In which a perfectionist admits that perfectionism is his problem.

5 min. to read.

That particular Sunday was terrible, but it was also wonderful.

When a nice motorcycle instructor named Kandice asked me, “Do you have test anxiety?” she had no idea that she was touching on a central spiritual issue for me.

For more than a year I had been slowly working on getting my motorcycle endorsement. So, how did a simple question from a motorcycle instructor change the course of my thought?  How might it change things for you?

What does any of this have to do with perfectionism? Keep reading!

Is your need to perform keeping you from performing?

Photo credit: Women Riders Now
Photo credit: Women Riders Now Not my training, but a lot like it. I wasn’t taking pictures. I was riding.

In order to get your endorsement in Oregon, you take the Basic Rider Training course.  For your money you get about 8 hours of classroom instruction and about the same amount of time on the range learning riding skills.  At the end of the class you take both a written and a riding test. If you pass both, you get your endorsement.

I took the BRT about a year ago. I did not pass.  It was unexpectedly painful for me. I got a perfect score on the written test, but book knowledge does not make you a motorcycle rider. Afterwards, I sat in my car with my failing grade and cried.

I’ve since spent a lot of time reflecting on why. Turns out I really like doing things I’m good at. Also, I hate being judged as insufficient. Taken together, those feelings created a barrier in my heart. Because of this barrier, I’ve passed on some great opportunities in my life.

When you fail the BRT, if your score is not in the unsafe-operator-range, you can go back and take the test again once. So I practiced for a month and then re-tested.

Trying again isn’t always enough.

I failed again. One particular slow-speed maneuver kept tripping me up. Just about then our serious rainy season started and I set aside my motorcycle aspirations. Until the sun came out again.

I’ve been practicing for weeks now and I feel very comfortable on the bike. I am, however, not legal yet so it was back to class for me. This time I took the Intermediate Rider Training. That happened yesterday. 4 more hours in the classroom, 4 more hours on the range, and then another crack at the drive test.

What do you know? I failed again!

When my instructor shared my test score with me she said, “Marc, I can’t believe you didn’t pass. The whole time we’ve been on the range today, you rode great. You nailed every exercise.” Then she asked me the question I’ve never been asked before.

“Do you have test anxiety?”

I almost laughed. I love school and almost always have done well. Me? Test anxiety? Heck no. And yet, as I thought back on my day, I know she was right.

When we were on the range I was at the edge of myself. It was exhilarating. But then the drive test happened. Waiting in line to take my turn was agonizing. I was anxious. I got a headache. I watched each rider before me, hyper-analyzing every move. When I accelerated off the line, I was in my brain, ticking off the correct steps in the correct order. It was not fun.

Word Art by Marc Alan Schelske. Photo Credit: Industry design You could actually buy that cool cage!
Word Art by Marc Alan Schelske. Photo Credit: Industry design You could actually buy that cool cage!

The results?

When I was just enjoying myself I performed great.  When I was self-evaluating, comparing myself to others, feeling an emotional need to be judged worthy, I lost my confidence.

Damned perfectionism! My fear of being insufficient undermined what I was capable of and I failed again.

I can retest once, and I will.  I’ll practice that stupid slow-speed maneuver again.  But more importantly, I’ve been made aware of how much performance anxiety has limited my life.

Your ladder is actually a cage!

Maybe your need to perform has limited you too.  Does your religious heritage teach you that unless you perform perfectly, God can’t accept you?  Do you believe in your heart that your belonging in your community or family is based on how well you do, how much you make, how spiritual you look, or some other impossible-to-meet standard?

Here’s what you need to know, you and my heart both:

Your value has nothing to do with your performance. You are loved. You belong.

You may have thought that your perfectionist standard was a ladder to achievement and acceptance, but in fact, it’s a cage. The cage door is open if you want to come out. Jesus lived a perfect life and died to secure your belonging and acceptance.

Being a perfect mom, or providing a certain standard of living for your family won’t free you. Attending every church function, knowing the Bible by heart, and sharing your testimony with someone every week won’t free you. Perfect grades, even a fresh motorcycle endorsement won’t free you.

Your life and your spiritual journey will be a whole lot more meaningful and fun, once you can let go of the need to measure up.  And you’re hearing that from a perfectionist!

2 thoughts on “In which a perfectionist admits that perfectionism is his problem.

  1. Marc,

    These two sentences stood out to me the most:

    “When I was self-evaluating, comparing myself to others, feeling an emotional need to be judged worthy, I lost my confidence.”

    “Jesus lived a perfect life and died to secure your belonging and acceptance.”

    I’ve frequently been labeled a perfectionist as well (and have felt proud of it most of the time!) but am increasingly coming to realize how much this has negatively affected key relationships in my life. Whenever something is “wrong” with someone close to me I tend to view myself as either the cause of the problem or the one responsible to “fix” the situation. This has resulted in anxiety, insecurity, and depression which has trapped me (I empathize with your cage analogy) from doing things that are actually beneficial.

    Thanks. This resonated with me and is a much needed reminder to base my identity, security, and acceptance on the love of Jesus.

    1. Hey Dave,

      Thanks for the comment! What you wrote could easily have been my own words. I wrestled with my own anxiety and depression that came from this very problem. Learning how to just be, and trust God’s love for me has been hard work, but freeing.

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