My book club recently finished reading The Heart of Perfection by Colleen Carroll Campbell, a book about the sometimes subtle but always detrimental trait of perfectionism and how it affects our spiritual lives, taking us captive instead of allowing us to experience the freedom Christ won for us. Having read her previous and popular book My Sisters The Saints, it was a joy to find this book just as authentic and soul-stirring and filled with even more stories of well-researched saints that make them come alive as both friends and mentors on our journeys to holiness.
My book club is a varied group of single women, married women without children, new mamas, and seasoned mothers. Yet each one of us has been deeply impacted by the book and had a lot to say about it during our discussions! We realized that perfectionism can manifest in many different ways and none of us is immune to it. The book has helped us dig deeper to the roots of it and how it affects the way we see ourselves, others, and God. It was such a blessing to have the opportunity to interview Colleen for our community here at CatholicMom.com. I think you will find insight and inspiration in her thoughts below, and I hope it encourages you to read her book as well!
In the first chapter, you poignantly share how motherhood exposed your perfectionism more than anything prior in your life had done. Can you briefly explain that for our readers and why?
Motherhood is a pressure cooker for anyone, but I think it’s especially so when you’ve prayed and waited for years to have children and have built up so many expectations about what sort of mother you’ll be if ever you get the chance. After the years-long battle with infertility that I chronicled in my last book, My Sisters the Saints, I tackled motherhood with the same sky-high standards and can-do spirit I bring to everything I’m passionate about. That served me well in some respects; I think being intentional about parenting is a must in today’s culture. But perfectionist tendencies toward control, comparison and impossible expectations can make the ordinary ups and downs of parenthood feel calamitous. While perfectionism can make you too hard on your children, my greater struggle was being too hard on myself and allowing discouragement and guilt over my mistakes — everything from a freak accident resulting in an ER visit to an overly sharp rebuke or a failure to be fully present in the moment — to steal my joy. The more I dug into the roots of that discouragement and guilt, the more I realized they weren’t simply the fruit of cultural conditioning or too little “me time.” They were rooted in lies I had believed about who I had to be to be worthy of God’s love. My problem wasn’t just perfectionism; it was spiritual perfectionism.
Why do you think spiritual perfectionism affects even those who may not struggle with an outer/type A perfectionism? You mention fear as well as the desire for control both being roots of such perfectionism … how can we overcome those in our relationship with God?
Most of us have an image in our heads of what a perfectionist looks like: She alphabetizes her CDs and color codes her sock drawer; her kitchen floors are as immaculate as her résumé; and she doesn’t know how to laugh at her mistakes because she never makes any.
In reality, perfectionism rarely manifests so obviously. It takes more subtle disguises. You can be a perfectionist even if your house is a mess or you’re always late or you buy your kids birthday cakes instead of baking them. You might be very relaxed about some aspects of your life, but struggle mightily with fear, shame and impossible expectations in others. Maybe your battle is with people pleasing, or excessive caution in decision making, or obsessive guilt over past mistakes, or chronic procrastination due to fear of making mistakes. Many readers have told me that they never considered themselves perfectionists until they read The Heart of Perfection and realized that this age-old spiritual temptation was a temptation for them, too.
As to how we overcome spiritual perfectionism, recovery is a long process, as I chronicle in the book. But the first step is to do what the recovering perfectionist saints did: Recognize that aiming for holiness and loving God are not synonymous with “fixing” ourselves or demanding flawlessness of ourselves, and that it is precisely through our weakness (including the weakness of perfectionism) that God’s grace touches and transforms us.
Do you think our increased access to knowledge (and opinions!) through the internet and social media has increased the temptation to any type of perfectionism?
Oh, absolutely. When I give speeches on The Heart of Perfection, that’s usually the first question I get: How is social media driving this? I think we intuitively recognize that the way we’re living today — always tethered to our phones and screens, constantly bombarded with the airbrushed versions of other lives while living the pockmarked reality of our own — isn’t healthy. Comparison has always been a temptation for women. But now we’re not just comparing ourselves with our sisters or mothers or friends. Now we must compete with supermodels with computer-enhanced curves and social media pals whose real lives bear little resemblance to the shiny, happy images they post online. There are plenty of bright spots on the Internet, but the online world we spend so much time in these days is also a breeding ground for envy, shame and comparison — the perfect cocktail for exacerbating perfectionism.
It can be difficult for moms to strive for excellence in our vocations without it becoming perfectionism, and yet we don’t want to do the opposite and not try at all. What advice would you give to moms who want to “give grace” without “giving up” in the goal of holiness?
That was the biggest surprise to me as I researched the lives of the recovering perfectionist saints that I profiled in The Heart of Perfection: that their holiness was the fruit not of perfectionist striving but of surrender to grace. The more they faced their weakness, and learned to bear patiently with themselves in the midst of it, the more quickly they advanced in holiness.
So often we think of holiness as a matter of willpower, and it’s certainly true that we must cooperate with grace. Every saint longed for holiness and we can’t grow closer to God without that longing. But even the desire for holiness is itself a gift of grace.
The recovering perfectionist saints were anything but slackers — Francis of Assisi almost single-handedly reformed the Church of the Middle Ages; Benedict of Nursia founded the monasteries that are credited with saving Western civilization; Jane de Chantal raised four kids alone, founded a worldwide religious order, and led countless people to a deeper relationship with Christ — but none of them relied on their own strength for these feats. They rightly saw that any good they did was a gift of grace. And the great fruit they bore in the world came only after they abandoned their efforts at self-perfection and learned to lean into the healing love of Jesus and trade their vision of holiness for His.
Your chapter on “Stalking Joy” was a favorite of mine. Can you share for our readers some of the ways you cultivate joy in motherhood instead of letting fear, negativity, or discouragement rein?
I’m a work in progress on this, as in all things. But some of the practices that have helped me are beginning the day with a morning offering to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and prayers for protection from fear, discouragement, perfectionism and all the rest; trying to kick off my daily prayer time with thanks to God for each blessing of the preceding day instead of launching immediately into laments over what I messed up or what my life lacks; putting my phone away when I don’t need it or turning off notifications so I’m not tempted to spend more time online than necessary and so I can be fully present to my loved ones; getting regular exercise and enjoying the outdoors, since God’s creation is a manifestation of His love for me that feeds my soul; and limiting my exposure to negative conversations and negative news stories that satisfy my curiosity but have no eternal value. I guess it all boils down to trying live St. Paul’s advice to “keep our eyes fixed on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2). On the days I manage to do that, with God’s grace, I feel joy.
Where can our readers find your book and how can we stay connected to you? Any future projects we can eagerly await?
The Heart of Perfection is available from all the major online retailers (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.) and in bookstores nationwide. You can also find more about my writing and upcoming speeches and join my newsletter list on my website, Colleen-Campbell.com.
As for my next book, I’m in the very early stages now. I’m interested in that question of how we can keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and remain joyfully present to those we love in the midst of a hyper-connected culture that seems hell-bent (pun intended) to distract us from our goal of heaven. We tend to think of this as a new problem, and the technological challenges of our time are certainly new, but I think there is also much wisdom from the past that can help us today. I’m taking a deep dive into that wisdom now and loving it. We’ll see where it takes me and where God leads.
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Copyright 2020 Laura Range