Perfectionism and Humility

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Embroidery

Copyright 2016 Katie O’Keefe. All rights reserved.

I struggle with perfectionism. In the accompanying picture set I can tell you absolutely everything I did wrong with this piece of embroidery. It bothers me when I do a bad job at something, but even with the flaws, this is still a thing of beauty. When I was still singing, I used to pick apart my performance, too.

Listener: That was SO beautiful!

Me: Oh my gosh, thank you! But, didn’t you hear that one note where I lost my breath and it went a tiny bit flat? Or when I didn’t quite make the phrase and I had to breathe in the middle of the word?

Listener: Uh…no… I just thought it was beautiful.

Just because we term it “attention to detail” doesn’t mean that perfectionism cannot ruin a good thing. There is a point at which “attention to detail” becomes “obsession with detail” and a very wonderful trait becomes a destructive spiral.

To keep these things in check, Aquinas speaks of reaching the middle point as the place of virtue. The seven capital virtues as identified by Aquinas are: Humility, Liberality, Chastity, Meekness, Temperance, Kindness and Diligence. Each of these virtues is the midpoint between an excess and a deficiency. In my case, as a perfectionist, the particular virtues that come into play are Diligence and Humility.

We all want to make the world a better, more beautiful place and we work with diligence to get there. But in Perfectionism, Diligence slides up the scale to Obsession and takes over all other areas of my life. While working on projects where I have crossed this line, I can say that my overall pursuit of virtue tends to take a hit. I am impatient with others who are working with me, and I am less humble than I should be – not asking for help when it’s needed, thus denying another an opportunity to be a conduit for God’s Grace in my life. In addition, if I am working obsessively on a project to the exclusion of all else, then I have let the project consume me. I have allowed the tool to be the user, and I have become the tool of the project instead.

God wants to use each of us in his work on Earth to give gifts of Grace and Beauty to the world, but when we place too much importance on our own contribution we lose our Humility and we risk obscuring the real gift-giver – Our Heavenly Father.

In Perfectionism, then, we forget that the only perfection we will truly see is in God. Being a bit kinder to myself won’t hurt me at all. I still have to work diligently, and my embroidery skills will improve. (I learned a lot with this piece!) But obsessing over my lack of skill isn’t going to make those skills improve faster and will not give joy to the heart. Just like the listener above, when I showed the bird to my husband and mother-in-law, they didn’t note the flaws, but the beauty of the bird and they appreciated the gift of Beauty for what it was – a gift from God.

Copyright Katie O’Keefe 2016
Photo copyright Katie O’Keefe 2016. All Rights Reserved.

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About Author

Katie O’Keefe, mother of two and Oma of two, is a great fan of nifty new tools and dusty old books. After working for 25 years as a musician, Katie decided to go back to school and graduated with the BA in Philosophy from Ohio Dominican University in 2015. You can find more of her writing at The Backs of People’s Heads and Baby Faces.

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