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How the Saints Helped Author Colleen Carroll Campbell Overcome Her Struggle With Perfectionism


In this excerpt from the Busted Halo Radio Show, Father Dave interviews author, journalist, and former presidential speechwriter Colleen Carroll Campbell about her new book, “The Heart of Perfection: How the Saints Taught Me to Trade My Dreams of Perfect for God’s.”

Colleen is a “recovering perfectionist,” and on her journey to overcome perfectionism, she realized that many saints were also perfectionists.

Perfectionism, according to Colleen, has become a modern epidemic, but people tend to ignore how the need to be perfect affects our relationship with God. In striving for our personal version of perfect, we tend to lose focus of what God wants for our lives. As someone who used to spell-check her high school boyfriend’s love letters, Colleen has come a long way with her perfectionism. She tells Father Dave that she first decided to confront and question her perfectionism after becoming a mother to twins. Colleen explains that she blamed herself for her twins’ early arrival and later beat herself up over a trip to the ER after a freak accident. Upon reflection, she realized that the critical voice in the back of her head was not the voice of the Lord.

In her book, Colleen profiles perfectionist saints, such as St. Jane de Chantal, a mother of four and young widow, who, with help from St. Francis de Sales, a fellow perfectionist, learned to cultivate patience and simplicity, which allowed her to embrace life’s sacrifices.

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St. Francis de Sales taught that when perfectionists treat others harshly, they are actually reflecting the way they view themselves and how they think God sees them. Father Dave points out that Jesus encouraged us to be perfect as God is perfect, but how is that even possible? Colleen explains that to be God’s notion of perfect, we must surrender to God’s grace.

By studying the saints, Colleen learned that God’s vision of perfection is different from ours and began to cultivate the notion that she had to let go of her own plans and turn them over to God.

She then cites St. Ignatius of Loyola, yet another saintly perfectionist, who taught Colleen to “pay attention to where the Holy Spirit is moving in our lives,” even if where the Holy Spirit moves us doesn’t fit into our plans.

Father Dave acknowledges that it’s difficult to hand over the reins to Jesus. Colleen agrees and recognizes that people often struggle with spiritual perfectionism, which occurs when we compare our holiness to others’. She emphasizes the “importance of cultivating joy,” and catching ourselves when our faith becomes about anger and criticism, rather than about our relationship with Jesus. To combat this, Colleen suggests distancing ourselves from people and situations that fuel these feelings.

Another saint who can teach us a thing or two about battling perfectionism is St. Benedict, which surprises Father Dave since St. Benedict is notorious for his affinity for rules. But Colleen notes that St. Benedict emphasized limits, especially when it comes to work. In a culture filled with workaholics, it’s important to recognize our limits and weaknesses and step back from work in order to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Father Dave says that Colleen’s book humanizes the saints and allows us to realize that even the saints grappled with difficulties. Colleen emboldens us to “recover” from perfectionism and to use the saints as examples and sources of encouragement.