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Value Yourself

Perfectionism as colonialism and context

By February 2, 2022May 11th, 2023No Comments

Have you had experience of perfectionism that you think was actually based on structures and what people assume of you?

This video explores a bit about how perfectionism can stifle us. However, I also argue that it can also be colonialism.

(the wind tried to silence me here so I’ve captioned it)

We can consider perfectionism in 2 flavours: 1) perfectionism to restore or protect one’s self-image and 2) striving for things to be a certain prescribed way.

My own experience:

While I was completing my PhD, there was a restructuring of the department that affected me tremendously. My PhD supervisor lost her job in the process. I was not given another supervisor to replace her. I was treated (as the only Caribbean student) as if I should be grateful that I was allowed to study there at all.

Thus, my striving for ‘excellence’ and perfection was an attempt to inoculate myself from these judgments. The more certificates and awards I displayed, I thought, the more respect I can earn… Hell, I might even have self-respect and self-worth. But it hadn’t. Instead, it led to overwork, underappreciation, and an acceptance of bullying behavior and exploitation throughout my life and career.

The temptation is to avoid these experiences by limiting yourself and self-censoring in these environments. I did not: I wrote a scathing letter to management. Much later, I got an apology.

If you don’t join the game, you will never have the opportunity to learn by doing. You never really get rid of the doubt but sometimes, you live with it for so long, you forget it’s right next to you always ready.

Athene Donald, in her blog, talks about doing tasks you’re not exactly an expert in. Taking on things you don’t necessarily know how to do can spur you to do the leg-work to get up to speed.

This is what I spent my first year doing. The first time I presented my work at a conference, I felt like an anxiety-ball; I felt I had swallowed a towel! I was petrified.

I had been projecting an image of success that I didn’t really feel. I presented myself as though my confidence were like old leather shoes. I fixed it to my body as though it were molded on yet it was only gently laid upon me.

I didn’t even realize my image of confidence was solely skin deep, easily dislodged with a crack of the voice and a jittering of the hand while presenting to an audience of my peers. However, my presentation was well-received.

Having succeeded, I built my resilience – with the knowledge that I did something really challenging and survived. Thus, I’ve been fitted with a tailor-made comfortably confident image – my time to thrive!

It takes courage to feel that fear and still make a commitment to take action. With practice, we become less fearful.

It takes compassion to realise that often we won’t become less fearful. But at least we can live with it next to us – as part of who we are.

My own ,research that I conducted with a clinical psychology doctoral student (Dr Ho-Yin Chan) also shows that perfectionism is contextual and modern living is not making it easy! We found that higher levels of personal striving perfectionism and socially-prescribed perfectionism (due to their perception of others placing high standards on them) were associated with higher anxiety in young people.

Neoliberalism has increased younger people’s competitiveness, anxiety level, preoccupation with social comparison and materialism as people adapt to perfecting their lives in relation to others.

Neoliberalism is closely related to meritocracy: those who achieve higher social status (e.g. education and professional standing) are viewed as more deserving and in possession of personal abilities that gain success (e.g. intelligence).

The combination of neoliberalism and meritocracy imposes a great pressure on young people to strive to secure their value in society.

Trying to attain approval from others can paradoxically increase one’s social disconnection and decrease one’s wellbeing.

It helps to live with your eyes open to these contextual factors, so you can shift into an enlightened perspective — where you can be more bold with your ideas and more confident in your performance and knowledge.

    • Becoming aware of our own thinking and the context in which we experience these intrusive thoughts about productivity, ability, capability, quality, and competence can help us to listen and observe more effectively when they happen.
    • We need to find people who can help us find empowerment, who can advocate for us so we maintain psychological safety.
    • We need to listen to our values and take valued action.
    • We need to situate our drive and ambition without considering the bricks laid by those controlling the system. This is not to make us feel walled out, but to ensure we see broader structures, so we can navigate around them.

Limit your social comparison. Question your assumptions. Find your courage but also your humility. Embrace imperfection. You are all of the things! You are the little imperfections but you are all of your values, experiences, and skills that you’ve racked up over a lifetime.

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