Okay, Kathi’s the funniest person that I know. So, maybe I’m the most creative person somebody knows. Or maybe I could, you know, come up with really good ideas. But hardest working just for the sake of working hard, I mean, don’t get me wrong. I’m a big believer in the work ethic, but I was the person who was trying harder and harder and it still wasn’t good enough. I was the A plus, plus, plus student.
Cheri: And there was no joy and there was no sense of satisfaction in it.
Jim: You said something there, Cheri I really want to drill in on – the idea that I can avoid pain by avoiding standing out. Kathi, talk about that, because that is profound.
Kathi: It really is. I think that so much of the time Cheri worked really hard to avoid criticism. So, she thought, “I either have to do it perfectly or I have to do nothing at all.” And I tend towards the “do nothing at all.” If I can’t do it right, why even start? And so, we get trapped in not trying new things or not getting into new relationships or not stepping out of our comfort zone, because we’re so afraid that somebody’s gonna criticize what we’re doing or somebody’s gonna look at us and say, “Why are you doing it that way?” We have these fourth-grade teacher voices going through our head that keep us from living, you know, the kind of lives we’re designed to live.
Jim: And it is because it’s comfortable, right?
Jim: I mean, you’re safe there. You don’t have to risk.
Cheri: It’s completely predictable.
Jim: And that gives you a sense of comfort. I’m thinking in a marriage, that can be rather destructive, as well, because if the couple cannot work through this, it would feel like a blanket, you know, where you don’t do things socially. You don’t do things outside of the norm. And the spouse in that way, can feel smothered, I mean, like, “How come we can’t go out with our friends? Or how come you don’t want to?” Am I touching a nerve here?
Cheri: Well, the only more perfectionistic person in our house is my husband.
Jim: Oh, my goodness.
Cheri: We are opposite personalities, but we do have this in common. But his perfectionistic areas are different from mine. And so, he would try to help. He would try to say, “Honey, you’ve done enough.” And he really, genuinely meant it from his heart. He was trying to be supportive and I would fly off the handle at him. “You just don’t understand. You just don’t know. You’re not supporting me here.” And he didn’t know what to do with that, because I would be up at 11 o’clock at night, reformatting a worksheet for my students, as if somehow the format was gonna make me a better teacher or was gonna make me more effective in relating with my students the next day. It had nothing to do with teaching. It had everything to do with my fear that I wasn’t good enough in the classroom.
Jim: How do we know that line where you want to do a good job and…
Jim: …at some point there’s a diminishing return? How do we know when it’s good enough?
Kathi: Well, it’s really interesting. There was a study at Hewlett-Packard, which is where my husband works. And they were looking at men applying for jobs and women applying for jobs. And I found this fascinating, that women would only apply for jobs that they were 100 percent qualified for. But men would apply for jobs as long as they were 60 percent qualified.
And I turned to my husband…
Jim: Wait a second.
Kathi: Yes, isn’t that crazy? So, I’m looking at that statistic and I said, “Roger, who on earth applies for a job that they’re only 60 percent qualified for? That’s crazy.” And he said, “Oh, I’ve done it all the time.” I’m like, “Why are you applying job – for jobs you’re not qualified for?” He said, “Well, because it looked interesting and I figure, where’s the best place to learn how to do a job but on the job?”
Jim: But what is it really saying that, that stat exists? A woman needs more confidence that she can do it and man’ll say, “Okay, I’ll give ‘em my best shot.”
Kathi: We don’t want to be criticized. We don’t want to be criticized, so we figure, if we’re 100 percent qualified for that job, then that means that nobody can criticize us for trying to apply for it. And it was really interesting, ‘cause Roger said, he goes, “I’ve applied for jobs that I’m probably 40 percent qualified for.” And I…
Jim: And you must have gasped.
Kathi: Yes, I did, but here’s the crazy thing. He gets the job and he does a great job at it. And so, how much have I missed out on in my life, because I waited till I was 100 percent?
Jim: Well, let’s get practical. We need some road signs. I mean, some people may not even realize, am I perfectionist? You talk about the four bullies of the perfect life. I find that fascinating. I almost got beat up by a couple of bullies in school, so this got my attention. Cheri, what are the four bullies?
Cheri: Well, the four bullies are perfectionism, people pleasing, “performancism” and procrastination. And perfectionism, we got a great line from Ken Davis. He says, “A perfectionist is not someone who is perfect. It is someone who is miserable, because they can’t get it right.”
Jim: Yeah, that’s a big difference. I think people misunderstand perfectionism. That’s Jean’s point. She’s saying it just – “I don’t feel like I can get there.” And that leads to a lot of guilt.
Kathi: Well, and I think the trying to get to perfect makes people crazy. And you know, one of the – the statements that came out in the book that people are really resonating with is, perfectionism isn’t Christian; it’s just crazy. It’s – we’re trying for something that we’re not meant to experience and…
Jim: But it’s hard and here’s what I’d like to have your response to. As Christians, we want to live as perfectly as we can…
Jim: …in our – in our life, in our behavior. We don’t want to sin. We want to try to live sinless.
Jim: Although the Lord is saying, that’s gonna be impossible and that’s why…
Jim: …I sacrificed. How do we and particularly Christian women, how do you balance the drive to be perfect with the reality that you’re not gonna be?
Kathi: You know, I think there’s a difference between the desire to live a holy life and the desire to live a perfect life.
Jim: What’s the difference?
Kathi: Holiness is: my one desire is to please God. And perfect, trying to live the perfect life is: trying to avoid all criticism, all problems. It’s saying to myself, “If I do everything right, everything’ll turn out right.” And…
Jim: So, the formula?
Kathi: Yeah, and it twists us up and the reason we call these “bullies,” the perfectionism and the people-pleasing, is because they follow us around and they beat us up. They follow us around and they say, “You’re not doing this right. You should be doing this differently.” And you know, there are small truths and sometimes I’m not doing the right thing at the right time. But what the perfectionistic bully is telling me is, “You are never going to get it right and you can never be satisfied. You can never be okay with who God created you to be.”
Jim: Oh, that is big.
Jim: That is big.
Cheri: Well, and they are entirely externally focused. You have to look good. You have to have the appearance of perfection. What’s going on in your heart doesn’t matter. What’s going on in your relationships doesn’t matter. It’s what is on the outside. And you used an interesting word. You used the word “being driven.” There’s a huge difference between driven by perfectionism and being led by God.
Cheri: And if I’m being led by God, then I’m gonna be praying for discernment. Do I need to keep working on formatting this worksheet for my students? Or do I need to be still and know that He is God and leading me in my preparations for my lesson plan? I didn’t pray over my lesson plans for years…
Cheri: …because it was much more like, “Well, I got the training. I’m the teacher. It’s my responsibility, you know. God saved me, but the rest of the job is mine.” And I’m – been coming to the realization, “No, everything is His.”
Jim: If – let me ask this as a litmus test, if you’re a Christian and you believe in Christ, and the Word talks about and Jesus said, “My yoke will be easy,” if you’re kind of confounded by that, because I don’t feel like my Christian life is easy. I’m trying to be perfect and I’m not measuring up, there may be a problem there, right?
Cheri: We actually use the phrase “litmus test” and it’s peace. If we are following Christ, rather than being beat up by the bullies, then our life may still be a mess. It may still have trouble. We may still have conflicts that need to be resolved. We may still be wincing because we don’t get things done the way we want to, but there should be an overall sense of peace.
Jim: Well, and the reality is life is all about all that unsettling stuff.
Jim: That is life. It’s the wayward child, it’s the spouse that isn’t responding. It’s the, you know, the family member that’s going through addiction or something.
Jim: That is life.
Kathi: …and I think that when we get into this perfectionistic mode, what we’re trying to do is show the rest of the world that we’re okay. Everything’s okay. And that’s when we really get beat up by, you know, trying to keep a stiff upper lip and make sure that everybody thinks that we’re doing all right. And one of the best ways to kind of beat up the bully is to get with other women and find your “me too” people.
You know, “My kid is running off the rails.” “Me too.” And when you start to have those kind of conversations, you can let your guard down a little bit and realize: I think when we’re stuck in that place of perfectionism, we’re letting other people determine how our lives are going, instead of checking it out with God and saying, “How – you know, am I at peace?” Am I doing what I can to be submitted to God and submitted to His plan? But when we’re letting those other things rule our lives, we’re letting other people have input into that.
Jim: And that’s a good point. Find people who can be real with you.
Jim: And you can be real with them.
Jim: Cheri, in fact, I read with a smile on my face an encounter you had with a project in grad school. Talk about that, ‘cause I think a lot of us will connect with it.
Cheri: You know, I’m just gonna say up front, I was insane. I recognize that now, but at the moment and you know, this is – you said you wanted some signposts along the way. When a woman is in the middle of it, it feels like the only normal, it feels like what has to be done. And you were quoting the bullies. And for me, it was, “You have to do this or else. You have to do this or else.” And what I felt I had to do was, I was taking a literature course and I was gonna do a presentation. So, I decided, “Well, let’s be efficient and I’ll sign up to take the snacks on the same day as my presentation.” And I ended up making the snacks. The presentation was on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “The Birth Mark” and it’s in the shape of a hand. I mean…
Jim: And you’re an English major…
Cheri: I’m an English major.
Jim: …just so everybody knows.
Cheri: Yes, yes. That’s insane, too, but that’s another – that’s a…
Jim: I didn’t want to say that.
Cheri: …different kind of insane.
Cheri: It’s okay. I have no red pen with me. So everybody’s safe.
Jim: She’s correcting my notes right now.
Cheri: No, not at all. Not anymore. Two years ago, I might have. But I, you know I made tea sandwiches and I bought a hand-shaped cookie cutter. Now that’s just weird, to eat tea sandwiches in the shape of a hand, but I thought it – you know, this is what I felt I had to do. And then I had nothing to wear, of course, that would make me feel worthy of this presentation. I didn’t feel like anything I could do on my own was good enough, so I kept, you know, work – trying harder and harder. So, I sewed a completely new outfit and the jacket I sewed had piping trim in it.
Kathi: Which by the way, if you are not a sewer, let’s just – let me tell you, that’s crazy.
Kathi: It’s crazy, hours to prepare.
Jim: I’m already overwhelmed.
Jim: Or in awe. I don’t know which yet.
Cheri: Well, and I had a newborn, who had been born…
Cheri: He had been born prematurely with some complications. I – it was a crazy time of life and instead of doing what everybody else here is thinking, like, “Why didn’t she take a quarter off school? Why wasn’t she taking care of herself and her husband and her children?” This is what perfectionism does to us.
Cheri: It takes us away from those we love. It makes us so we don’t take care of ourselves. But we think we have to do this or else we are not a good person. We’re not gonna be loved by God. We’re just – I mean, really if you took it to the extreme, we do believe the world would come to an end and I – if you had told me that when I was busy making those sandwiches, I would’ve been, “Don’t be silly.”
Cheri: “I’m making sandwiches.”
Cheri: “This is cool.”
Jim: I’m exhausted just…
Cheri: But I was…
Jim: …thinking about all that.
Cheri: …I was terrified. I was terrified that I would not be enough. And the end result was I did a great presentation and the teacher thought my dress was fabulous. And what I was waiting for is people to like me and come close to me. And what I didn’t realize is, for those of us who are these kinds of like perfectionist above the perfectionist bar, is we intimidate people. We…
Cheri: …try to impress them so they won’t criticize us, but we push them so far away and I spent years lonely as could be, having no idea that I was – I was doing so much that people felt like they couldn’t come anywhere near me.
Jim: They couldn’t compete.
Cheri: No. And I didn’t want to compete. I – instead of intimidating, I wanted intimate relationships, but I was doing the opposite of what it takes.
Jim: Oh, that’s interesting. You’re listening to Focus on the Family. This is good stuff, and this is where most people are living. And…
Kathi: We’re finding that our as we talk to women, that every woman deals with one of these four bullies.
Jim: We’ve gotta give ‘em again. Let me…
Jim: …hear ‘em again.
Kathi: Okay, so we have perfectionism, “performancism,” procrastination and people-pleasing.
Jim: Let’s talk “performancism.”
Kathi: Ism – yeah. And which is saying that I’m going to do – well, I mean, Cheri just gave a great example of it. You know, I’m gonna give the A-plus presentation, while making the hand print sandwiches…
Jim: That are themed to the book.
Kathi: …that are themed to the book, while I have a newborn and I’m going to sew this outfit with piping. You know, it’s – we say, we’re going to perform, not 100 percent. A hundred percent is for losers. We’re gonna do it 120 percent, so there’s no room for anybody to say, “She didn’t try hard enough; she didn’t work hard enough.” And that’s why I think at some point, when I first would tell Cheri, “You’re the hardest working person I know,” at first it was affirming something in her. But when she really started to realize that “Performancism is not getting me where I need it to get me,” it started to become as a critique, like you’re trying so hard and you’re still not doing everything you need to do.
Jim: I can think, too, for the spouse…
Jim: …and I’m thinking of Jean and myself.
Jim: And I uh, I think I’m getting better. I’ll have to go home tonight and ask Jean.
Cheri: Check in.
Jim: But you can heap coals on that person, too…
Jim: …by wanting less perfection and more of her in that way of, you know, just emotional intimacy, to say, “Let’s just talk.” “Well, no, I got too much to do.” How can a spouse be better equipped to help? How did your husband help you, Cheri?
Cheri: Oh, you know, that’s a hard question to answer, be – patience large – a lot of longsuffering patience. I would have left me a long time ago. I don’t why he…
Cheri: …stuck around.
Jim: …and it’s almost anything that you say is a lose, ‘cause if you try…
Jim: …to say, “Hey, don’t work so hard,” “What? Am I workin’ too hard?”
Cheri: In the moment, it looks like a problem that needs to be solved and you know, my husband is the classic problem solver, so he would look at the worksheets that I was obsessing over and he would say, “Well, let me help you with it.” Well, the problem was never the worksheet. The problem was how I felt and I felt like my worth was based on my performance. Well, he can’t fix that.
Jim: So, he could solve…
Cheri: He can’t help that.
Jim: …the symptom, but not the core problem.
Cheri: Yes and so, we did better when I wasn’t under the pressure so much and we would have some discussions like, he would just look at me and say, “I miss you.” And when he could do that in a time that we were both a little bit relaxed and he could do it in a tone of voice that wasn’t accusatory…
Jim: Right, that didn’t make you feel like a failure.
Cheri: …it was just honest. It was just, you know, sometimes it would just be – we’d be sitting and enjoying something and he’d say, “This is so nice. I wish we could do it more. I miss you.”
Kathi: And the bullies keep us from our relationships.
Cheri: Yes, they do.
Kathi: They say you haven’t worked hard enough, so you don’t get to go spend time with your family. You haven’t done everything on your to-do list, so you don’t get to go out to lunch with your kid, because you haven’t done all your checkmarks. So…
Cheri: You don’t deserve it…
Cheri: …and you deserved to be punished…
Cheri: …by more work.
Jim: Let me ask you about that in the area of the children of the perfectionist. What are they seeing and feeling?
Kathi: I think for a lot of our kids, they’re seeing that they could never measure up, so why even try? I think there’s kind of a resignation in some of our kids. And so, like, “I can’t make my bed perfectly, so I’m not even gonna try. My mom doesn’t have time for me, because she works so much, why do I even try?” You know, so I think that there is that feeling sometimes.
And this is not to – can I just please, please, please say, we are not tryin’ to make moms feel guilty here, because we know how hard you’re trying. And we understand that all – Cheri and I come from a place where we tried to do more so that we could have better relationships. And what we were doing was we were separating ourselves from our husbands and our kids and our friends, because our trying harder was only separating, but we didn’t know another way.
And so, when we can see things as, “My perfectionism is keeping me from a relationship with my husband” and then we can say, “Okay, so I’m gonna dial back on that a little bit. Can I do this 80 percent instead of 100 percent? And can I spend that time with my husband instead? I have a husband who longs to spend time with me, but I’m saying, the worksheet.” And everybody has a worksheet. For whatever it is.
Jim: The to-do list.
Kathi: The to-do list is keeping me from the people I’m trying to serve? It’s craziness.
Jim: Kathi, I mean, your eyes are wet. You’re about to cry. I mean, this is really deep down inside for you.
Kathi: Because I had a daughter who said, “I miss you.” And I’m thinking, “How do you miss me? We live in the same house.” But she didn’t have the time with me, because I was working so hard to try to provide for her, to try to do the things that I thought were important to our family, you know. And I mean, it was simple as, “I have to clean the kitchen floor, otherwise nobody in the house is gonna be happy.” You know the only one who wasn’t happy when the kitchen floor was clean was me.
And I sound like I’m bagging on moms and I think that’s part of why my heart is hurting a little bit, because I know how hard these moms are trying. And I know how desperately they want to be connected with their kids. And I know how desperately they want to be connected with their husbands. But there’s this mind-set that if I don’t have everything right, there’s going to be a problem in my family. And we are killing ourselves under the pressure.
Jim: How do you start that process to unravel that emotion, to say, “Okay, the house doesn’t need to be as clean as I thought it needed to be, so that I can spend more time with my kids?” How do you make that mental adjustment and become more comfortable with it?
Kathi: For me, it was when my husband said, “I need you more.” And I said, “Okay, here’s what I need. There’s a certain level that I need to be at.” And as I’ve gotten older, that level has sunk just ever so slightly.
Jim: But it’s a good thing.
Kathi: It’s a good thing. And when Roger told me, “I am so happy in a comfortably cluttered home,” I, you know, we – our definitions of “cluttered” are a little bit different. But he said, when he told me that when a house is perfect, he can’t be comfortable and he feels like, “If I put my feet up on the couch, I’m gonna get in trouble.” And I’m like, “I’ve never said that.” And he says, “But when you’re in that zone, when you’re in that cleaning zone,” he says, “It’s hard for me to be comfortable.” And he also said, you know, this was, you know, a really important conversation we had. He said, “When you’re up and cleaning till 11 o’clock at night, I feel like a slug for not being up and cleaning at 11 o’clock at night.” He goes, “But honestly, I look around and I don’t know what needs to be cleaned.”
Kathi: And so, it was a defining conversation for us.
Jim: Yeah and I think, you know, speaking on behalf of the husband’s side of this, I mean, we can do a lot of damage just by non-verbal gestures and walk in the house, I mean…
Jim: …going, “Ugh.” You know, “My goodness.”
Jim: ‘Cause a lot of men, I mean, what they like is order…
Jim: …and peace.
Jim: So, when they get home from the hectic office…
Jim: …or whatever they were doing, they get home and if there’s more “hecticness”…
Jim: …and chaos, it is unsettling to us, unnerving for some of us.
Jim: So, we’ve gotta realize that and have that discussion, to be comfortable with a lower expectation, that we’re all good with it. But both have to play their part in this. That’s what I hear you saying.
Kathi: Everybody has to jump in and the thing is, you know, happy kids make noise, too. And so, we want a happy home. We want a peace-filled home, but there’s still gonna be chaos, especially if you have younger kids.
Kathi: And dads need to love and embrace that. That’s a sign of life in a house.
Kathi: That’s a good thing and yes, there may be kids who are arguing and things like that.
Kathi: But – I know.
It never happened at my house, but for other people.
Kathi: But for dad to be able to come in and dads, sometimes I wonder if they know the power they have to come in and sweep in and bring some peace that mom could desperately use.
Jim: These are such good topics and this has flown by and you know, we’ve only touched on a couple here. There’s so much more we’ve gotta talk about. We’ve talked “performancism.” Now that’s coming from an English teacher, so I’ll stress that that’s right and that perfectionism, but there are other things. Let’s keep rollin’ and come back next time and hopefully, give you more hope if you’re living in this space and you are feeling guilt on your shoulders, because you’re not measuring up in your eyes to that A plus, plus, plus type that Cheri talked about earlier. Com