We need to talk about an aspect of our culture, a pervasive value that has impacted all of us, for our whole lives. Perfectionism.
If we were lucky, it first happened in our early school days. Most of us learned from other kids or teachers about how we didn’t measure up. Not pretty, not smart enough, too smart, too quiet, too fat, not athletic, too poor, not sufficiently masculine/feminine, not light skinned. You remember. If we weren’t lucky, the message was made clear in our home.
Perfection underlies some great disturbing truths about our society, ones we don’t like to talk about. The media, our schools, our history books all pretend there is just One Good And Right Way to live life. The American Dream.
Instead of focusing on perceived inadequacies, yours or others’, try appreciating what people offer, especially those things that are new to us.
Try this. Envision the people in that dream. Is it a hetero couple? Are they young? Do they have children? What color is their skin? Are they Christian? Do they speak English? Probably.
Advertisers and the media (advertisers) help us envision and even covet the perfect life – the big house, the beautiful family, fulfilling work, plenty of money and toys.
That picture of the dream is what most of us end up striving for, consciously or subconsciously. But by its very definition, it is not achievable for the majority of people. We don’t fit the part. Who benefits when we make people in our society feel as though we do not measure up?
Capitalism is fueled when we collectively feel like we do not measure up. People who don’t measure up spend a lot of money and labor trying. [Historically, the reality of a ruling class and a working class was built into our country’s laws – or structure.]
In systems thinking lingo, it starts out as a goal to pursue, which increases the effort and precious resources we expend. And if we work hard, we make progress. We begin to close the gap, getting closer to the standard. Systems thinkers call this structure a balancing feedback loop. See Figure 1.
For many, however, the standard causes distress, and they turn their frustration inward at not being able to achieve the perfection goal. See Figure 2.
The fear of not measuring up leads to procrastination which fuels more negative thoughts, which increases our fear and so on. Systems thinkers call this structure a reinforcing feedback loop. It becomes more and more powerful, and more and more disabling. Another variation of this perfectionism trap happens when this negative thinking is turned outward to blame, and it becomes hateful and leads to scapegoating.
The end effect of these two structures (a.k.a. feedback loops) is to control members of society, and to channel our energies. This idea of having to be perfect is destructive. It’s time we reject it. Perfectionism constantly diverts our energy, and/or psychologically disables us.
Try this. Notice how often you reference perfection in the next week. What are you referring to? Do you really buy into that goal? Let’s become aware of how often we allow outside entities to define our goals. Those goals are ours. We can define success for ourselves.
Or try this. Instead of focusing on perceived inadequacies, yours or others’, try appreciating what people offer, especially those things that are new to us.
The American Dreams come in many different shapes and colors and places. They look very different for different people. Let’s appreciate the variety of experience that make up our collective identities.
That’s one thing that really does make this country great!
Okum, Tema; “white supremacy culture”; Changework 2001; dRworks, dismantling racism.org; https://www.dismantlingracism.org/uploads/4/3/5/7/43579015/okun_-_white_sup_culture.pdf
Synthesis of Okum’s work above: Showing Up For Racial Justice; https://www.showingupforracialjustice.org/white-supremacy-culture-characteristics.html