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Saints Help Author and Mother Drop a Toxic Perfectionism

By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent

The Heart of Perfection: How the Saints Taught Me to Trade My Dream of Perfect for God’s (Photo: Simon & Schuster)

Colleen Carol Campell is a mother of four, a former presidential speechwriter and an award-winning journalist. In a new book, she writes that for years she was burdened by her self-imposed expectations and quest for perfection – and was only able to be rescued through the help of the saints.

Ahead of the release of  The Heart of Perfection: How the Saints Taught Me to Trade My Dream of Perfect for God’s, just out this week, Campbell spoke with The Tablet about some of the seven ex-perfectionist saints who helped her find her way, along with her eventual discovery of true freedom in Christ.

The Tablet: First off, is there anything patently wrong with perfectionism? 

Campbell: Yes, there’s a lot wrong with perfectionism: Studies show that it fuels unhappiness, stress, self-loathing, burnout and procrastination, among other things. Most of us know about these. But I’d argue that spiritual perfectionism-that same demand for flawlessness transposed into our relationship with God-has even higher and more hidden costs. Spiritual perfectionism fuels a toxic cycle of pride, sin, shame, blame and despair that turns our spiritual journey into a slog or convinces us to abandon that journey altogether, all while distancing us from our one true hope for healing: God’s grace. Spiritual perfectionism is the most toxic form of perfectionism. And the unspoken lie at the root of it-that we can earn God’s love-fuels and exacerbates all the others.

How did your perfectionism lead to mistakes in your parenting, and how did the saints, broadly speaking, help you find a way out of it?

After the years-long battle with infertility that I chronicled in my last book, My Sisters the Saints, I tackled motherhood with the same sky-high expectations and can-do spirit that I bring to everything I’m passionate about. That served me well in some respects, but perfectionist tendencies toward control, comparison and impossible expectations make the ordinary ups and downs of parenthood feel calamitous.

While perfectionism can make you too hard on your children, my greater struggle was being too hard on myself and allowing discouragement and guilt over my mistakes-everything from a freak accident resulting in an ER visit to an overly sharp rebuke or a failure to be fully present in the moment-to steal my joy. The recovering perfectionist saints whose stories I tell in The Heart of Perfection helped me see how hardness and impatience with myself were driving my hardness and impatience with others, including my children, and how both were linked to the flawlessness that I thought God demanded of me. These saints taught me that I didn’t need to rationalize my failures or wallow in them. I needed to turn them over to Jesus, ask forgiveness, then teach my children about the reality of God’s mercy by accepting that mercy for myself-not just once, but again and again and again.

Benedict of Nursia seems to be in vogue these days. How has his vision for living helped you during some dark periods of your own?

Like many perfectionists, I have a tendency toward workaholism and I struggle to find enough time in the day to do all I want to do-homeschool my four young children, write my books and speeches, carve out enough down time to spend with God and my husband. I knew that Benedict was a patron saint of balance and that his Benedictine rule was a model of moderation. What I didn’t know until I researched The Heart of Perfection was that Benedict himself was a hard-core striver, a man whose first attempt at founding a monastic community ended in disaster partly because of his unrealistic expectations.

The Rule of Benedict that calls us to respect our limits and those of others, to put work aside when it’s time for prayer or rest, and to remember that our labors are for God’s glory rather than our own is the product not of a milquetoast moderate who never much cared what he accomplished but of a passionate achiever who learned through trial and error that we bear more fruit for God by leaning on his grace than our own strength. I found it easier to internalize that lesson, and to respect limits on my time, strength and achievements in this life, once I learned from Benedict that biblical balance is not synonymous with blandness or mediocrity.

St. Therese taught you about forgiveness and mercy – two concepts sorely lacking in our world. How do you think we can begin to recover some of that? 

I’ve long been an admirer of the Little Way of St. Thérèse, but the older I get and the more I understand it, the more challenging I find it to be. Showing extra kindness to those who irritate you, humbly accepting your imperfections rather than denying or raging against them, making sacrifices for God that others neither see nor appreciate and often misinterpret-this is tough stuff. And as an approval-hungry people pleaser who found herself on the receiving end of more than her share of criticism and coldness from fellow nuns, Thérèse knew how tough it was.

That’s why I think the greatest lesson Thérèse can teach us, at least in the context of forgiveness and mercy, is that it’s simply not possible to love our enemies as Jesus commands in Matthew 5:44 unless we love them with His love, with His heart. Thérèse, like nearly all the recovering perfectionist saints I profiled in The Heart of Perfection, had an ardent devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It’s a devotion we tend to associate with schmaltzy images and outdated pieties, but its powerful, biblical message is due for a comeback: that if we want to love as God does, we must ask Him each day to replace our heart with His and love others through us.

In the end you abandon the search for perfectionism for what you call “holy freedom.” What does that entail exactly? 

Holy freedom is a concept I picked up from St. Francis de Sales, who urged his friend and fellow recovering perfectionist St. Jane de Chantal to trade her harshness and anxiety for what he called “the freedom of the children of God who know they are loved,” his paraphrase of Romans 8:21. Some examples include: slowing down and accepting that we can’t do all that we want to do as soon and as well as we want to do it; showing gentleness to ourselves when we realize we’ve once again prioritized the urgent over the important or our own glory over God’s; keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus instead of our own virtues or vices or those of others; rethinking our image of God to be sure it conforms to the truth of the Gospels and not some benevolent dictator caricature we picked up in childhood; learning the art of Ignatian discernment to discover the difference between inspirations that come from God and those that come from our perfectionist compulsions; and embracing the single-minded focus on Christ that allows us to care more about how we look to God than to how we look to the world and that helps us remember God is always looking at us with love.

My bottom line in The Heart of Perfection is not that we must abandon our longing for perfection-that’s hard-wired into us; God put it there-but that we must allow God to purify and redirect that longing to the pursuit of a new kind of perfection: freedom in Christ.