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Hanging Up the Cape of Perfectionism

We produced the following article as part of our annual Therapy for Black Girls campaign in honor of Minority Mental Health Month. This year Therapy for Black Girls focuses on “Hanging Up Our Capes.” Join us as we release ourselves from the externally and internally imposed pressures of showing up as “superwoman” in order to prioritize our well-being and foster healthier, more authentic relationships with ourselves and those we love.

“You must be twice as good to get half as far.” How many of us have heard this phrase before?  Whether it was from a family member, colleague, or Papa Pope during one of his infamous monologues on Scandal.  It is a concept that has been embedded in Black culture as part of our collective consciousness. It is a prominent belief. However, that does not mean it is helpful.  

Now don’t get me wrong, I understand where this concept came from.  Black people have consistently been perceived as less-than, so we could be kept in a category that mainstream white American culture saw fit.  The inhumane treatment of Black people had historically been justified by White Americans by reinforcing the belief that we were less than them. Less human, less intelligent, less qualified.  Always less.  So, to combat this narrative, we had to do twice as much, be perfect, go ten times harder, to slam our way into rooms where we had the right to be in the first place.

RELATED: Session 44 – Perfectionism

However, excessive expectations and perfectionism can harm our ability to grow and thrive as individuals and as a culture.  When we emphasize working harder than everyone and trying to achieve more than everyone, we miss out on so much.  We miss out on the joy that comes with the process.  We miss out on engaging in activities just for the fun of it.  And most of all, we miss out on an opportunity to rest.  When we don’t provide ourselves with opportunities to rest, we open ourselves up to a wealth of mental health difficulties under the guise of success.

Perfectionism is truly anxiety in costume. The pursuit of perfection is often rooted in fear– the fear of being wrong, the fear of being embarrassed, the fear of letting others down, etc.  Our pursuit of perfection may also be linked to our childhoods and how our families dealt with our mistakes and even their own.  Many people learned that mistakes were bad because they were met with anger and frustration when they made them.  As a result, we make a concerted effort to avoid them.  When adults respond to children’s mistakes with anger or negative emotions, children learn that there is something wrong with mistakes.  The same goes for when we do not apologize to each other, especially our children.  Apologizing not only normalizes mistakes but also builds empathy and combats the feelings of guilt, shame, and fear that are attributed to mistakes.  

The weight of perfectionism impacts people from all walks of life.  We place these expectations on family members and peers as well.  We expect them to fulfill our ideas of what we believe excellence or perfection is because when one of us wins, all of us win.  So you must be perfect and become the first, the only, and the best.  Everything is riding on you, which can be exhausting and even breed resentment.  Sometimes, that resentment comes from living up to values and expectations of success that are not our own. It may be helpful to find where your interests and values intersect with the needs of your community.   You can be an artist who emphasizes social issues, a bookstore owner who focuses on literature that uplifts marginalized voices, or even a doctor who donates their time and/or money to organizations that work to impact the Black community positively.  

RELATED: Why Community Care is the Perfect Companion to Your Self-Care Practice

Our definition of success can also be myopic.  Success is often connected to attaining a certain job title, income expectations, or prestige which can be incredibly limiting.   What if we shifted our expectations regarding success and Black Excellence so that we don’t just include the people who are heading up fortune 500 companies and living lavishly?   What if we expanded it to include the Black men and women prioritizing their peace, asking for help when they need it, and prioritizing their mental health? If you ask me, I think this would help Black people as a community to give ourselves the grace we deserve to help us heal from our collective and individual traumas.

The pressure to be perfect, obtain success, and be the picture of Black excellence are heavy burdens to bear. These burdens often rob us of the opportunities to make mistakes and learn from them. When we place these burdens on ourselves as adults, we often do the same to our children.  As current and future elders of the Black community, we have to decide how we choose to relay the legacies of perfection, Black excellence, and success to the coming generations. Do we provide them with the privilege of rest, or do we tell them to focus on what will be the most financially lucrative merely?  Rest is necessary, especially for a community of people who have endured and l are still enduring hardships, injustices, and inequalities.   You have earned the right to live, rest, and thrive as you see fit.  You have also earned the right to define what Black excellence and success mean to you.  Remember that you embody Black Excellence every day that you choose to walk in your truth and not fall prey to the burdens of perfectionism that others have placed on us.

Here are some tips if you’re struggling with perfectionism as a Black woman today: 

  1. Identify the source
    When it comes to perfectionism it is important to identify the source of what you are struggling with. You cannot heal what you do not reveal.  There can be many contributors to perfectionism such as being self-critical, having unrealistic expectations, and social comparison, just to name a few. 
  2. Identify your strengths and opportunities
    If you have difficulty being self-critical it can be helpful to identify your strengths and opportunities for growth from an objective point of view.  It may be helpful to do this with a supportive friend whom you trust.
  3. Practice gratitude
    Another way to approach being self-critical is to start a gratitude journal.  So many times we forget the things that are special about ourselves, the things that make us unique and fantastic human beings.  Gratitude journals can help with this.  You can ask yourself questions such as what are three personality traits that I am grateful for, what is an accomplishment that I am proud of, what is a hobby that I enjoy, and why? 
  4. Establish realistic expectations
    It’s also important to acknowledge whether you are establishing realistic expectations for yourself.  Sometimes we can hold ourselves to ambiguous finish lines. For example, “I have to accomplish this goal by a certain age,” when no one is forcing that on you.  Media also tends to perpetuate this pressure by focusing on things such as top 30 under 30 lists and always stating our accomplishments by our age.  It is ok to adjust your standards to best serve you, this is also a form of self-care.
  5. Write a list
    Make a list of your goals and break them down into measurable steps.  This can make the goals feel less overwhelming and provide you with greater opportunities to reward yourself. 
  6. Avoid social comparison
    Social comparison can also be a trigger for your perfectionism.  We live in a world where social media can be a big part of our lives, but be mindful of how you feel when you follow certain accounts.  If you find yourself feeling negative or less than, hit the “unfollow” button and don’t look back.
  7. Identify triggers
    Also, work on self-monitoring so that you can identify whether there are other triggers for your perfectionism.  For example, do you notice more negative or perfectionist thoughts when you are tired, hungry, or experiencing a transition? Once you identify triggers, you can work on finding coping skills to help manage these difficulties. 
  8. Find a mentor
    Mentoring can also be a way to combat perfectionism.  It can be hard to have realistic expectations when you don’t have an accurate barometer to measure by.  Mentors are a great resource for support and identifying goals.

Discover the transformative power of healing in community in Dr. Joy Harden Bradford’s debut book, Sisterhood Heals. Order your copy now!

Sisterhood heals
Order Now

Looking for the UK Edition?
Order here

Discover the transformative power of healing in community in Dr. Joy Harden Bradford’s debut book, Sisterhood Heals. Order your copy now!

Looking for the UK Edition? Order here