The Prison of Perfectionism

By | 3 May 2014

Very recently, I discovered one of the most remarkable and talented musical artists I’ve ever run across, a delightfully vivacious elfin young violinist named Lindsey Stirling, who composes and performs amazing original music pieces combining her virtuoso violin playing with electronic music. On top of that, she comes up with the most awe-inspiring, mind-blowing concept music videos to showcase those compositions, several of which have gone viral on YouTube.

Typically, Lindsey’s originals are instrumental, but her latest release, Shatter Me, was sung by a powerful vocalist named Lzzy Hale. The song’s music video is visual tour-de-force, perfectly capturing its message.

“What is the song’s message?” you may ask.

Breaking free from the prison of perfectionism.

Here’s the video so you can see for yourself:

(If the video does not appear here on the page, click this link to play it on

Some of you may look at the video and wonder how I got the impression the song was specifically about overcoming perfectionism.

It’s easy — I cheated! 🙂

When I purchased the album on iTunes, a digital copy of the CD booklet was included with the music tracks. The booklet proclaims precisely what I have just stated. Here’s a transcript:

There once was a ballerina who lived in a music box. Delicate and beautiful, she danced within a thick sphere of glass — protected, unchanging, and enslaved.

The song of the music box played endlessly telling her perfection was essential to her happiness; she must stay on her toes, keep flawless form, and spin gracefully. The whispering melodies lulled her to believe that only within its protection could she maintain control. The world outside the globe would never see her worth.

But as she looked through the glass day after day, the ballerina began to see a world beyond the globe that stirred within her the memories of a happier time. She realized that the hypnotic melody of the music box had deceived her and that perfection had become a cruel master.

She longed for someone to shatter the globe that held her captive. But no one could see her aching heart beneath the flawless porcelain skin, the serene expression, and the delicate pirouettes.

Summoning all her courage, she raised her violin and began to play against the melody that held her prisoner. Forgotten emotions sprang from her heart and she leaped from the position where she had twirled for so long. As she did so, her porcelain exterior began to crack revealing the softer skin beneath, and suddenly she knew. She knew that within her self was the power to escape the prison. It — not she — would break.

Suddenly joy and light burst forth from deep within, shattering not only her porcelain shell, but the glass prison which held her bound. At last, she was free.

A new world lay before her — a world in which she could live, love, follow her dreams — and shatter the barriers of the future.
© Copyright 2014 Lindseystomp Music, LLC. All rights reserved.

The message of this song and its music video are what inspired me to write this article.

The Pursuit of Excellence vs. Perfectionism

Let me make a crucial distinction between striving for excellence and perfectionism:

Pursuit of excellence is absolutely biblical — perfectionism is absolutely not.

So how do we tell the difference? We’ll listen to the Apostle Paul address that issue:

Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. Philippians 3:12-15

Let me set the context for you: just prior to this, Paul states “For we…have no confidence in the flesh” (verse 3 ) and then goes on to say that, if anyone has a right to have supreme confidence in his personal heritage and dead religious works (aka the flesh), he does. He then recites a laundry list of these attributes/accomplishments and comes to a startling conclusion: all of them are rubbish, refuse, worthless as dog poop (I’m not trying to be crude or offensive here; that’s precisely what the word means in the Greek. Look it up for yourself!).

Overachievers & Underachievers

You see, the people of the world are divided into two groups: those who divide the world into two groups and those who don’t (sorry, couldn’t resist! 🙂 ). All kidding aside, these two groups are: underachievers and overachievers. Interestingly, I’ll guarantee that when you just read those two terms, you immediately knew which group you belong to. On top of that, I’d bet good money that label has been associated with you since childhood.

What Paul is proclaiming in the first few verses of this chapter is that next to the term “religious overachiever” in the dictionary, it says, “see Saul of Tarsus.” Regarding genealogy and dead religious works, he had all his ducks in a row, head-to-tail, and evenly spaced. He goes on to say he has thrown all of that under the bus just as quickly, decisively, and thoroughly as any of us would dispose of our pets’ stinky feces.

Paul substituted his overachiever’s mindset with the pursuit of Christ and the hunger to know Him more fully; spiritual excellence would be found within in a vital personal relationship with Jesus, not within his own dead religious works.

Interestingly, in verse 15, he goes on to state categorically that everyone who is spiritually mature will agree with him and imitate him in this, whereas those who didn’t agree with him on this issue are immature and that God would reveal the truth of his words to them.

Incidentally, that gives us an excellent barometer of our own spiritual maturity.

Here’s the danger of accepting the labels of underachiever or overachiever: it becomes all about us and our performance. Once it becomes about our performance, our eyes are no longer looking to Christ, the Author and Perfecter of our faith, but upon ourselves. This is the essence of selfishness, the root of all sin. When we are looking to ourselves and our ability to perform against a set of standards, we are immediately operating in man’s religion and looking to our dead religious works — or lack of them — to define who and what we are.

How all that spins out is summed up in one word: pride. You who identify yourselves with the term “underachiever” just said to yourselves, “But wait! Pride is what overachievers have, not me!” Au contrere, mes amis, we underachiever types are just as guilty of pride as those to flaunt their considerable heritage and achievements. The NT word for pride is an interesting one:

to raise a smoke, to wrap in a mist

The implications of tuphoo are that we have raised a self-inflicted smokescreen and are unable to see ourselves as we really are.

For overachievers, tuphoo leads to self-reliance. They regard themselves as not needing the grace and mercy of God because, “After all, look at our accomplishments! We are worthy because we make things happen!

For underachievers, tuphoo expresses itself in what can been called “the pride of the worm.” They regard themselves as unworthy to access the throne room of God because, After all, look at our failures! We are unworthy because we fail to make things happen!

Here’s the common thread between the two: their evaluation of themselves and their actions is in opposition to the Word of God and, accordingly, both forms of pride are lies from the pit of Hell!. Who we really are is defined by the Word of God, not by our own opinions of ourselves or even the opinions of our fellow human beings. Here’s what the Word says:

Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ JesusRomans  3:19-24 (emphasis mine)

For He (God) made Him (Jesus) who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (Jesus). 2 Corinthians 5:21 (parentheticals mine)

  • The Truth is that every single human being on this planet is unworthy of God’s love and mercy.
  • The Truth is that God’s grace extends His love and mercy to us as a free gift.
  • The Truth is that we could never afford to purchase it were it for sale, could never earn it through our own efforts were it a wage, and could never deserve it through our own feeble attempts at “goodness” were it a reward for holy behavior.
  • The Truth is that we as believers stand before God, not based on our own performance — good or bad — but by the grace of God, the precious blood of Jesus, and the finished work of the Cross.
  • The Truth is that all those benefits are activated by our surrender to the lordship of Jesus, not by our dead religious works.

Neither overachievers nor underachievers are worthy, period, end of story. Here is a fundamental truism for you:

It is only those who have humbled themselves, ordering their self-image according to the Word of God, who truly walk in the freedom Christ purchased for us.

Paul’s attitude was this: if he pursued Christ with everything he had, the achievements would take care of themselves. And that is precisely what happened: Paul’s single-minded, no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners pursuit of Jesus resulted in him being, by any measure, the most accomplished believer in human history.

Back to Perfectionism

perfection is not a fruit of the Spirit memePerfectionism is toxic to all relationships, regardless of how emotionally close or distant those relationships may be.

Perfectionism is a compulsive behavior springing out of sin-consciousness and shame. Sin-consciousness comes from us focusing on our own performance rather than on Christ. Almost all of us susceptible to perfectionism are the sons and daughters of intolerant, perfectionist parents, so we consider perfectionism to be normal because that’s all we know. Our perfectionist parents constantly rubbed our noses in the fact that we didn’t measure up to whatever standard they were using at the time. Shame now drives our addiction to being perfect, just like shame ultimately drives all addictions.

An addiction?

Perfectionism is indeed an addiction, one no less devastating than those of heroin, alcohol, gambling, or pornography. In many ways, it is even more insidious than those four I just listed because the vast majority of us either mistake it for a pursuit of excellence or we blow it off, minimizing it as “well, that’s just the way we are.”

Perfectionism is an incredibly attractive cover-up for some. We become deluded into thinking if we get all our ducks in a row like the pre-Christ Paul did, we can hide how badly we feel about ourselves and our lives, how badly we are hurting, how desperately we are trying to bring order to a life that we feel is totally out of control.

We demand nothing less than perfection from ourselves. Our inner jackal voices (aka the voice of Satan, the Accuser of the Brethren) accuse us of being failures all along the way, so we strive even harder. To level the playing field in our own minds, we then demand perfection from our spouses, our children, our other relatives, everyone else we know — our neighbors, even those with whom we have momentarily interacted during a store purchase or ordering a meal.

We then sit in judgment over all those who invariably will fall short as “less-than” and inform them on no-uncertain-terms of their alleged failures. This attitude extends from there to everyone else in the whole world, where we sit in judgment of people we don’t even know, declaring those who agree with us and behave according to our standards as “righteous” or “good” and those who don’t as “evil” or “bad.”

Perfectionists are never wrong in their opinions or dealings with others — at least in their own eyes! — and are rarely, if ever, given to apologies. Why? Because to admit they are wrong would be to admit that they are not perfect. Since a lack of perfection attacks their personal identity, they come up with elaborate excuses and rationalizations to justify their correctness, even when any rational onlooker could clearly see otherwise.

Fear comes into the picture through this mindless drive to hide from the reality of our imperfections (aka denial). I mean, what if someone finds out that we are not perfect? What will they think of us? Will they reject us as defective? Will they invalidate our existence because we don’t measure up somehow? And so we hide behind masks of our own devising, thinking we are fooling everyone else, but like the glass of the snow globe, they see right through us and we are only fooling ourselves.

Who has ever run across a laid-back perfectionist?

You’ll never find one!

Perfectionists are always very tightly wound, driven individuals.


Because the price of perfection is eternal vigilance over their both their own performance and the performances of everyone around them. That uptightness takes a tremendous toll over the years, because it is a powerful form of stress. We’ve all heard the news reports on how stress is detrimental to our health, so I’ll just leave it at that.

Getting Set Free

The only place where I diverge with Lindsey concerning the topic of perfectionism is the idea that we can free ourselves apart from the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Yes, such a change indeed requires personal courage and some of us might be able to make some progress on our own spin. But true, lasting freedom always comes through the finished work of the Cross and the resurrection of Christ, because our own puny human efforts are ultimately doomed to fail apart from Him.

If we could have succeeded without Him, then His death, burial, and resurrection would have been unnecessary!

The solution for perfectionism is the same as for any other addiction.

  1. We acknowledge our inability to control our lives, that we cannot fix things on our own, and we need to help from a loving God to get free.
  2. We submit our lives — specifically this area of our lives — to the day-to-day reign of Jesus.
  3. We examine our past and present relationships to see where we have been damaged by the misbehavior of other people and how our own perfectionism has damaged others, as well.
  4. We take our wrongdoings before God to confess them, receive His mercy and forgiveness, and ask for His grace to overcome our perfectionism.
  5. We admit all these issues to another human being, preferably a Christian counselor or Bible-based support group.
  6. We mend our fences in our relationships wherever needed, if possible.
  7. As we walk out the journey of getting free, we stay in the moment, keeping tabs on how we’re doing, and repenting when we mess up.
  8. We keep our focus upon Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith, pursuing Him with everything we have.
  9. As we begin walking in freedom, we give glory to God for what He has done and share the goodness of God with others who need to be set free in similar ways.

Sounds a lot like the steps from any 12-step group, right?

You betcha!

I pray you perfectionists who read this article realize that you do not have to live in this bondage any longer. Jesus has already paid the price to spring you from this prison of perfectionism you are in.

Freedom is yours, if you’ll receive it.

Thanks for reading!

2 thoughts on “The Prison of Perfectionism


    Well said!
    Sent from my iPad

  2. Mark Smith

    another thought provoking good read. The singer Lzzy Hale has an amazing voice. I only wish I could have understood all the lyrics. I kinda wish the lyrics had appeared while the vidoe was playing. Cool video, though. There really is a very fine line between ‘perfectionism’ and the ‘pursuit of excellence’. Kinda the same way there is a fine line between ‘arrogance & pride’ and being ‘self confident’. But that’s another subject for another day. Thanks again Steve, …I always enjoy your blogs.

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