The Pressure of Perfection

4 July 2013, 06:00

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tumblr_m6uolamf0Y1rpeilro1_500“If you would just do it right!”

This was the oft-repeated mantra in my family. It usually happened when something went wrong and my dad was angered by it: simple things like a broken dish, a dirty room, or sibling squabble, or more complex things like a broken window or childhood injury. If we had done it “right,” something bad wouldn’t have happened.

Through his seminars and teachings, Bill Gothard implied that the secret to success in every area of life was following the formula he laid out: accepting and applying the seven basic principles, making commitments at conferences, following the 49 “Commands of Christ.” These were the formulas for success; follow them and life would be good! But if you don’t, then you are just inviting trouble in your life.

My parents, looking for a way to avoid some of the issues that they saw in the world and had faced in life, bought into this “New Approach to Life”—an approach that had a formula for everything and that would guarantee success and perfection if the formula was followed correctly. All one had to do was attend a conference or stop by a Training Center to see that it worked. Smiling families with many children took the stage to sing songs in perfect harmony or quote Scripture. Fathers, mothers, and apprenticeship students gave testimonies about how following the formula had solved issues for them. Go inside a Training Center and you’d see young people dressed as professionals and smiling sweetly, just waiting to serve. This program worked!

Any adult should have realized that a child couldn’t be perfect. Maybe Bill Gothard would have realized this if he had ever had children of his own. Instead he could pick and choose those who served around him. If you had the perfect look, could quote a huge block of Scripture, or play an instrument perfectly, then you were in—provided you were eager to serve without questioning. In other words, he would pick only those who personified what he taught, and ignore or disregard those who didn’t fit the mold. Doing so, he set up the image that many, many ATI [Advanced Training Institute] families tried to live up to—a false image of perfection.

Which brings me back the often-heard comment of my childhood and teen years: “If you would just do it right!” Looking back, I think I understand my dad’s point of view. He was doing (or at least trying to do) everything right according to the formula. If something was going wrong, it must be something one of us was doing because, hey, if you follow the formula, things will go well for you. That was the promise of ATI. If we did it right, then he wouldn’t need to get angry and frustrated with us. Bill Gothard had the Scripture to back up these principles, and obviously it worked for others. The pressure it put on my family was tremendous.

We struggled to be perfect: the perfect look, the perfect attitude, the perfect family. But inside it was anything but perfect. The house was always spotless when people came over, but nobody saw the hours of stress that it took to get a clean house. We would be cleaning under the parental microscope for hours, making sure it was perfect. Dad would get frustrated and yell. Nothing was ever good enough or complete until the guest actually arrived. Then we’d all put on our pleasant, happy faces and dad’s anger would switch to pleasantness. We hated having people over. We interacted well with the adults around us which earned the admiration of others, but nobody saw the behind-the-scenes admonitions to “behave” or the rebuke that would come afterwards if we didn’t. As an older child I was expected to watch the younger ones and keep them out of trouble, or face getting into trouble myself.

We were never told we were doing something right; we were told, “If you do it right, you’ll know; nobody needs to pat you on the back and tell you that you did it right.” But if we didn’t do it right we knew that we would be met with anger and frustration from Dad. And there was no universal standard of “right.” Some days something wouldn’t really matter. But if Dad was upset or feeling pressure himself, then the littlest thing could send him into a tirade which would include, “If you would just do it right…” This unpredictability led to an incredible lack of confidence. My siblings and I got the message loud and clear that we couldn’t do anything right. It was our fault when things went wrong, our fault when Dad got angry.

Yet still we tried. We buried feelings and emotions and tried to live up to the unrealistic ATI standard of perfection. But of course we were never good enough. In almost everything we endeavored, we were told that we could do it better. Simple mistakes would be pointed out so we could rectify them. We’d sometimes hear my dad talk about us with a note of pride in his voice when he spoke to others, but he was never quite able to convey that same pride to us. Instead it was always pressure to do better. When he got upset about something, everything we did was wrong. Past offenses were brought up to reiterate our shortcomings and lack of perfection. Redemption in his sight was gained for a time through trying harder.

It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I started to understand the truth about perfection. I heard a sermon where Proverbs 24:16 was highlighted: “A just man falls seven times, and rises yet again.” A just man wasn’t perfect. He had problems; he was going to stumble. The realization hit me that there was no way I could “just do it right”—it wasn’t humanly possible.

A few years later I started college and began to discover just how much I could do right. I was an almost straight-A student. I earned high praise from my teachers and was finally gaining some badly needed confidence in myself and my abilities. I knew what was expected and there were no unobtainable goals of superhuman perfection. Teachers were setting me up for success instead of watching for signs of failure. A mistake was just that and nothing more.

The years of pressure have taken their toll. Today, even though people see me as confident and capable, I’m always second-guessing myself. I agonize over the thought of making a mistake. It bothers me to work around most authority figures because I’m just waiting to hear how I’m doing it wrong. I have stress-related health issues that flare up several times a year. Under all the pressure to become perfect, I became broken.

Now I know the simple truth I wish I had been taught all my life, that He who is perfect does not require perfection of me but instead desires a relationship with me. Through that relationship, I am made perfect in Him.

 

Karah lives in the midwest and is currently working on finishing up her Bachelor's degree. She loves the outdoors, her family, her animals, and finding joy in everyday life. She has found a whole new confidence and zest for life after discovering the peace and freedom that comes from knowing God loves her just as she is---imperfections included.
All articles on this site reflect the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of other Recovering Grace contributors or the leadership of the site. Students who have survived Gothardism tend to end up at a wide variety of places on the spiritual and theological spectrum, thus the diversity of opinions expressed on this website reflects that. For our official statement of beliefs, click here.

26 Comments

  1. Beth July 4, 2013 Reply

    Just wow. thanks for writing this. Last night at work (new job) I was in near tears because of my failure to do something right. I was amazed when my co worker simply told me it was a mistake and we all make mistakes and learn from them.

    Perfection is my enemy and haunts my every move. I struggle so much to understand the depths of God's grace.

  2. Christy E. Bell July 4, 2013 Reply

    God loves us--warts and all!! =-)

  3. FaithR July 4, 2013 Reply

    I could have written this!

  4. Lottie Shaw July 4, 2013 Reply

    Thank you soooooo much, Karah for having the courage to publish the article. The mention of the "Commands of Christ" brought back a veritable flood of memories!! I can still remember being told, "if you would just follow the commands of Christ everything will be alright." "If you would just stop doing that, or this or the other thing and follow the commands of Christ!!!" Nothing I ever did was right, or perfect. I was constantly wondering when I was going to get another talking to from my parents, older friends, or teachers. I was the naughty one and was constantly getting into trouble just simply for trying to be the child I was, not the adult I was expected to be. Now, as an 18 year old I am so afraid of making a mistake. I am so sure I am going to mess things up that I can't enjoy myself. I struggle to take the lead and initiative to do things fro fear of messing it up. Your article really spoke to my heart, Karah. Thank you very much for sharing.

  5. A.Roddy July 5, 2013 Reply

    It doesnt take being a parent to know we aren't perfect humans. The trouble with Bill Gothard and his ilk (Vision Forum etc)are the formulas they set. And this super perfectionism mindset happens in the secular world. Even Jesus disobeyed his parents once.

    • Chris Symonds July 5, 2013 Reply

      Rody Jesus never disobeyed his earthly parents neither does the scriptures imply that he did. If you are referring to when He was 12 and remained at the Temple after going to Jerusalem. Jesus was obeying the will of His heavenly father and going about His business. To imply Jesus disobeyed his earthly parents is ti imply he wasn't perfect and without sin. The logical conclusion one has to draw from your assertion is that Jesus was a sinner and in need of a savior.

      If that is true we are all still under the law, we are not justified by faith through Grace

    • Heather July 5, 2013 Reply

      I think the better point would be that Jesus obeyed God rather than his parents, He put God's will first. Which wasn't exactly something we were taught. AT All. We were taught that our parents heard God's voice for us. Essentially, they were our mediator, in so many ways, which is directly contrary to Scripture. Obviously it wasn't taught in such a way that made it seem like that, it was more subtle.

      • Chris Symonds July 7, 2013 Reply

        I agree

  6. Heather July 5, 2013 Reply

    I could've written this article. Esp the part about hating to have company over because of the indescribable stress in getting ready for it.

    • Chris Symonds July 5, 2013 Reply

      I think most of us here could have written this article Heather to which I say amen Karah

  7. Josh18 July 5, 2013 Reply

    Great piece discussing some important aspects of what we went through.

    At some point, I finally "broke". I came to the complete end of my trying to "just do it better". No matter what I did, I just couldn't get it all right and I could still get misjudged.

    Well, the day after I cried out to God and told him I was through the Christian life as I had known it, I found this:

    Galatians 5:
    16 This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.
    17 For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: SO THAT YOU CANNOT DO THE THINGS THAT YOU WOULD.

    It was like God said, "See, do you finally get that I never expected you to get it right all up front? I just want to delight in your journey with you. I am not so concerned with the failure as the growth that can come out of it." God restored my joy at the crisis in my faith. But I had to give up my old way of looking at things and see his grace.

    • Heather July 5, 2013 Reply

      Yes and Amen.

  8. "Hannah" July 6, 2013 Reply

    So... If the ATI program didn't work for you... you just weren't doing it right?

  9. Sarah July 6, 2013 Reply

    Yep. Could've written this, too. Although thankfully, my dad didn't get angry at us if things weren't clean - although he did get snippy with my mom. But I will still get hot flashes when I mess something up - perfectionism and the resulting shame have been my companions through life. It has taken tons of reading, prayer, therapy, you name it to get me to the point of beginning to be ok with not being perfect. And thankfully, God has led my dad on his own journey to accepting himself and his wife and his children.

    Thank you, Karah, for sharing your story. It's always brave to be vulnerable!

  10. LJ July 6, 2013 Reply

    Thank you for opening your heart and sharing the difficult times you experienced but even more importantly the freedom and joy you are learning to enjoy in Christ! It will be a great encouragement to many who read these articles to not give up on their journey to freedom from rules and principles! Christ loves us and wants to have a beautiful relationship with us. Not have us living by a list of man's rules.

  11. Wendy Blake July 6, 2013 Reply

    The part about not being able to ever measure up to the Knoxville superstars they paraded across the stage.... yup and yup.
    My dad always breathing down our throats just knowing we had already failed, he just needed to figure out how do he would have a reason for his anger.

  12. Lottie Shaw July 8, 2013 Reply

    Jesus stayed in the temple to do his heavenly father's business and when his earthly parents came and told him off, so to speak, he went with them without a fuss. So, he wasn't disobeying anyone.

  13. scott March 21, 2014 Reply

    All the experiences of these folks here are very mild indeed. Gothard was based in Central Florida in his hayday's of the 70's. Our church and church school was a twisted Gothard brain washing factory, and I'm 44 and still dealing with it.
    Folks talk about legalism, and the consequences, you don't even know..
    How about pain and terror when any rule is broken! The mental stress was just as bad, before the physical pain. Then, of course, after the punishment came the mini exorcism of " Binding Satan " away from me, so I wouldn't be so bad. Crying and shaking whilst your authority rebukes the devil away from you..
    All very hard to " Get Over ", but as a Man that is all the choice you have.
    At least these folks here on this thread have been able to get some kind of a life. I wish I could say the same, but my life has been nothing but failure and isolation. Church? uhh, yeah, kind of difficult to be a member when I want to beat up any authority figure. Rage, and anger are the hardest thing to deal with and my main prayer project usually. However, the God I pray to is most definitely not an " Approved " situation, so I hope it's OK.

    • JulieAnne March 21, 2014 Reply

      I'm so sorry, Scott. Gothard and some of his minions have a lot to answer for.

  14. Ron December 15, 2014 Reply

    I could have been your Dad, because that's how I treated our four children. All around us were 'successful' smiling ATI families. Obviously we were the only failures. We just had to work harder at being perfect. I became perfect at demanding ATI perfection. And it drove them all away. My wife to another marriage, a daughter who's mission in life is anti home schooling, a son living with his girlfriend, two youngsters into new age and a cast iron wall between us.
    Me? well I'm still perfect! Perfect at church hopping, perfect at trying to stay on the wagon and off the cliff top. All around me is perfect devastation.
    I've come to the conclusion that if satan really wanted the perfect tool to destroy people and marriages, then clearly ATI is the perfect choice!

    • GuyS December 15, 2014 Reply

      Ron, "I've come to the conclusion that if satan really wanted the perfect tool to destroy people and marriages, then clearly ATI is the perfect choice!" That is a good way to put it.

      Thanks for sharing. My testimony is not far from yours. Five children, oldest in prison, wife remarried, and so on.

      I hope you continue posting. Your perspective is good. My God show himself strong to you.

      • GuyS December 15, 2014 Reply

        May God show himself strong to you.

    • MatthewS December 16, 2014 Reply

      So much pain in your comment, Ron. I respect your courage in sharing that.

  15. Karen December 17, 2014 Reply

    I sure hope some of those posting about what is basically the PTSD aftermath of ATi's wreckage in their lives and that of their families will consider, if they haven't already, getting professional therapeutic help. Any of you who have found good help in that area could perhaps share resources you are aware of. Anyone know of good Christian counselors (or even not specifically Christian, but just good) specializing in treating spiritual and other kinds of abuse?

    • rob war December 17, 2014 Reply

      I think Ron is in New Zealand. I think if he contacts RG directly, I believe they could recommend who he could go to in New Zealand. There is a risk if people start posting their own recommendations for counselor and therapists so probably private recommendations from RG staff would be best.

      • Karen December 17, 2014 Reply

        Thanks, Rob.

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