Perfectionism – a Harmful Idea Rooted in White Dominant Culture

Blog post by Zanna Ekeroth. Through writing this, personal reflections and new awareness surfaced; the first paragraph in italics speaks to those internal reflections.

I remember taking on my first job in Canada after moving across the Atlantic. I was just as excited as I was worried about not living up to the expectations. Most of all, I was worried about my English not being good enough. I installed language correction platforms on my computer (secretly, of course) and spent probably half an hour proofreading emails before sending them. Making language mistakes made me feel like a failure, unworthy of this role I was in. To me, I wouldn’t be able to be “successful” at work if my English wasn’t perfect. I valued English as more important than my first language and even felt that reading books in Swedish was a waste of time – time I “should” spend improving my English instead. Having battled with perfectionism my whole life, I thought it was a personality trait driving this behaviour. It took me many years of (un)learning to be able to unpack where this feeling really came from –  internalized colonialism, classism, and other systems of oppression. While I didn’t grow up speaking English, I grew up in a country in which White dominant culture is embedded into the society (that is, despite its reputation of being one of the most socialist countries in the world).

Perfectionism is one of the main characteristics of White dominant culture, as identified by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun. It shows up in individual values and behaviours, work cultures and social norms where mistakes are seen as a negative reflection of the person who is making them. Perfectionism pushes the idea of fault-finding. It makes us more concerned about how we are perceived by others than the actual impact of our work. The fear of making a mistake limits us – not only on a personal level but it’s also standing in the way of meaningful social change. “As long as we are striving to be perfect according to someone else’s rules, we have less energy to question these rules and to remember what is truly important“, as Tema Okun so wisely said.

It’s time to see perfectionism for what it is – a harmful idea of holding ourselves to an unattainable “standard” that is deeply rooted in capitalism, ableism, sexism and other systems of oppression. Perfectionism is a toxic ideal that harms all of us – just like hustle culture, individualism, and other characteristics of White dominant culture. I don’t mean to say that we all suffer from these oppressive systems to the same extent. Not at all. My white skin and European passport have saved me from experiencing the oppression other immigrants in this country have to deal with. Still, regardless of our identities, we all have a lot to win from dismantling these destructive ideas based on false beliefs of normalcy and superiority. It will help us flourish as individuals and communities and it will contribute to a more equitable and inclusive society as a whole.

Let’s not let the idea of perfectionism be a gatekeeper standing in the way of doing the meaningful work that we are so capable of doing. The striving to become a better person (or organization) shouldn’t come from fear but from compassion. The end goal shouldn’t be perfection but a mindset of continued learning and collective growth.

We invite you to reflect on the following:

  • How does perfectionism show up in your work or day-to-day life?
  • What is that “perfect ideal” you are shooting for? Who set that standard?
  • Knowing that perfectionism plays in favour of current power structures, how can we move away from fault-finding and viewing mistakes as failures to a place where we practice acceptance, compassion and appreciation for ourselves and one another?

In our next Equity & Inclusion in Co-ops Community of Practice on September 28, we will focus on Systems of Oppression. Sign up here, come and learn alongside other people in the co-op sector, discuss how different characteristics of the dominant culture show up, and explore antidotes to them.

Credits & learn more:
White Supremacy Culture, Tema Okun
White Supremacy Culture – Still Here, Tema Okun
Dismantling Racism Workbook
Artwork by Melanie G. S. Walby