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Mental Health & White Supremacy: Reconsidering Perfectionism

Do you think of yourself as a perfectionist?

I have both considered myself a perfectionist and been told I act like one for nearly all my life. While it made life difficult - I could never finish working on a paper for college until it felt perfect, which could be paralyzing - I always felt it also yielded high rewards. I was a straight A student, I was respected by my professor, and I was checking all the boxes for the ambitious life I wanted to lead.

But why did I value perfection so much? What purpose did it serve? It never really made me happy - but it did make me feel safe, which at certain times in my life, was even more valuable to me than happiness.

Like urgency, another tenet of white supremacy I’ve discussed on this blog, perfectionism - or striving for perfection - can make us feel safe and secure. If there is one right way to do something - write a paper, make a piece of art, parent a child - then surely we can master it if we just work hard enough. Even if we fall short, at least it’s clear what we did wrong. This false sense of control meant a lot to a younger version of me that did not feel she had much control of anything. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve challenged the impact of perfectionism on my mental health. But recently, I’ve begun to consider perfectionism more broadly and the way it upholds exclusion, violence, and white supremacy.

Maybe at this point, you’re not on board with what I’m communicating. I invite you to consider Tema Okun’s words on this, which I wish I had read ten years ago when I was in the depths of rigid white supremacist culture through academia, which wreaked havoc on my mental health:

There is no relationship between perfectionism and excellence. Perfectionism is the belief that we can be perfect or perform perfectly. The question has to be asked: according to who? Who decides what perfect is? Perfectionism is the conditioned belief and attitude that we can be perfect based on a standard or set of rules that we did not create and that we are led to believe will prove our value. White supremacy culture uses perfectionism to preserve power and the status quo. As long as we are striving to be perfect according to someone else's rules, we have less energy and attention to question those rules and to remember what is truly important. …We might be fighting power out in the world but when we are perfectionist about how we do that, we preserve a toxic power structure internally. Excellence has more potential to be defined by and for us. …Excellence requires making and learning from mistakes.

What would it look like to define excellence for yourself, and with your community? And how many different ways could you achieve excellence, instead of the one right way perfectionism demands?

Interested in learning more? Here is a list of common ways perfectionism shows up in our lives. You may notice that perfectionism can lead us to feel that we are bad or imperfect when we cannot achieve its demands. What to do about it? Try cultivating a practice that prioritizes appreciation, celebrates multiplicity and honors subjectivity. When you feel pressured by perfectionism, name it for yourself, and name it as white supremacy culture. The goal is not to eliminate the desire to do well - there was nothing inherently wrong with wanting to get an A on my papers in college! The goal is to be able to get some space from perfectionism, to be able to question it, even to be a bit critical of it and decide if you’d like to opt in or out of the need to feel like you have to be perfect in life. I can tell you that a twenty year old version of me would have rejected this - but she needed to hear it. There is no right way, there is no one way, there is no such thing as perfect, and striving for it alienates us from the joy and community we may value most in this life.

Interested in learning more about tenets of white supremacy culture? This document explains different facets, as does Okun’s website.


Sam Barklow,LCSW, MSW, is a psychotherapist with a Master of Social Work (MSW) who provides individual and couples counseling. She is a warm and empathetic counselor who believes that all of her clients have the knowledge and abilities to feel more at peace and balanced in their daily lives. She views counseling as an opportunity for both her and clients to explore different perspectives, talk through emotions and practice new skills.

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