How to help congregants struggling with perfectionism

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you felt like an imposter? Less than? Or like you didn’t measure up to the standards you place on yourself?

I recently spoke with Erin, a successful marketing consultant who recently began working as the chief of staff for an LA technology startup.

On the surface, Erin has work and career figured out. She transitioned seamlessly from investment banking to consulting, and now she literally spends her days telling other people what to do. So it surprised me to hear Erin talk about her struggles with low self-worth and imposter syndrome.

“I worked hard, and I got promoted, but it just didn’t feel like it was enough,” Erin told me. “I felt like I was pretending, like an imposter and like I was a fraud. Although they’re giving me all this responsibility, any day now I’m going to drop one of these spinning plates and they’re going to find out that I was faking it the whole time.”

Despite her success, Erin’s hyper-critical attitude toward herself bothered her.

“On the outside I looked super successful. On the inside I was a nervous wreck.”

Erin told me all this on the Making It Work podcast, a series of conversations where Christians share challenges they face in their work. While hosting this podcast, I’ve been amazed to learn how many people are like Erin.

The epidemic of perfectionism in our lives

Many Christians in the workplace struggle with perfectionism. The Harvard Business Review reports that perfectionism is on the rise, especially among younger workers.

Clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the term “imposter syndrome” in 1978 to describe how certain people, despite intelligence, hard work, and a track record of accomplishments, believe they don’t deserve their success. No matter how well these people perform, they constantly feel inadequate. Their oppressive fear, as Erin described, is the threat of being exposed as a fraud.

Perfectionism and imposter syndrome are spiritual maladies because they thrive on lies people believe about themselves and about God.

Where pastors come in 

This is where pastors and churches can enter the good fight for the mental health of working Christians. Erin told me her thinking changed once she started attending church and connecting with a small group.

“When I found my church home, I really got to understand and grow a relationship with Christ. I was introduced to The Call to Work [a work-themed small group] and it completely changed the way I saw myself, the way I saw my work, and the way I saw my interactions with other people.”

In this group of working Christians committed to growing together, Erin learned that other people were struggling with the same issues she faced.

“In our group, we had people who came from all different types of professions. I always thought if I made it to the top of my profession, then everything would be good. But I met people who are doctors and lawyers and salespeople and pastors. And we’re all dealing with the same thing.”

By seeing the good in other people — despite their real-life struggles — Erin was able to recognize the good in herself.

“I realized it’s not that I was a bad worker,” Erin said of her “aha” moment. “This is what it means to be human.”

Imposter syndrome isolates people from one another. Sufferers fear that others might see them fail, so they don’t want to get too close to anyone. Pastors can battle this plague of isolation by promoting small groups where people share honestly about themselves.

The role of the church 

It may take a little convincing to get the perfectionist in the pew to sign up for a small group. One thing a pastor can do is to bring a person like Erin on stage — a working Christian who can talk about what the group experience did for her.

Before participating in a small group, Erin felt so depressed, she would get home from work and be on the couch the entire weekend.

After participating in The Call to Work, Erin testified, “I could let go of my perfectionism.”

Erin’s transformation through her small group experience led her to make her church commitment a high priority as she negotiated her most recent job transition.

In addition to giving workers like Erin time to share their stories from the front of the church, pastors can use their messages to connect the way God sees people and the way they see themselves.

Knowing and being known

Pastor Mark Roberts, who co-hosts the Making It Work podcast, used Hebrews 4:14-16 to preach on the fear of being seen.

“In my work with people,” he said, “I think one of the scariest ideas is that God knows everything about us.”

This thought would indeed be scary, were it not for the difference that Christ makes.

“The fourth chapter of Hebrews talks about Jesus as our high priest,” Roberts explained. “It says he is not unable to sympathize with our weaknesses. He was tested as we are in every respect, except that he never sinned. So, we have in Jesus somebody who really understands — somebody who really gets what it is to be human with the exception of sin. …This idea that could be so scary — namely that God knows everything about me — becomes then this extraordinary reassuring fact that in Christ I am understood, and in Christ I’m accepted.”

He concluded, “That takes the scary thing and turns it into one of the most precious and amazing truths I could imagine.”

Preaching like Roberts’ and small groups like Erin’s can help suffering Christians go from experiencing imposter syndrome to empowered discipleship. May all workers find such hope and freedom at their local church.

Topics: Christian Life, Discipleship, Pastoral Care, Small Group Curriculum

About the Author

Leah Archibald is content development specialist at the Theology of Work Project (TOW). Her devotionals on topics such as "How to Make the Right Decision" and "When to Speak Up at Work" have been completed by more than 500,000 people. Leah takes inspiration from her previous career in marketing for Fortune 500 software companies.  She is the co-host of Making It Work, a podcast from the Theology of Work Project and Fuller De Pree Center.