The Paradox of Perfectionism

I am a perfectionist. I want to be a perfect writer, a perfect teacher, a perfect wife, and a perfect friend. I want a perfect personality and sense of humor and complexion and wardrobe. 

Sometimes, my desire for perfection paralyzes me from taking action: If I can’t do something perfectly, why bother doing it at all? 

Recently, I’ve felt this way about my writing. When I sit down to write, my perfectionism sits heavy on my shoulders and whispers into my ear: You’re not smart enough, talented enough, prepared enough, [fill in the blank] enough … Just give up already and go watch HGTV. 

Maybe you know what I mean. Maybe you’ve heard that voice too.

I never really saw my perfectionism as a problem until I got married and my husband, Christopher, pointed it out to me. Marriage is humbling in that way – how all those deep issues we hid from ourselves and from the world come bubbling up to the surface in our most vulnerable moments. 

The first time I became really aware of my perfection problem was when Christopher tried to teach me how to surf. 

Having grown up in the Midwest, I have always romanticized the notion of surfing – endless thrill and speed and smiles, golden skin and salty, wind-blown hair. So, naturally, I asked my California-raised husband to teach me. 

We were less than two months into our marriage, and, per usual, I desired absolute perfection out of these lessons: I wanted Christopher to give me a perfectly articulated set of instructions. I wanted to know the perfect strategy for paddling out past the break, the perfect motions and timing I needed to master in order to catch a wave, the perfectway to “fall off” at the end so as to avoid complete embarrassment.  

The problem, of course, is that learning to surf – like so many other things in life – doesn’t at all work that way. There is no “perfect formula” to follow. When it comes to surfing, there is no possible way to avoid failure.

But I didn’t know that at the time. 

So, we packed up our truck with camping gear and two borrowed surf boards, and we drove down to San Onofre State Beach – a legendary surf spot north of San Diego. San Onofre (nicknamed ’Ofreby the locals) has some of the bluest, most consistent waves in Southern California, waves surfers have been riding since the 1920’s when surfing first arrived on California’s shores. 

It seemed like the perfect place to learn. 

Our first morning in ‘Ofre we woke just as the sun bloomed behind the horizon, blanketing our campsite in smoky pinks and oranges. We made campfire coffee and avocado toast (like perfect little millennials), and Christopher showed me how to wax a surfboard: Circular motions. More wax than you think you need. Thick and textured for grip. 

We had to hike down a steep trail to get to the beach. The board was heavy and awkward under my armpit, which made it difficult to balance, and I slipped and stumbled nearly the whole way down. 

“I’d offer to hold the board for you,” said Christopher, who is normally chivalrous to the extreme, “but if you can’t carry your own board, you shouldn’t be surfing.”

Down at the beach, we sat on a piece of driftwood and watched the waves. There were a handful of other surfers out, all on shortboards cutting in and out of waves as graceful as ballerinas. I wanted to know how to get that good. 

But Christopher’s only instructions to me all morning (aside from “hold your own board”) were “paddle as hard as you can” and “when you get slammed by a wave, don’t fight the current.”   

I battered him with dozens more questions about how I should handle big versus small waves, white water versus blue, and when to bail and when to hang tight. But all he said was, “You just have to feel it out as you go” and “You’ll figure it out.”

“How do I not get slammed?” I asked.

“You will get slammed,” he said. “That’s the only way to learn how to not get slammed the next time.”

What a stupid, horrible philosophy, I remember thinking.

“You ready?” Christopher asked me. 

I was most definitely not ready. But I figured if I died out there, at least Christopher would have to live the rest of his life feeling guilty for failing to educate me on the nuances of surfing.  

We attached the board’s strap to my ankle, and I walked uneasily into the rocky surf. The waves sucked and crashed powerfully against my lower legs, bringing golfball-sized rocks with them, which pummeled my ankles and shins. 

“You gotta jump in fast between sets of waves,” Chris said, “otherwise you’ll miss your window.” He took a running dive into the cold, blue water and started swimming. Shivering and already a bit frustrated, I leapt onto my board and started paddling after him.  

The board felt bulky and clumsy beneath my body, completely powerless against the cobalt waves that rolled toward me like speeding trucks. I could hear Christopher screaming at me to PADDLE HARDER, but his voice was muddled and distant beneath crashing water. My board made it over the first wave in the set, but the second wave looked way too menacing for me to handle, so I bailed as soon as I saw it.

The wave crashed directly on top of me, spinning me around like a load of laundry and spitting me back out near the rocky shore. 

I stood up disoriented but unhurt. I could see Christopher treading water out past the break, waiting for me to get back on and try again. I hoisted myself back onto my board and paddled on. My arms already burned with exhaustion. I paddled over a few smaller waves, and then, like clockwork, the big waves came.

I refused to bail this time. Instead, I stopped paddling and held on for dear life as the wave flipped my board backwards with me on top of it, stuffing me beneath the churning Pacific all the way to the ocean floor.  

When I surfaced, I heard Christopher yelling at me: “I said don’t stop paddling!” 

I kept trying different strategies for getting over the waves, and each time, the ocean’s powerful arms shoved me off and pushed me back towards the shore. I started to get angry – at the ocean for its indomitable strength, at Christopher for his unhelpful demands to “paddle harder,” and at myself for failing to even get out past the break (let alone catch an actual wave). 

After several more failed attempts, I started to notice something I hadn’t seen before: There were gaps at the edges of some of the larger waves. I found that if I paddled hard and fast enough, I could reach these gaps before the waves folded, and my board would float over them like a little duck floating over ripples in a pond. I used this strategy until I got all the way out past the break, where Christopher was waiting with a smile. 

“You made it,” he said. “Now we wait for the right wave to come along for you to catch.”

I never really successfully surfed that day. I did catch a wave and managed a partial kneel on the board as it soared toward the shoreline. When I fell off, the board flew into the air and slammed hard into my left foot, splitting open my flesh. 

But the adrenaline rush of catching a wave was so exhilarating that I barely even felt any pain. I still have a scar on that foot that I’m rather fond of. It’s shaped exactly like single quotation mark.

Lately, I’ve been conjuring up this memory whenever my desire for perfection threatens to take control. I think learning to surf serves as a good metaphor for the fundamental paradox of perfectionism: growth and learning happen because of failure – not in spite of it. 

One of the most powerful and comforting things about scripture is that, again and again, God uses imperfect, unprepared, unexceptional sinners to do His work and participate in His story. 

He chose Rahab, a prostitute, to rescue two Hebrew spies from the king of Jericho (and to save her entire family in the process). He chose a poor widow, who was on the verge of starvation herself, to feed the prophet Elijah. He chose Ruth, a poor and widowed immigrant, to become grandmother to King David and, thus, a direct ancestor to Jesus. He chose the orphan Esther to save the Jewish people from death. He chose a group of uneducated, voiceless women to witness and spread the news of Christ’s resurrection. 

And He chooses us to be part of His story too. With all our imperfections and insecurities and failures. 

Indeed, He chooses us becauseof our shortcomings – not in spite of them. 

Have you been avoiding “diving” into something because you feel too imperfect, too unprepared, or too unexceptional? Maybe you’ve been called to start a bible study, write a devotional, start a blog, witness to a friend, invite a stranger to dinner, host a celebration, volunteer. 

What might it look like to shun the voice of perfectionism and just dive in? 

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