VIEW: Perfectionism — The Fight I Will Never Win

Black women are not perfectionists because this is an innate personality trait, but because of the larger system of race-based discrimination we operate within.
Alexis Yeboah, Minnesota Women’s Press columnist

It took a long time for me to think of myself as a perfectionist, the word and connotation as I understood it did not seem to apply to me. But then I heard Brene Brown’s definition of perfectionism, a self-destructive and addictive belief system. It fuels the primary thought: “If I look perfect, live perfectly, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize painful feelings or shame, judgment and blame.”

For me and many other Black women, I think it goes deeper. Perfectionism is a survival mechanism for operating in a white supremacist, patriarchal society.

As a Black Woman, I have been told and taught that I have to do more to get less. Be more, be better, kinder, smile more, perform.

It took me months to get back to writing this column for fear that my next essay would not be as good as my last, or that I had nothing valuable to say.

I think back to a much younger version of myself, when I would agonize over being one of the good kids. Even as a child in elementary school, I knew how detrimental it was to my future to not be perceived in the best possible light.

I look at what has happened to gymnast Simone Biles — the constant movement of the goalpost, only to be told you are too good, so we are going to dock you for having skills other gymnasts do not. The target is in sight, but never attainable.

As a nation we’re on the cusp of having a Black woman Supreme Court Justice. I implore you to watch attentively how perfect and clear her background, education, family, record on the bench will be — will have to be. I think about the public scrutiny she will face while having to sit as a colleague to Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett, each of which have somehow been acquitted by the court of public opinion, not judged for the very notable, very public sins of their pasts. I am sure whomever a Black woman candidate might be will not be granted that same latitude.

A spotless record won’t be enough. Her character — her humanness — will be up for debate and scrutiny. 

When I think of all this, there is no surprise that I, and almost every Black woman I know, is a perfectionist, striving for excellence. Slowing down at all is cause for immediate judgement. Perfectionism feels inescapable.

There is research to back up this claim. Lambert, Robinson and Ialongo (2014) found that experiences with racial discrimination were associated with increased socially prescribed perfectionism. In other words, Black women are not perfectionists because this is an innate personality trait, but because of the larger system of race-based discrimination we operate within.

As I wrote about previously, when speaking about the Emotional Labor of Black Women, none of this comes without a price. High stress, anxiety, and depression are precursors to serious health impacts — heart disease, high-blood pressure, stroke, and other chronic conditions.

Perfectionism is expensive.

Often when I write this column I am prompted to end with thoughts about: “What is the solution? What can we do to make this not be the case?”

To be honest, in this case, the only thing I can end with is that being a perfectionist is not my problem to fix. It is the problem of those in power to change.

If you are a non-Black person, I challenge you to do your work and think about how you are contributing to a system in which Black women are forced to be as close to perfect as possible. Think about how the bar you have set is different for Black women and how you react if and when we exceed your expectations for us.

For Black women readers — perfectionism is not our cross to bear.

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