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The Imperfection of Perfectionism: Case Study

Lukenotes, Spring 2019

Father John, 35, recently was assigned to be parochial vicar for an active suburban parish. He previously had been in a smaller parish.

Father Michael, the pastor at his new assignment, began to notice that Fr. John seemed constantly stressed, irritable, and absent-minded. He observed that he was chronically late for meetings and appeared unprepared and anxious.

Fr. Michael became more worried when Fr. John began to isolate himself for prolonged periods of time. When he checked in on him, he often found him working in disorganized, inefficient way. He noticed that Fr. John was struggling with routine tasks, such as visiting a home-bound parishioner or setting up altar server training. It would take days for him to complete simple things.

A few parishioners began to complain that Fr. John was not responding to their emails and he often appeared “down” and “tired all the time.” Fr. Michael suggested that Fr. John utilize administrative staff for support, but the younger priest immediately rejected this, saying, “Thank you, but I want to do my own work. I just need more time.”

Eventually, Fr. Michael spoke very directly with Fr. John about his concerns. Fr. John acknowledged he was feeling overwhelmed, which was leading to the self-defeating behaviors Fr. Michael had noticed. After some convincing by Fr. Michael that he may benefit from professional assistance, Fr. John contacted Saint Luke Institute’s outpatient center.

In therapy, Fr. John spoke about being chronically sleep deprived from staying up late trying to complete his daily tasks. He claimed each of his ministerial duties were equally important to him, and he spent hours trying to prioritize and complete tasks “perfectly,” since he feared he would miss important details.

These dynamics often meant he failed to complete his work on time. This led to an accumulation of unfinished tasks, which made him feel stressed and self-conscious about his competence. He feared the bishop would reassign him due to incompetence.

Fr. John shared that when he was growing up, he strived to please his parents and live up to their high expectations, knowing their approval was dependent upon his good behavior and “having all A’s.”

When he underperformed, he experienced a significant amount of guilt and shame, and feared being punished  or rejected. He was an “A” student, but that distinction came at a great price. He would take an inordinate amount of time to organize and complete his work, even with simple projects. He recalled often being up all night working on his assignments.

Eventually, Fr. John recognized his life was out of balance. He did not have time to socialize, nor did he truly enjoy leisure activities due to his preoccupation with his responsibilities.

Awareness and New Skills

In therapy, Fr. John developed greater awareness of how his rigid upbringing shaped the self defeating behavior he had carried into adulthood. He started practicing mindfulness skills, which helped him begin to let go of self-judgment. That enhanced his self-acceptance.

He also started stepping back from the ruminative, catastrophic thinking and anticipatory worry that typically characterized his thought patterns. This enabled him to become more present in the moment, and helped spiritually ground him when he prayed.

Through therapy, Fr. John learned how his fears of failure and rejection guided his obsessive thinking and corresponding compulsive behaviors while undermining his self-confidence and self-direction. He learned to look at the big picture, assessing the overall impact of a particular event, situation, or outcome in his life without focusing on insignificant details. When he accepted that an ideal reality existed only in his mind, and that he had pursued imaginary perfection, he began accepting reality for what it was at any given moment.

Practicing how to resist acting on his obsessive thinking helped Fr. John stabilize his compulsive behaviors. He learned to stop himself from checking written documents for mistakes more than once. When deciding where to devote his energy and effort, he ranked his tasks in order of importance and urgency, and assessed possible consequences of not completing tasks to verify if they were as important as they seemed.

He began to complete his tasks more easily and grew more comfortable delegating assignments and utilizing offered support. Fr. Michael noticed that he was balancing pastoral and administrative responsibilities better, and appeared less stressed and more engaged with others.

Fr. John recognized the progress he had made in therapy, but also learned that assessing and managing his perfectionism would be an ongoing process.

For confidentiality reasons, names, identifying data, and other details of treatment have been altered.