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'Martha, Martha': On being a recovering perfectionist

by Bev Stratton

The story of the two sisters, Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42), has touched my heart for years. Picture Jesus resting on the couch, Mary enjoying his company, and Martha wrestling with dinner preparations in the kitchen. Martha wants everything to be done well. She is a good housekeeper, a smart woman. She just doesn’t want to do it all alone.

As a recovering perfectionist, I can identify with her.

'Tell her to help me'

It’s the tone of voice I imagine for Martha that leads me to think she may also be a perfectionist. Not only was Martha distracted or preoccupied with her many duties, I think she was angry about being stuck with all the work. And so she complains, criticizes, and accuses. I imagine her shaking her finger: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?”

Martha implicitly accuses Mary of sloth and Jesus of inattention, indifference, or injustice. And she goes on by dictating—to the Lord, no less—what should be done: “Tell her then to help me.” Like other perfectionists, Martha knows best, or at least she thinks she does.

There have been many months, perhaps even years, when I have, in similar ways, challenged some of my colleagues by presuming I knew best and telling them what I thought they should do. If everyone would just do what I say, the world—or at least matters at my workplace or in my family—would function much more smoothly. Martha and I know this. After years in the kitchen, for Martha—or time in the trenches for me as a teacher—one gets a little crabby and may become bossy. Like Martha, I also have let perfectionism wear me out and color the way I see the world, and I have occasionally inflicted it on others.

Right or dead right?

Those of us who are smart, like Martha, may think we know better than others what should be done. Psychologists call this pattern of expecting others to meet our exceedingly high standards other oriented perfectionism. It is not always positive. While I may be “right,” as one mentor said to me a few years ago, I may also be “dead right” in terms of the effects my perfectionist attitudes and behaviors (sense of superiority, focus on fixing every detail, or insistence on doing things my way) have had on some of my relationships.

Perfectionists can get things done, and we do quality work. We may be the ones you turn to when you want to ensure a project is done well. We are often busy, but we may agree do one more thing. There is certainly nothing wrong with high standards and with striving to achieve them. Some scholars even talk about such qualities as adaptive perfectionism.

But sometimes a person’s perfectionistic behaviors cross a line. If your certainty about what is right or your insistence that others do things your way disrupts your life and relationships, as it did mine, you may have slid into maladaptive perfectionism.

Bev Stratton is a recovering perfectionist, professor emerita of religion at Augsburg College, and now practicing presence in the mental health field.

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