And what you can do about it.
Perfectionism is, psychologists say, a personality trait that has its roots in early childhood. I hold a graduate degree in psychology, and this is what I was taught. It’s what I believe.
Or used to believe.
My understanding of perfectionism changed dramatically after police officers killed George Floyd in my neighborhood earlier this year. In the aftermath of the killing, I wrote about my own experience as a white mother talking to my white children about race, justice, and what’s right. I wrote about how I was worried about getting these conversations wrong, but that it’s important to start them anyway.
The essay hit a nerve, and a lot of people read it. Some of them wrote to me. Nearly all of them said the same thing: “Thank you for giving me words. I was so worried about being wrong that I haven’t said anything to my kids yet.” Seeing my own worry reflected back to me helped me see it in a different way. This worry about being wrong and worry about doing wrong was just another way of talking about perfectionism. It dawned on me: Perfectionism stops people from speaking out about race and justice.
This isn’t a new connection, even though it was new to me. Beverly Daniel Tatum described it 20 years ago in her landmark book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations about Race. “If we wait for perfection,” she warns, “We will never break the silence. The cycle of racism will continue uninterrupted.” Perfectionism muzzles us from interrupting racism.
There’s a more subtle problem, too. Perfectionism constrains all behavior, not just that which disrupts racism. Perfectionism stops us from showing all of our humanness. Instead, perfectionism demands that we show only the flawless versions of ourselves. The parts that don’t conform to the dominant culture’s norms are kept hidden. The problem is, at least in the United States, the dominant culture is infused with white supremacy. Perfectionism functions like respectability politics, which Hood Feminism author Mikka Kendel defines as “an attempt by marginalized groups to internally police members so that they fall in line with the dominant culture’s norms.”
In this way, perfectionism in individuals causes the same problems that it does in organizations. Perfectionism and other characteristics of white supremacy culture constrain behavior to the point that it is “difficult, if not impossible, to open the door to other cultural norms and standards,” according to Tema Okun at Dismantling Racism Works.
There’s an even simpler way to connect perfectionism with racism. Ask the question: Who ― or what ― does perfectionism serve? The answer is jarring: Perfectionism serves those people and ideas that already hold power in our culture. In our white supremacy culture.
What difference does this connection make? After all, perfectionism is bad. White supremacy culture is bad. What does it matter if two bad things are connected? Well, for one, it means that perfectionism is a problem. A problem that cannot wait for when you have the bandwidth for personal work. It is a problem that perfectionists, like me, need to solve. Now. Black writer Catherine Pugh puts the responsibility bluntly: “Because racism is not mine, it is yours. What you do is not called ‘help’ when it is your mess we are cleaning.”
Connecting perfectionism with white supremacy culture also clarifies the problem of perfectionism. And that particular clarification offers its own solution. The solving might seem difficult at first. After all, if perfectionism were something you could just stop, there probably wouldn’t be thousands of titles on Amazon for the recovering perfectionist. Luckily, there is another option for us perfectionists. Accurate diagnosis offers its own antidote.
When you notice perfectionism, you can borrow a technique from mindfulness practices and cognitive behavior therapy and name it. But instead of saying, “That’s perfectionism,” you can say the truth: “That’s white supremacy culture.”
Perfectionism by that name doesn’t have that same allure, does it?
When you name perfectionism for what it is, when you put a finger on it like this, like a bubble ― pop ― it disappears.
A version of this essay was published in Forge.
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