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Walking the Path to Freedom

An interview with Rob Waller and Will Van Der Hart, authors of The Perfectionism Book. By Shaun Lambert


Perfectionism largeDr Rob Waller is a Consultant Psychiatrist with the NHS in Edinburgh, and the Revd Will Van Der Hart is Pastoral Chaplain at Holy Trinity Brompton. They both founded and now run with others PREMIER Mind & Soul, a mental health charity that seeks to help churches be more mental health friendly, and the NHS be friendlier to those who come in with spiritual or religious commitments. They have also co-written three books, the latest of which is called The Perfectionism Book, published earlier this year. I first met them through my research into mindfulness from a Christian perspective.

I asked them some questions about the new book and their plans for Mind & Soul.

You are both vulnerable in The Perfectionism Book about being dispositional perfectionists – when did you have your ‘aha’ moments that this behaviour was damaging?
We have both lived life at quite a pace at times. For Rob, there were two key moments - one when he had to think about giving up serious sport, and one (repeated many times!) in his marriage when he had to remember it wasn't all about achievement. These changes are hard, as it means looking at life differently, but the end result is much better.

My perfectionism (Will) was much more internal, harsher over critical assessments of small mistakes that were out of all proportion. I read something that helped me to see that it was perfectionism, not the mistakes themselves that was important.

How are you looking to reassure perfectionists that there is another way of living, so that they will actually pick up the book?
Achievements are good - but it is when they are driven by perfection-ISM that there are problems. This book is NOT about lowering standards - we do believe in excellence - but it IS about having a more healthy relationship to our activities, our mission and ourselves. We have seen many young leaders (in business, the church and other areas) burn bright and run hard for a short period of time, before running into brick walls that are actually of their own making. This book is about setting people free to excel - for the right reasons and not at the expense of others.

Reassurance is also part of the problem of perfectionism; we want to keep on being reassured that we are ‘alright’. A better way is actually just tolerating fears about things going wrong and not doing anything at all.

Perfectionism is a bit like an iceberg in that it exists below the surface and out of our awareness: how can the book help people see it clearly and shift their perspective on it?
The first step to overcoming perfectionism is to see it for what it is - an addiction and as damaging - whereas we often see it as the 'acceptable weakness'. It is trotted out at job interviews, "I’m a bit of a perfectionist". The style of the book encourages people to complete exercises, make notes and undertake experiments that will show perfectionism for what it is, but also help you see how you ended up in its grip and help you learn to live a better way.

You blend a mix of theology, psychology and activity – why is the integrative approach so important in change and transformation?
Perfectionism has two causes - unhelpful theology and our psychological development - so both need to be addressed. We follow a perfect God, but not one that advocates perfectionism. Activity is needed because this is an active process: perfectionists have biases that mean they will continue to reinforce their thinking unless they DO something different to challenge the status quo. Experiments open us up to new data and force us to look at our beliefs.  

This blend enables you to define perfectionism more clearly, both in psychological and theological terms – can you summarize the key re-defining you do?
The key thing is to see perfectionism as a problem and not as a strength. This takes a significant amount of work because we are nearly all wedded to the idea that perfectionism is helping us to realise our dreams and ambitions. In reality most highly successful people are ‘problem-solving pragmatists’. Perfectionism has much to do with the fear of failure, not the confidence that so often leads to success. We haven’t been called to be slaves to this fear, but confident in our identity as Children of God.

Who is this book for?
It is aimed at those who want to excel but to do so healthily. This may be in roles like business or church leadership, but it can equally apply to being an excellent mother or father. There is so much pressure to succeed that we need a way to deal with the expectations. Unlike our previous books, it is not especially aimed at those who see themselves as having emotional problems like worry or guilt, though any counsellor will tell you they see plenty of perfectionists too. 

How does it fit in with your work with Mind and Soul, and what plans have you got in the pipeline?

This book completes a trilogy with The Worry Book and The Guilt Book that explores what we call the ‘Cycle of Dysfunction’- each of these elements flow from and too each-other. We believe that if you can break this chain you can find significant freedom. We are not planning any new books at the moment but Mind and Soul have an ongoing commitment to produce high quality resources on mental and emotional health for the UK church. A recent example is the Mental Health Access Pack - a bite-sized website enabling churches to start to look at this - www.mentalhealthaccesspack.org

The Perfectionism Book: Walking the path to freedom (IVP, 2016) by Will Van Der Hart and Rob Waller, is available from all good bookshops and online at Amazon.

Mind and Soul can be accessed via http://www.mindandsoul.info/.


Shaun Lambert is an author and Baptist minister

Baptist Times, 29/09/2016
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