The Perfection Trap

The Perfection Trap


“That was perfect.”

“You have the perfect life.”

“I have to be perfect.”

The list goes on and on.  As Latter-Day Saints, we often put tremendous pressure on ourselves to be perfect.  Then we get frustrated and self-critical because we always come up short.  In my practice, I have worked with thousands of LDS clients and have repeatedly heard them express, “If I could just be perfect, then I could be happy.”

Why is that the more we strive to be perfect, the more unfulfilled and depressed we seem to feel?  The answer is in the way that we approach perfection.

How do you define perfection?

If you are like a majority of people that I have talked to, you would define perfection as not making any mistakes.  Where do we get this definition?  Often it is taught to us religiously.  We believe the following:

Jesus Christ = Perfect

Jesus Christ = Without Sin/Mistakes


Perfect = Without Sin/Mistakes

It’s a simple equation.  Jesus was perfect and lived a life without sin or mistakes, so perfection must be defined as without sin/mistakes.

I have found that it is helpful to turn to the scriptures to gain more insight into being perfect.  So, what is the well-known scripture about perfection?

Matthew 5:48
Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

What wonderful counsel to receive from our Savior!  If you look at the footnotes in this verse you will see a definition for perfect.

Perfect = Complete, Finished, Fully Developed

I have always found it interesting that perfect was not defined as without flaw, mistake, or sin.  Rather we are told that perfection means being complete or finished.

Now, let’s look at a similar scripture.  It is found in 3 Nephi 12:48. It is the same counsel from the Savior, this time to the Nephites.

3 Nephi 12:48
Therefore, I would that ye should be perfect even as I, or your Father who is in heaven is perfect.

These two scriptures are very similar.  Did you notice any differences between the two?  It often takes people some time to recognize the distinction.

The difference is evident in 3 Nephi:

3 Nephi 12:48
Therefore, I would that ye should be perfect even as I, or your Father who is in heaven is perfect.

In 3 Nephi, the Savior includes himself as a model of perfection.  Why does he include himself in 3 Nephi, but not in Matthew?  What has changed in His life?

The answer is that Christ is resurrected when speaking to the Nephites in 3 Nephi.  He is literally complete, finished & fully developed.

With this understanding, we learn that Christ was not perfect in mortality.  While it is true that He lived a life without sin or mistakes, He was not yet perfect according to the definition used in the footnotes in Matthew 5:48.  This is often very difficult for Latter-Day Saints to hear and accept.  I want to make it clear that it is not my intention to diminish the great life of our Savior in any way.  I am just saying that he was not perfect (complete, finished, fully developed) in mortality.

This is important for us to understand because by obsessing about perfection in our own lives, we are holding ourselves to a higher standard than even the Savior did.  Also, it is impossible for any of us to live a life without mistakes.  We all sin and err in our ways.  If our focus is to live without sin or mistakes, we will always come up short.  This often causes great frustration in the lives of those I work with.  They experience stress, anxiety & sometimes hopelessness when faced with their imperfections.  Many people will beat themselves up emotionally because of their weaknesses and they miss out on valuable learning and growing experiences.

Let’s be patient with ourselves.  One of my favorite quotes from Elder Holland addresses this principle.  He stated:

Imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but He deals with it. So should we. … So be patient and kind and forgiving.
-Elder Holland April 2013

imperfect people

What I am not suggesting is that we embrace sin and stop trying to do good.  I hope to encourage others to be patient with themselves despite their imperfections.  In fact, one important way that we can develop is to learn from our mistakes.  Rather than beat ourselves up and be self-critical, we can strive to be patient and focusing on developing Christ-like attributes.

While discussing this principle with a client one evening, I had a profound insight.  The question came to my mind, “Who tells us that we have to be perfect (without sin) in this life?  Who sends the message that we can’t make mistakes?”  I believe that these messages come from the Adversary.  He knows how frustrating and hopeless we can become if we believe that we can’t make mistakes in this life.  In fact, wasn’t that his plan all along?  To force people to be “perfect (without sin)”. To take away agency.  This is how Satan catches us in the “Perfection Trap.”

It has been a wonderful experience to help my clients work their way out of this trap.  More importantly, I have had the privilege of watching their development emotionally and spiritually.  I believe that this is what this life is about, to learn from our mistakes, to constantly progress, and to take every opportunity we can to grow closer to our Savior through the great blessings of the Atonement.



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