“What Does It Mean to Be Perfect?” New Era, Jan. 2006, 10–13
For over 20 years I was a professor and practitioner of medicine, and I have a concern that I know is shared by other General Authorities. A matter of great concern for some of you is the issue that mental health professionals describe as “perfectionism.” Interestingly, often those who struggle the most with issues of perfectionism are among the most talented people. They have often been excellent students, model children, and outstanding young people. Some, however, become so obsessed or consumed with their every thought, action, and response, that they may become far too extreme in their own perceptions of what is expected of them.
There is an understandable goal to follow the Savior’s direction to “be ye therefore perfect” (Matt. 5:48). While this goal is admirable and appropriate, it is unfortunate that some consider that this perfection must occur immediately. A careful study of the footnote in our scriptures to this verse teaches us that the notion of being perfect means that we are “complete, finished, fully developed.” Thus, while we should be engaged in the process of perfection, we need to acknowledge that achieving this goal will likely take a long time for all of us. The Lord said, “Ye are not able to abide the presence of God now, neither the ministering of angels; wherefore, continue in patience until ye are perfected” (D&C 67:13). This is good advice for all of us.
There clearly are some things in which you can be perfect. The payment of tithing and the behavioral aspects of the law of chastity are examples. There are other things, however, that most of us will need to work on throughout our entire lives and yet not reach the perfection that is eventually promised until the eternities if we are true and faithful. Matters such as having absolute faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, a complete understanding of the scriptures, always controlling our thoughts and our tongues are all issues that require persistence and patience.
Occasionally, for well-motivated and highly devoted Latter-day Saints, confusion occurs about the differences between worthiness and perfection. Worthiness and perfection don’t mean the same thing! All of us are “works in process.” We can be worthy while still needing improvement.
Be sure that you do not have higher standards for yourself or others than the Lord has established. Find satisfaction in your progress while acknowledging that perfection may still be distant.
Our perceptions of ourselves may or may not be accurate, but more frequently than we may expect, they may differ from how others view us. Those suffering from perfectionism tend to be wonderful, contributing, and effective people, and yet may feel that no matter what they do, it is never enough. These good people suffer from exaggerating their minor mistakes, weaknesses, or shortcomings to the point that they may become dysfunctional.
Please note that I am not against modesty or humility. These are important and even cardinal virtues. Jesus taught us that we should be meek but not masochistic. When we become obsessed with our deficiencies or weaknesses and so focused upon them that we—of necessity—neglect everything else, then we are out of balance. The Lord shares an important insight: “And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them” (Ether 12:27).
This is the Lord’s formula and promise for dealing with our weaknesses. We need to recognize them, but we do not glory in them or magnify them. For some of them, we do need to get appropriate help early.
Each of us needs to be absolutely honest with him or herself. Most of us do not always see ourselves as others see us or even as the Lord may see us. That is one of the reasons that we are provided with devoted and capable Church leaders to counsel with us, teach us, and support us. We must be absolutely honest with them in all the matters of our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health.
Too many of us tend to glory in or dwell on our weaknesses, temptations, and shortcomings. We must recognize them, get help when that is appropriate (see Editors’ note on this page), but move on as soon as possible and not be preoccupied with them. But when serious problems or challenges are facing us, neglecting them or repressing them almost always makes them worse rather than causing them to go away.
Let me assure you that you are literal sons and daughters of our loving Heavenly Father, who knows you and cares about you. This you must not only know but must never forget. If you always do your best with realistic expectations and understanding of both your strengths and weaknesses, you will be able to be an important part of this great work.
In King Benjamin’s wonderful address, the people under his stewardship were corrected, instructed, and inspired. He taught them of the Savior’s Atonement and also the capacity that they could have to put off the “natural man” and become saints (see Mosiah 3:19). He taught them of their tremendous responsibilities and helped them understand how they might retain a remission of their sins through faithfully keeping the covenants they had made and the commandments they had received. After all of this, remember these words of this wise prophet-king: “And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength” (Mosiah 4:27). All that we do must be done in “wisdom and order.”
May the Lord bless us all to understand clearly our potential and place. May we have the courage to stand tall in the face of our challenges, the wisdom to get help when we need it, and the faith to know that the Lord will bless His servants who are doing their best.
“We all need to remember: men are that they might have joy—not guilt trips!”
—Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, “Perfection Pending,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, 86.
“Worthiness is a process, and perfection is an eternal trek. We can be worthy to enjoy certain privileges without being perfect.”
—Elder Marvin J. Ashton (1915–1994), “On Being Worthy,” Ensign, May 1989, 20.
“The Church is ‘for the perfecting of the saints’ (Eph. 4:12); it is not a well-provisioned rest home for the already perfected.”
—Elder Neal A. Maxwell (1926–2004), “A Brother Offended,” Ensign, May 1982, 38.
Perfectionism is a medical condition characterized by severe self-criticism and self-doubt, often accompanied by anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive behavior. It can lead to appetite and sleep disturbances, confusion, problems in relationships, inability to concentrate, procrastination of important tasks, and, if left untreated, major depression, anxiety disorders, and suicide.
What’s the Difference?
Doing Your Best
You desire to give things your best efforts and are satisfied when you do.
You have a list of “shoulds” and “have to’s” and are dissatisfied even if you complete them.
You know it’s okay if you make a mistake. You move on and see your mistake as an opportunity for growth or learning.
Mistakes bring feelings of self-hatred. You don’t want to do anything because you are afraid of failure.
You want to do your personal best, and you try not to compare your achievements to those of others. You don’t need to be the best at all things.
You feel tremendous pressure to earn others’ approval. You must be the best or “perfect” in your tasks.
You can find joy in doing the things you love, and you can get things accomplished.
Your need to do things perfectly leads to procrastination until you have time to do it “perfectly,” and you feel driven by fear or duty instead of love.
Trying to do your best and perfecting yourself “line upon line” with the Savior’s help is Christ-centered because you need the Atonement.
Perfectionism is self-centered. You measure yourself against your own standards and against others’ standards, not God’s.
Editors’ note: There are many places you can get help if you feel you need it: your family, your bishop, or a gospel-oriented professional counselor. If professional assistance is needed or you want to find out more about perfectionism, go to www.ldsfamilyservices.org. To learn more about how to become perfect without being a perfectionist, read “Perfection Pending” by Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (Ensign, Nov. 1995, 86).