Perfectionism's roots in trauma & inequity
The importance of self-compassion, burnt out students, disability and pain advocacy, and craving human relationships.
Over the past year in being knee-deep with my projects, one thing that’s come up relentlessly has been this concept of perfectionism.
For the longest time, I had thought that perfectionism was serving and molding me into the most “perfect” version of myself.
I couldn’t have been farther from the truth.
Perfectionism kept my work stalled, emails left unreplied, and unpublished drafts of my newsletter collecting dust. It was the ruminating voice of not being enough, even when everything around me was silent.
A few reflections came up in building a healthier relationship with perfectionism:
1. Perfectionism is a coping mechanism for trauma
When we’ve faced adverse reactions to our work, we naturally build a fear response to avoid these feelings in the future. “If I change this about myself, then I won’t face these painful critiques.”
This made me really good at shape-shifting to fit everyone’s personal preferences. From my design work to my queer Asian identity, I kept molding parts of myself around external feedback. Whenever I faced harsh rejection, I blamed myself for not being “perfect” enough.
Undoing perfectionism has been about releasing decades of painful comments to rewrite the narrative of my own identity, and realizing that the work of adversity was not mine to overcome, but the work of others who perpetuate pain to own themselves.
2. Perfection is a part of a larger capitalist industrial complex
In our last newsletter, we shared this concept of capitalism needing to recruit members to keep its ideology going. Perfectionism is the same and works to pull others into the larger industrial capitalism complex.
The word “lazy” first appeared in English around 1540; even back then, it was used in a judgmental way to mean someone who disliked work or effort. Many etymologists believe it came from either the Middle Low German lasich, which meant “feeble” or “weak,” or from the Old English lesu, which meant “false” or “evil.” These two origins illustrate the odd doublespeak at work whenever we call someone lazy. When we say someone is lazy, we’re saying they’re incapable of completing a task due to (physical or mental) weakness, but we’re also claiming that their lack of ability somehow makes them morally corrupt. It’s not that they’re tired or even dispirited in some way we might sympathize with; the word implies that they’re failures on a fundamental, human level. The idea that lazy people are evil fakers who deserve to suffer has been embedded in the word since the very start…
…if an enslaved person was slothful or “lazy,” there was something fundamentally corrupt and wrong with them. Enslavers made it a point to keep enslaved people as busy and exhausted as possible out of fear that idle time would give them the means to revolt or riot. Even more disturbing, enslaved people who tried to run away from bondage were seen as mentally ill and suffering from “runaway slave disorder.” By not accepting their proper role in society, they were demonstrating that they were broken and disturbed. This worldview became the foundation for American capitalism.
This notion of labor (and quality of labor - aka perfectionism) to quantify our value in society was exactly what inequitable leaders institutionalized to extract high-quality labor from us. The void within us is to be filled with labor - faster, smarter, and better than the next person.
Going back to the previous point - this institution was never meant for us to take on ourselves. We cannot be the arbiter of destiny within a system not of our own.
Letting go of perfectionism is to release quantifying our value as humans through labor. (We’re all worthy of quality life)
Letting go of perfectionism is to let go of the system of over-extraction.
Letting go of perfectionism is an act of liberation.
3. The antidote to perfectionism is compassion — a lot of it
Perfectionism is the delusion of an incomplete self. It is impossible to fix our way out of what was never broken, to begin with.
Compassion is the tool that ejects us out of this endless loop to create a new narrative and way forward. Self-compassion invites patience, trust, and kindness for ourselves to learn new ways of holding space for our labor. And as we shed our constructs of perfectionism, we develop healthier and more sustainable ways of engaging with ourselves and the world around us.
…or maybe helping us turn the idea we’ve been ruminating on into reality.
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For our community
(TODAY) For BIPOC: Tue, Nov 15 - BIPOC Healing Space (with Dr. Kim Grocher)
For queer Asians: Thu, Dec 8 - Yellow Glitter Sparkles
For queer BIPOC creatives: Tue, Dec 13 - UX Nights (with Maurice Cherry, Raquel Breternitz, and Ube Urban)
Something to Read
We are deeply associated with the identity of “can’t” & to get out of it, we need to shift our internal attachment with this identity.
We avoid negative emotions, including working with perfectionism.
Moving forward through building our tolerance with small doses.
Shifting ourselves is a long-term process rather than something quick & simple.
Something to Watch
Loved this talk by Dr. Travis Chi Wing Lau on disability and pain advocacy and awareness. Insights around the historical context of disability & pain, the reframing of disability joy, and the inequity of pain within our society.
Something to Listen
Really enjoyed the depth of this episode of Team Human, featuring Janelle Orsi, co-founder of the Sustainable economics Law Center, who shares the importance of relationships within our society. Many important points including why our existing financial system (and reward) cannot be libratory for our future, centering our indigenous communities, and the role of law within an equitable future.
As always, thanks for reading!
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Have a beautiful day!