Kicking the Perfectionism Habit

(Portrait © Amber Montgomery)
A former White House speechwriter opts for the more saintly option.

‘The saints chose vulnerability over vindictiveness,” Colleen Carroll Campbell writes in her new book The Heart of Perfection: How the Saints Taught Me to Trade My Dream of Perfect for God’s. “They chose to keep their wounded hearts wide open, like Christ’s, to keep loving no matter how many times the world or even their own family and friends hurt them. They chose to draw near to God in their suffering rather than to blame Him for it — not once, but again and again and again.” Living that way is a different kind of perfect from what Campbell was trying to live in the world as a White House speechwriter (for George W. Bush), newspaper columnist, Catholic TV news anchor, and wife and mother. In an interview, she talks about her life as a recovering perfectionist and some of the saints and others who are helping her consider all good things as gifts from God, and life as a gift to be offered back to Him.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Is your book really all about freedom? What can your journey with the saints tell us about reconsidering what freedom even is?

Colleen Carroll Campbell: Yes, I think you could say the book is all about freedom: freedom from unrealistic expectations of ourselves and others, freedom from the fear that our flaws make us unworthy of love, freedom from compulsions to compare, compete, and control. More than anything else, The Heart of Perfection is about trading the bondage of perfectionism for the pursuit of a new kind of perfection: the freedom of the children of God.

Lopez: Is perfectionism more widespread than we realize? Is there a test or check of sorts to see if this is a weakness? Are Ignatius Loyola’s tools of discernment the best tool to have in your toolkit?

Campbell: Perfectionism is an epidemic in our culture today. Researchers blame it for everything from our soaring rates of pharmaceutical addiction and credit-card debt to the surging popularity of cosmetic surgery and filters on Facebook photos. Several studies have come out recently labeling Millennials as the most perfectionist generation in history. Everyone seems to know we have a problem with this.

But the problem of spiritual perfectionism — which I would argue is the most subtle and dangerous form of perfectionism — gets overlooked. It fuels a toxic cycle of pride, sin, shame, blame, and despair. It can manifest in everything from anxiety and fear to scrupulosity, compulsive comparisons, workaholism, people-pleasing, addictions to control, and spiritual burnout. And, yes, the discernment rules of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, rooted in Scripture and Ignatius’s own life-or-death battle against discouragement and burnout, are an excellent place to begin when distinguishing healthy spiritual ambition from toxic spiritual perfectionism.

Lopez: Could the most important part of your book be a haunting from a woman named Angélique?

Campbell: Maybe so. Angélique Arnauld is the only heretic who gets her own chapter in The Heart of Perfection, and for anyone tempted to dismiss spiritual perfectionism as a marginal problem or one without ramifications for the larger community of faith, Angélique is a cautionary tale. I won’t go into her whole sordid story here — the Mistress of Jansenism had a colorful life, to put it mildly, and I had great fun writing about it in chapter three — but the bottom line is that Angélique got the same advice from Francis de Sales as Saint Jane de Chantal did, yet she didn’t take it. The results were catastrophic for her, her religious community, the many Christians she influenced, and, ultimately, the entire Church. We have Angélique to thank in part for the rapid spread of the notorious Jansenist heresy, which haunted the Church for hundreds of years, turned scores sour on God, and stoked the militant secularism of the French Revolution. Perfectionists who refuse to recover can do serious damage even, and especially when they begin as zealous reformers.

Lopez: Do you have a go-to strategy when you get “tense and frazzled from a week of too much rushing, too little sleep, and too little prayer”?

Campbell: I find the wisdom of the Rule of Saint Benedict helpful here. Benedict, one of the saints I profile in The Heart of Perfection, emphasizes the importance of recognizing our limits: spiritual, physical, psychological. So when I feel things are spinning out of control and I’m heading for a train-wreck day, the best thing I can do is pause, pray — even for just a minute on the spot — and ask God what I need to let go of, which of my limits He’s asking me to recognize and respect. Usually that means admitting I can’t do everything I want to do as well as I want to do it. Sometimes it means bagging my to-do list altogether. It almost always means prioritizing more prayer and better self-care. Prolonged sleep deprivation and a chronically overstuffed schedule are occasions of sin for me. Both are hazards of life as a homeschooling mom trying to keep my hand in public life with books and speeches. I don’t always avoid them as well as I should. But I’ve come to see the value in admitting my limits instead of always trying to plow past them.

Lopez: How can spiritual perfectionism steal your joy?

Campbell: Angélique is a terrific example of this. She lived hundreds of years ago, but in some ways her times were very much like ours. The Church was riddled with scandal; the culture was in upheaval; she longed to live a holy life surrounded by holy people but found herself chronically scandalized by everyone’s shortcomings, including her own. Her living faith hardened into an angry ideology, a club used to whack her critics. Criticism of others replaced praise of God; a desire to win trumped the hunger for holiness. She lost her joy.

The same can happen to us. We’re swimming in scandal these days. Bad news screeches at us 24/7 from our omnipresent screens. Social media goad us to constant comparisons of our lives with the lives of others. It’s easy to slip into cynicism and despair as Angélique did, to fixate on our flaws and the flaws of others. When we do that, we lose our joy and, with it, our best witness of faith to a spiritually hungry world.

Lopez: “Surrender — like joy — is at the heart of Gospel perfection. And it’s the antithesis of perfectionism.” How do you get to the point of real, healthy Christian perfection in the world today? It sounds so dangerously countercultural.

Campbell: Well, in some sense, all of The Heart of Perfection is my attempt to answer that question. But I think we begin with the awareness that this world isn’t all there is, that this life isn’t where we’re going to have it all, where everything will go our way and we’ll glide from win to win and everyone will applaud our victories and reward our sacrifices. This ain’t heaven, and Jesus never said it would be. Trading worldly perfectionism for the pursuit of Gospel perfection is countercultural, and a life more focused on God’s standards than man’s probably won’t even impress our friends at church. The good news is that when we trade our dreams of perfect for God’s, we find new freedom to let others think what they will and focus instead on moving forward toward our true and lasting home: heaven.

Lopez: How is it easy to mistake perfectionism for a virtue?

Campbell: We live in a perfectionist culture. Many of us imbibed perfectionist theology or came from perfectionist families or faith communities or schools that taught us — however unintentionally — to see perfectionism as a positive. Really, though, I think our tendency in this direction is simply part of our fallen human nature. We think we have to earn God’s love (even if we know better than to say that out loud) because that’s how human beings often operate: quid pro quo. God’s unconditional love can be hard to wrap our minds around. So we strive, strive, strive, when what He’s asking for is surrender. God wants us to cultivate virtue; He wants us to cooperate with grace. But what He wants first is for us to open our hearts to His unmerited, unlimited gift of grace. And in some ways, that’s more challenging than planning and strategizing and striving.

Lopez: “It’s easier to lapse into division and despair than to keep our hearts open to the joy of the Holy Spirit and those He wants us to reach with His love.” Christians recently celebrated Pentecost. How can we live the gifts of the Holy Spirit better?

Campbell: I think we can begin by consciously cultivating joy. Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, but it’s also something we can choose each day: by opening ourselves to those people, habits, and practices that lead us closer to God and getting distance from those that leach our joy and lead us into perfectionist compulsion. Prayer is obviously a conduit to this deep-down spiritual joy; for me, the sacraments and Scripture and time spent outside, connecting with my family and God in His creation, are surefire means to cultivating joy. So is limiting my screen time, respecting my body’s needs, and avoiding overcommitment. And above all, practicing gratitude: Thanking God every day for all those gifts that my perfectionism would tempt me to overlook in my quest for a flawless life. If, as G. K. Chesterton said, “gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder,” then we couldn’t do better than to give thanks that God is working all things together for our good even now, even in the middle of our imperfect lives.


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