Disclaimer: since reading this book I’ve been employed by SPCK, who’ve merged with IVP. I intend to continue to write book reviews with honesty and integrity, but think it is worth making people aware!
This book was one I was initially puzzled by – although I do have a tendency towards perfectionism in some areas of my life – but also intrigued by. Written by Will van der Hart, pastoral Chaplain at HTB, and Rob Waller, a Consultant Psychiatrist for the NHS in Scotland, this 2015 title from IVP is an intriguing proposition. The book is a blend of accessibly theology, nuggets from psychology, and personal stories from the authors and their friends. Unusually but excitingly, two of the endorsements come from Bear Grylls, and Miranda Hart! I can safely say that this is the first time I’ve reviewed a book with this kind of celebrity endorsement. But I digress.
I’ll begin this review by saying that even if you don’t think you struggle with perfectionism, you should probably read this book. The opening chapter on whether perfectionism is a good or bad thing is a brilliant, thought-provoking bit of writing. It made me think – and not just in a cerebral way, but in a self-examining way. I was particularly struck by the way that, every time my inner sceptic started to wonder if The Perfectionism Book was wandering into self help or purely medical territory, that the authors affirmed and celebrated God’s created Goodness, with one powerful reflection coming in the chapter on ‘Perfectionism and Personality’;
“Deep inside is a human heart that still has great capacity to love and be loved“
The faith of the authors is clear throughout The Perfectionism Book. The pivot point of the book, in my reading at least, comes with the chapter titled ‘Changing your Mind’, where the authors challenged my inner perfectionist with the way that we are called to do things “for the glory of God… not a fear of not being noticed“. The great Reformer Martin Luther finds his way into this book, with the shift from Luther’s fear of not being good enough according to the monastic order he was part of, in the wider Roman Catholic church system, being brought into sharp focus; “Luther’s personal discovery of Grace and that God loved him anyway, transformed him completely“. Amen! There was also, on a personal note as someone who can be found to procrastinate, an interesting observation about prayers. Do you pray vague prayers or for specific situations? I slightly digress, but suffice to say that this book is infused with the faith of the authors in an integrated way.
One of the most interesting themes from my point of view came near the beginning initially, but also emerged in various other parts. In The Perfectionism Book there is a really good identification of the problem of perfectionism and overwork in Christian leaders, particularly church leaders. I chuckled as van der Hart recounted how a key question when clergy gather is ‘when did you last have a day off?’. I’ve been asking friends who also happen to be leaders a simple question for a little while – when are you next going on holiday? The emphasis on Grace as transforming our perfectionism is a lesson for everyone. It was good to see an explicit mention of leaders and high achievers throughout, though.
In conclusion, then, you can probably tell I rather enjoyed this book! I think it is a timely book that is really well put together – as the recommended resources suggest, this isn’t an area much has been written in – with a consistent blend of story, theology, bible, medicine, practical exercises and written prayers. I would particularly encourage those at the end of their tethers – whether in leadership, work or study – to grab this book, consider it carefully, and take seriously the liberating message of grace. I’m aware that there are also books by these two authors on Worry, Guilt and other topics, so keep an eye out for a review of them if I can find the time to read and review!