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Tyranny of perfectionism

Fr. Roy Cimagala

WE need to distinguish between Christian perfection and the tyrannical perfectionism that unfortunately is emerging in some sectors of our society. The former will always include mercy and compassion, and would know how to handle wrong ideas and erring people in charity. The latter is full of self-righteousness, and could not bear people and things that are in the other side of the fence.

Christian perfection, as exemplified by Christ, can prefer to suffer and even to die a martyr rather than go against the requirements of love. Its caricature, the tyrannical perfectionism, prefers to survive in this life as long as he is always right. He prefers correctness over mercy and compassion.

The disorder of perfectionism usually afflicts some so-called “good” and “pious” people, those who are regarded as rightists and conservatives. They are usually seen as being very strict and fastidious, but the truth is they often have a scrupulous conscience that leads them to be narrow-minded and rigid in their ways.

They are prone to make rash judgments and end up bitter and irritable. It would be no wonder that they feel isolated like an island detached from the continent, and any show of sociability is simply just that, a show, an act, a performance, devoid of the proper substance and spirit.

This tyrannical perfectionism comes about as a consequence of a badly understood Christian perfection. That there already may be some predisposing elements toward it should not be a surprise, because we can presume everyone has them one way or another. It can even be a character trait. The problem is when these elements go uncorrected, and worse, are treated as normal or as the ideal.

Perfectionism can profess ardent if not fanatical belief in Christ, but a Christ without the cross. It simply focuses on what it considers as the exclusivity of truth without the inclusivity of charity. It prefers ideas and values over persons in their concrete conditions with all their charms as well as their warts.

It has a controlling instinct. Everything has to follow a certain game plan, otherwise things are not considered right. It has low level of tolerance when plans are changed or unforeseen events happen.

It can present itself as an obsessive-compulsive disorder.

People who have it usually experience a craving and an anxiety for what they have to do. They can be very orderly and squeaky clean, with a great desire to fulfill duties. They can be seen as extremely responsible.

They are always worried about the future, and have little tolerance for pending matters. They rely heavily on the opinion of others. They can show various forms of assertiveness, including the subtle ones, and can easily fall into insecurities and activism. They have a morbid fear for failures and mistakes.

As in all character traits, perfectionism can show positive aspects which can be taken advantage of but which have to be purified. People with it have a strong will to do things with a high sense of responsibility and order.

We just have to correct the negative aspects: an abnormal sense of duty, reduced capability of reflecting, giving only an external obedience, indecision and rigidity. These have to be softened.

We have to be patient and competent in dealing with people with this disorder. They have to be taught to look more closely at Christ, who came to serve and not to be served and was willing to offer his life on the cross, and to avoid making worldly values like order or punctuality or success as an end in themselves.

They have to be reminded that these values only have a relative standing, and that the one absolute value is God alone who adapted himself to our wounded condition to save us.

They have to realize that everyone and everything here on earth has imperfections, and that we just have to learn how to be sport in life, taking both the good things and bad, the successes and defeats in stride.

They have to learn how to see things from the perspective of eternity where God’s providence knows how to take advantage of our sins and mistakes. They simply have to learn how to begin and begin again in life without getting stuck at any point, whether good or bad.

The important thing is not in the success of things, but rather in the love for God and for others which by definition will include mercy and compassion. They have to learn to listen deeply and to find an excuse for the shortcomings of others.

E-mail: roycimagala@gmail.com

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About Fr. Roy Cimagala

Fr. Roy Cimagala is the chaplain of the Center for Industrial Technology and Enterprise (Cite) in Talamban, Cebu City.

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