Lack of Self-Discipline or Perfectionism?

Picture of desk piled with papers.I have had certain shortcomings my entire life. One of them has been clutter. I remember my room as a child. You couldn’t even see the floor. It wasn’t that I didn’t have enough storage space to put things. I just didn’t do it. It was a major source of contention between me and my parents.

As an adult I thought for many years that the problem was self-discipline. If only I could develop and maintain a system for managing the paper, I would be able to solve the problem once and for all. I repeatedly cleaned up the mess only to have it accumulate again. I began to buy, (collect) books on the subject of organization. I set up filing systems. I just did not have the self-discipline to maintain them. That was the problem, I thought.

I had the same problem with food. If only I could learn to control the way I ate and exert some self-discipline I could get off the diet roller coaster. I would control for a while, on a diet, but then find an excuse to eat for comfort or pleasure. I would get discouraged, give up, and my weight would start climbing again, until I felt badly enough about my weight to start the cycle over.

The Problem is Not Lack of Self-Discipline

Somewhere along the line someone pointed out to me the many areas of my life where I had plenty of self-discipline. I was confused. If I wasn’t short on self-discipline, why could I not maintain a clutter-free environment or a normal weight?

I have come to understand that my problem is not self-discipline; it is perfectionism. If I couldn’t do it perfectly (whatever “it” was), I became discouraged and gave up.

If I couldn’t figure out the perfect filing system, one that enabled me to store everything out of sight, find it again easily when needed, and not forget about anything that needed to be taken care of, I wouldn’t file at all. Perfectionism. I wouldn’t throw much away because, after all, I might need it again. So I ended up with filing systems too complicated to maintain or that did not meet my requirements, or else no system at all, and things would start accumulating. Again. When I saw the piles begin to grow, I became discouraged – again – and just gave up.

If I couldn’t maintain my diet perfectly, losing as much weight as quickly as I wanted to and denying myself anything that wasn’t on the diet, I would become discouraged, and give up. Perfectionism.

Do you see a pattern here? For some reason, in certain areas of my life, I naturally see only perfection or failure. There is nothing in between. When I can’t be perfect I become discouraged. And quit trying.

A Spiritual Solution

As a compulsive eater in recovery I have learned that diets don’t work for me. What I need is a plan of eating that I can live with day in and day out. Something that works for me and is sufficiently flexible for me to be able to adjust to the circumstances of my life. I need a plan that is not about losing weight, but about nurturing myself. I decided to turn my weight over to the Lord. He helped me develop a food plan that worked for me. It went through several iterations, and is still subject to revision as needed. My footwork is to use the plan to decide what to eat, how much to eat, and when to eat, one day at a time. His job is to help me maintain a normal weight. And if I eat something I should not have, I no longer see it as a reason to throw the whole food plan out.  I just start eating abstinently again from that moment. I have put an end to the all or nothing thinking, the cycle of perfectionism and discouragement that kept me in bondage to compulsive eating.

(Some people do have trigger foods which need to be treated like allergies; they simply cannot have that food or they will be set off onto a binge. When the Lord helps them develop a food plan, it will not contain those foods.)

So what can I learn from my success with eating in a healthy way (overcoming perfectionism) that might apply to my problem with paper clutter?

  1. I need a spiritual solution to this problem, not an exclusively temporal one.
  2. I need to turn to the Lord for His help in developing a plan that is flexible (as appropriate) but effective, not about perfection, but about nurturing myself; creating a wholesome environment in which I can thrive.
  3. I need to do the footwork he gives me to do, one day at a time.
  4. I need to let go of all or nothing thinking, and be satisfied with “progress, not perfection” (a 12-Step slogan).
  5. If I fall off the wagon I need to get back on as quickly as possible.
  6. I need to recognize discouragement as a tool Satan uses to keep me from growth and recovery.
  7. I need to commit to never giving up.

I will keep you posted on my progress.

  • What recurring problem in your life has not responded to all your efforts to find a solution?
  • Are you willing to try a spiritual solution?
  • When will you start?

Please share your thoughts about this post by commenting below.

Related Posts: Fear: the Enemy of Progress and RecoveryChrist is the Power SourceProblem Solving Flowchart


7 thoughts on “Lack of Self-Discipline or Perfectionism?

  1. I can relate to this so much. My problem is procrastination, which is that fear of doing something wrong or not good enough. Also I have had fears of not being accepted because I might do something wrong. The 7 suggestions at the end are very helpful. I am doing some of them and they are helping me to progress as I work on this weakness. One of the greatest blessings that I have received as I have been working the recovery program is that I refuse to give up. I don’t want to go back to where I came from ever again and I have discovered the love of our Savior and His power which can make it possible for me to progress and change. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us, Mira. It can give the rest of us courage to keep trying and move forward.

  2. I think you hit the nail on the head when you wrote. “creating a wholesome environment in which I can thrive”. Being a relatively creative, perfection-istic person, I get to decide what I think is ‘perfection’. Where we fail is when we try to fulfill what we think others think perfection is. I thrive creatively with a lot of stuff all around me. I have a relative and a friend who can have nothing around them. I used to try to be like them and consequently throw self-doubt and worthlessness at myself for not being able to keep everything neat and tidy as they do. I became a happier person when I decided what was best for me. Even though you will never find a dirty dish in my kitchen, a pile of laundry on the floor, a bill not paid, or an unkept bathroom or lawn, you will find dirty windows, a cluttered desk, a piled-high storage room, full closets, and lots of unfinished projects. I am good with that! That’s what I can do and still be happy. If anyone want to judge me on the things I don’t care about, that is on them, not me!

  3. Great thoughts! I just heard a talk from Orrin Woodward that applies. “Failure is an event, not a person. Just because you fail at something or in someway, doesn’t mean YOU are a failure. You’re a winner in training who had a setback.” Love this! It’s so easy to give up on myself because I mess up and don’t live to my highest standard, when I just need to dust myself off and try again!

  4. I had a similiar problem with clutter. As an adult I realized part of that came because even when I tried, it wasn’t good enough for my mother, may she rest in peace. I didn’t think it outloud, but subconsciously–why try? That helped a lot. Similiar to your 7 steps.

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