Trauma, Perfectionism, and Holiness

I share about trauma because it’s been a companion since before I was born. Yes. That’s right. Trauma has hereditary aspects, and a few infiltrated my body during my time in the womb. Three days is all it takes for the post-conception mind to start gathering information about what’s going on inside and outside the mother’s body. For me, that was a world of fear, shame, alcoholism, and violence.

Many born at the close of World War II likely carry similar burdens. However, neglect was added to my trauma mix as my mother got pregnant by my father while her husband was away in the military. The records of her divorce and following marriage to my dad only came to light this year. My infancy as an embarrassing problem was spent mostly alone, entertaining myself in a crib.

The behaviors and patterns of a confused, unwanted child resulted in faulty perceptions, immature coping skills, and self-defeating conclusions that acted like bars in a cage. An adult perspective of their effects includes a diagnosis of PTSD symptoms and a high ACE score. It would seem this cocktail of ingredients, damaging at the least and destructive at the worst, would result in a questionable if not hopeless future.

Hope Connection
Hope is a person. His Name is Jesus, and He wove hope into creation. Knowing the Fall was coming, the Son of the Most High God built fail-safe systems into Mankind to secure our survival. Our autonomic nervous system handles stress from fear and all kinds of shocks by taking our thinking brain offline and sending cortisol, adrenaline, and multiple other activators to respond in Fight or Flight, Freeze or Fawn reactions.

In addition, the plasticity aspect of the brain allows neuropathways to change and shift according to the pressure that comes. Yes. The brain is shaped by trauma with behaviors and patterns necessary for survival. That fact almost sidelined me when I first encountered it. Jesus to the rescue again. Plasticity is a consistent factor which means manipulated neuropathways can be repaired and fresh neuropathways generated.

Jesus also knows our personal future at the time He weaves each of us together in our mother’s womb. His creativity in those hidden tasks is about construction and preparation. The strengths, smarts, and adaptability He set in place to make our way through stretching times are the very same strengths, smarts, and adaptability that undergird and nurture our journey to be Whole, Secure, and Free. I prefer the term PTSS, Post-Traumatic Survival Skills.

Perfectionism Connection
The connection between trauma and perfectionism appears from three main areas. A child’s Home Life may not suit their makeup because of highly structured and excessively firm schedules and standards or minimal expectations with non-existent support. As the child struggles, a critical question arises of who’s at fault, the adults who oversee her world or herself.  She most-often takes the blame and begins the endless process of self-correction. Perfectionism roots go deeper the earlier that conclusion is reached.

Countless similar conclusions drive unhealthy behaviors and carry self-defeating patterns into the Larger World where her life unfolds. Educational institutions of all kinds, jobs and careers, varied communities are filled with relationships and situations. She tends to seek settings that feel familiar which cause her to move toward or rebuild environments that echo the one she grew up in. Thus, perfectionism can shift from an influential character to a substantial way of life.

Let me quickly say that no parent or guardian will understand their child’s needs nor be able to meet them perfectly. Nor will every teacher, counselor, professor, pastor, or other support person. We are not programmed for continual chaos or personal peace. Each of us rests in the hands of God who oversees our days as surely as He did the people we read about in Scripture. The main difference is we’re in the middle of our stories while we can read the whole span of His goodness in their lives.

Surprise Events also shape our lives. Our autonomic nervous system reacts to overwhelming episodes the same as everyone else’s. However, two people going through the same circumstances may report different experiences. Trauma is the unique impact on the core of who we are. Since each of us is unique, the affects of any interaction or event are personal. You may have been scared witless while another woman had no reaction at all.

Holiness Connection
Perhaps, like me, you’ve heard the idea that when Scripture says God is holy it means He’s perfect. For believers in Jesus who carry trauma and take their faith seriously, such statements magnify the tendency toward perfectionism. Verses such as the following turn into divine demands to do whatever’s necessary to make yourself as perfectly perfect as God is.

But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”  1 Peter 1:15-16, Leviticus 11:44-45, 19:2, 20:7*

An intellectual, physical, and spiritual vise appears to squash any unholy and therefore imperfect thought, attitude or action that would displease God. Confusion between stored reactions and memories of incidents and interactions with the fallen world and God’s truly loving and compassionate character and attention are like bars in a cage. My own walk with Christ was tainted by the idea that God would expect something He knew was impossible.

His Truth brings relief to anyone caught in that place. Yes. There are verses that call us to be perfect yet not in the way a casual view assumes. Clarity comes when we realize the Greek word teleioi, translated perfect, has a broader, richer meaning. To express the teleioi concept means to be mature in the ways of God, to imitate God in terms of approaching situations and people with composure, confidence, and fairness.

Christ’s description in the Matthew 5:43-48 portion of His mountainside discourse is an excellent example of putting teleioi in action. He explains the deeper, divine perspective of the second commandment in the Father’s equanimity as He offers sun and rain to both the just and the unjust. In that sense, He concludes with the call to strive for maturity that we would, Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. v. 48

In His Truth is freedom. The impossibility of being as perfect as God withers away as we clothe ourselves in the trauma-informed process of James 1:2-4. Trials become opportunities to exercise perseverance, another Greek concept that means remaining under the Potter’s hands. We can trust that our maturing process will unfold according to His plan by His grace. The journey toward holiness is possible because God is the founder and perfecter of our faith. Hebrews 12:2

Celebration Invitation
God is holy. He is also just and merciful, wise and sovereign, and so much more. His character and attributes don’t define His perfection. Rather, His perfection pervades who He is and all He does, and as such the Almighty One is worthy of our praise. The mind, body, spirit love He calls us to in Deuteronomy 6:5 and Matthew 22:37-39 are the foundation of His Peace. I invite you to join Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant in a celebration of His holiness. Holy. Holy. Holy.

May God’s embracing Peace become your permanent companion,


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