Perfectionism is the Voice of the Oppressor

In her book on writing, author Anne Lamott says that “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft” (Bird by Bird).

I think this applies to far more than early drafts of things we write.

We’re all tempted to appear as if we’ve arrived at some perfected version of ourselves. This is the version we project of ourselves on social media and online. This is the version of ourselves we usually show professionally. This is the version of us that people who don’t really know us believe.

The problem with playing this game is that it leaves you no room for growth.

I’ve had two disproportionate growth seasons as an adult (more than two overall, but two in particular that were bigger in scope). The first happened in my late 20s once I was out of Bible college and started diving deeper into the theology and history of the Christian tradition. I discovered many things I had never learned growing up, even with my church experiences. After a few years of Jesus reworking me in this space Michelle jokingly told me I was not the same man she married.

The second season has been my time since leaving full-time church ministry. I still speak regularly at a variety of churches on the weekends, but I’m no longer a staff member at any of them. To say that this has altered my perspective would be a massive understatement. I literally grew up inside the church as a preacher’s kid and then spent the first two decades of my career pursuing it. It was all I really knew. Until I decided it might not ultimately be the thing Jesus wants me to do moving forward.

I saw a tweet this week that resonates with me:

That likely connects with me because my life feels more ordinary than it ever has before. I’ve got more boundaries with my time. For years I was building a killer resume and enjoying a thrilling ride of more and more responsibilities and opportunities. It was a blast. Until I realized what it would cost me moving forward. That wasn’t a price I’m willing to pay then or ever.

To acknowledge this and walk away from it requires letting go of any delusions of perfectionism. We assume we should somehow be a bit closer to perfected versions of ourselves each year. But here’s what I know: I haven’t ‘arrived,’ I’m a work in progress. I’m not the same person I was ten years ago. I’m not the same person I was a year ago. I’m challenging beliefs I’ve held for years and trying to listen to more and more people on the margins of society and the church. Jesus continues to meet me in this space and gently guide me forward. And I’m okay with this space.

The hard part is looking back on things I’ve believed or values I had that now cause me to shake my head. It can feel discouraging to dwell on previous versions of ourselves. But if we are willing to acknowledge that sometimes we need to go through a “shitty first draft” season (to use Lamott’s phrase), we open ourselves up to never-ending growth opportunities. While it requires giving up certainty and many things that provide us comfort, it ultimately allows us to keep becoming better versions of ourselves.

Here’s your encouragement to let go of perfectionism and enjoy the ride. You’re under no obligation to be the same person you used to be.

  • You don’t have to believe all the things you used to believe.
  • You don’t have to live by the same values you used to have.
  • You don’t have to act the way you used to act.
  • You don’t have to feel “cramped and insane” as you try to follow some cultural norm.
  • You… can… change… your… mind!
Here's your encouragement to let go of perfectionism and enjoy the ride. You're under no obligation to be the same person you used to be. Share on X

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Jeremy Jernigan

Speaker | Author | Founder of Communion Wine Co.