On Perfectionism and Pride: A Letter to My Students

Samantha L. Miller


Dearest students:

We need to talk. I am concerned about you. Many of you are attempting to be perfect in ways that John Wesley—let alone Jesus!—never intended when he spoke of going on to Christian perfection. Your attempts at this kind of perfection are unhealthy and are causing you great anxiety, distress, and, in some cases, an inability to function. This is a problem at several basic human levels, and I am concerned about all of them. Your attempts are also a problem at a theological level, and I am perhaps most concerned about this, for your attempts reveal an insidious pride.

At a basic level, what I see is a deep need to perform perfectly on every assignment and every in-class interaction. Sometimes this means that you ask me to read drafts of your papers before you turn in an ungraded rough draft for a paper workshop day. Sometimes it means that you ask endless questions about formatting because it is easier to control and get “right” than the content I ask you to ponder and create. In more severe cases, it means that you couldn’t even start working on an assignment because you knew it wouldn’t be perfect, or you ask for an extension because you can’t decide to be done with the paper (it isn’t perfect yet!), or you don’t show up for your group presentation because you were paralyzed with anxiety about getting it right.

All of this concerns me. The anxiety you have from your fear of failure is extreme, and many of you are not functioning. Often you are not coming to class because you think that I think you are a horrible human being for having gotten an 80 (or even a 98) on your last exam. Let me assure you, after grading 90 exams and papers for the week, I do not remember what you got. I am more concerned, though, that you are unwilling to live because you are afraid of failing, so you stay in your rooms and your safe spaces and actually make no progress at all, like the servant who buried his master’s talent in the ground because he was afraid to lose it (Matt 25:14–30). I want to see you living, or at least able to walk from moment to moment in your day without a crippling anxiety attack.

We cannot be perfect all the time. Indeed, we cannot learn if we are perfect all the time. I am not assessing you on how many checkboxes you can complete but on your ability to think and the quality of your thoughts. There really isn’t such a thing as perfection in those categories. More importantly, if you don’t make mistakes or even make a mess first, you cannot learn. What feedback can I give you if it is “perfect”? Your concern to get the best grades and to be perfect, though it might seem admirable, when taken to an extreme, becomes not virtue but vice. The assumption that you can be perfect, that you need 100% all the time, is pride. To be unwilling to have something to learn is to be prideful, for being willing to learn is one of the first steps of humility according to most ancient and medieval writers on the subject. (Most writers on pride and humility describe humility as reached by a series of steps, or a ladder. For two examples, see the Rule of Benedict 7, and Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Steps of Humility and Pride.)

Humility, of course, is the way of Christ and the way to Christ. Jesus humbled himself by becoming human (Phil 2:5–11). God submitted himself to cruelty, violence, and death. Only by imitating Christ’s humility can we draw near to him, for our aim as Christians is to look more like Christ, to be like Christ. If we think we are perfect, then we have no need of Christ to make us perfect. What was Christ’s humility for, if not for us? What kind of pride rejects that gift by claiming no need for it?

What is the way of Christ in the classroom? Imperfection. Be willing to speak in class discussion or ask a question, even when your thoughts aren’t fully formed. Trust that your classmates and your professors (who don’t have everything figured out perfectly, either!) will wrestle with the ideas with you and together we will all discover ever-greater depths of the mystery of God. Be willing to stop working on a paper, even if you fear it won’t be good enough. Spend some time throwing a Frisbee or reading in a hammock instead of fretting about perfecting every last word. (Please do proofread, though. Your professors will thank you for that.)

And when you do turn something in that is imperfect, when you receive a grade that is less than 100%, know two things: (1) This is not failure. Truly, you have not failed the class or life. A “B” and failure are two very different things. (2) This is not the end of the world. Even if you have actually failed an assignment, exam, or class. Because Jesus brings the end of the world, and you are not Jesus. Take a deep breath, and choose to recognize this imperfection (or failure) as an opportunity to practice humility and learn. Keep getting out of bed, keep showing up to class, keep doing your best work for the sake of knowing God better, and in all of these things, choose to follow Christ in humility.

With all love,
Your professor, a recovering perfectionist

Posted Feb 07, 2022

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