In Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun’s article, “White Supremacy Culture” in Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, they outline several characteristics of white supremacy culture. I’ve written about one of them, individualism (as opposed to individuality, a law of nature), in my Reflections newsletter. Today, I’m going to talk about that insidious character, perfectionism, and my experiences with it.
According to Jones and Okun, perfectionism is groups shows the following characteristics:
- little appreciation expressed among people for the work that others are doing; appreciation that is expressed usually directed to those who get most of the credit anyway
- more common is to point out either how the person or work is inadequate
- or even more common, to talk to others about the inadequacies of a person or their work without ever talking directly to them
- mistakes are seen as personal, i.e. they reflect badly on the person making them as opposed to being seen for what they are ó mistakes
- making a mistake is confused with being a mistake, doing wrong with being wrong
- little time, energy, or money put into reflection or identifying lessons learned that can improve practice, in other words little or no learning from mistakes
- tendency to identify what is wrong; little ability to identify, name, and appreciate what is right
There are other things I’ve seen personally, that happen where perfectionism intersects with white identity, especially in predominantly white institutions like the academic, Pagan, and Unitarian Universalist communities in which I often have found myself.
Perfectionism Lurking in the “Demand for Excellence”
One is that perfectionism, the demand for nothing less that the absolute best, the excellent, the perfect, keeps power in the hands of a few at the top of a pyramid, who are the arbiters of excellence. I have been in congregations where the desire for “excellence in worship” has meant that taking risks with worship—for example, allowing the Spirit to play in truly multigenerational services—has been squashed.
Don’t get me wrong, I have been called a stickler for excellence in worship and ritual myself. And maybe that is a manifestation of my own perfectionism. I’m not sure. I know that want worship/ritual to be transformative, to make a powerful difference in the lives of those in attendance, whether leading or participating in other ways. But when that desire leads to rigid structures and fear of taking risks, then we’re running into trouble.
Speaking of not taking risks…
Perfectionism is a tremendous enemy in the struggle for Beloved Community. Why? Because of that fear of being wrong, that fear that nothing but absolute correctness is allowed. And so white people, in particular, keep our mouths shut when we need to be practicing rising to the defense of those with less power than we have. Rather, we need to run the risk of being wrong.
After all, we (again, people with more power than not) will be, we are often wrong, as all human beings are often wrong. Or rather, in this case, the impact of our words and actions may be hurtful. Of course we don’t want to hurt people, but we need to take the risk that our good intentions are not enough, that we will screw up, need to apologize for letting those around us down, and commit to doing better.
Not taking risks leads to paralysis.
Perfectionism and Paralysis
And paralysis leads to withering on the vine. My father, may his memory be for a blessing, was hired with tenure at a major Research I university in 1969. Nowadays, he would not have been hired with tenure. He was, however, hired as an assistant professor with tenure. And he retired, over thirty years later, an assistant professor.
On one hand, he was never promoted because he loved what was not valued: He loved teaching undergraduates more than anything else in the world, really. In fact, he loved it so much that he spent hours and hours and hours preparing for classes, reading, studying, grading, and researching in ways that he colleagues would never do for undergraduate classes.
I’d bet you any amount of money he did more research than many of his colleagues who were promoted again and again.
So why wasn’t he?
Because he couldn’t publish anything about his research. He could talk about it, he could think about it, he could teach beautifully about it. But he absolutely could. Not. Publish.
Because of that insidious monster, perfectionism. He was too afraid of being wrong in the public sphere, of changing his mind, of being caught out. He was paralyzed. He believed that if he wrote something wrong, it was evidence that he, himself, was wrong. That somehow, in the center of his being, was a mistake, a cosmic error, and that to put his words down for posterity was to risk everyone knowing it.
Both my brother and I have, blessedly, overcome the particular fear of public writing in some ways. (See Peter Buckland’s book of poetry, Heartwood, his many articles on culture and the environment, and his fantastic, thoughtful fblog http://peterisintheforest.wordpress.com.)
Perfectionism and Judgment
Perfectionism also brings paralyzing judgment of not just ourselves, but also of others. It keeps us from collaboration, from risking the contributions of those we think of as “less than,” and from truly engaging collective wisdom. And it is collective wisdom that gives me hope for Beloved Community.
Remember—we are all in this together. Whatever “this” is, we are in it together. Because every single thing we do is connected to all other things and is influenced by all other things, what we withhold and what we offer affect the rest of history. Perfectionism, rooted in shame and paradoxically an attempt to erase that shame, says that we must go it alone.
But we cannot go it alone. We cannot. It is literally impossible. When we believe that there is “a perfect,” we are deluding ourselves. When we believe that we must attain that perfect in order to avoid shame or embarrassment, we are deluding ourselves.
The Illusion of the Perfect and the Reality of Shame
There is no perfect.
There is no way to avoid shame.
There is only going through shame, coming out the other side through acknowledging our humanity. Through acknowledging that we, like others, make mistakes and even, sometimes, it must be admitted, have acted out of anger or malice.
And yes, this preacher is preaching to herself. (Imagine grinning emoji here.) I certainly I. A famous quotation of mine from many years ago is this: “I’m not a perfectionist. I screw up everything single thing I do.” And that is the crux of it, isn’t it? The belief that we cannot ever measure up, the belief that not measuring up to some impossible standard makes us less than human – makes others less than human – that is the center of perfectionism.
We are all human, all of us of every race and every other marker of identity.
We all need each other.
We all have valuable contributions.
We can all benefit from reflection and time to understand why things have happened the way they have happened.
Commitment to do better matters.
Doing better matters, but we’ll never, ever do all of it perfectly, and that’s just the way it is.
But is there love, compassion, tenderness available, even here?
I believe there is, and I offer it to you today.