Therapy for white supremacy culture: Perfectionism

A white person with impeccable posture, dress, and grooming is holding a large book open in one hand while pointing to a lesson written on a chalkboard. In this way, they embody the perfectionism of white supremacy culture.
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Last week I wrote about fear, the foundational characteristic of white supremacy culture, and how Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) can help us overcome the ways that fear prevents us from acting on our values and living a meaningful life. This week I will continue the same topic, but focus my attention on another grouping of characteristics of white supremacy culture: perfectionism, “one right way,” paternalism, and objectivity.

First, let’s briefly define these terms. Tema Okun, the author of the original article on the characteristics of white supremacy culture, defines perfectionism as follows:

Perfectionism is the conditioned belief and attitude that we can be perfect based on a standard or set of rules that we did not create and that we are led to believe will prove our value. Perfectionism is the conditioned belief and attitude that we can determine whether others are showing up as perfect and demand or expect that they do so. White supremacy culture uses perfectionism to preserve power and the status quo. As long as we are striving to be perfect according to someone else’s rules, we have less energy and attention to question those rules and to remember what is truly important.

The other three characteristics of white supremacy culture that I will focus on today are grouped together with perfectionism because of the ways in which their meanings overlap.

  • “One right way” is the belief that there is only one right way to live and accomplish tasks and hence contributes to the understanding of “perfection.”
  • Paternalism is the belief that the people in power have exclusive authority to define perfection and the “one right way,” and do not have to be accountable to anyone else. Oftentimes, people without power internalize the beliefs of the powers that be in order to survive.
  • Objectivity is the belief that emotionless rationalism is possible, desirable, and clearly superior to emotionality, and that those in power are in power because they have achieved this.

The first thing you might notice about this set of characteristics of white supremacy culture, as opposed to fear, is that they are beliefs rather than emotions. ACT teaches that both emotions and beliefs can have a huge influence on how we choose to live our lives—on the actions that we take. In the following sections, I will share how perfectionism and its companions have interfered in my own ability to act on my values.

Love and perfectionism: white supremacy goes for the heart

Perfectionism is incompatible with love. If I believe that perfection is possible and that I should aspire to it, then either I will try and fail and therefore be unable to love myself, or I will convince myself that I have attained it and look down on others who have failed in my eyes to do the same. One of the core elements of love is respect, and the belief that anyone has failed to achieve what they should achieve leaves no room for respect. “One right way” and paternalism have the same problem. Objectivity is based on a faulty understanding of emotions, and therefore fails to incorporate another core element of love: knowledge.

In my own life, I have struggled with low self-esteem and feelings of unworthiness, all of which stemmed from a belief that someone else had what I didn’t have (perfection, the one right way, authority, the truth), and if only I could achieve that, I would be good enough. My belief in my unworthiness made self-love impossible, and the suffering that this caused made it much harder for me to care for others in the ways that my heart wanted to.

Humor

My dad never appreciated or understood my sense of humor, and since I had internalized him as the authority figure in my life who had access to “the one right way” and the objective truth, I let his opinion influence my own opinion of myself. This caused me to not even consider developing my sense of humor or my artistry with it until my late 20s.

Justice

In my work with people who care about justice, some of the most common reasons I hear for not taking more action to replace racist policies with antiracist policies in our communities are influenced by perfectionism and company. And if I’m being honest, I’ve been similarly influenced for a lot longer than I’d like to admit.

Perfectionism: “I’m worried about making a mistake.”

“One right way”: “I don’t know how to make change.”

Paternalism: “I don’t want to break any laws.”

Objectivity: “This article/politician says that the racial situation is better than it’s ever been, and those activists just seem so angry and irrational.”

Healing

I believe in the power of responsibility, meaning that if we make different choices, we will create different outcomes. In a culture that just seems to accept that with old age comes bodily dysfunction, responsibility can be a powerful philosophy for supporting healing. However, when combined with perfectionism and its concern with worthiness, the path towards healing becomes much more painful and treacherous.

My own healing journey has taken much longer than it had to, in large part because of my own distrust in myself. My internalized paternalism caused me to try to read every book and attend every class in order to learn the objective truth and the one right way towards wholeness. And my internalized perfectionism caused me to punish myself every time I failed to stick to a treatment plan that was so clearly a better source of information than my own lived experience.

Spirituality

“The first rule on the spiritual path is to stop blaming yourself.” I heard these words spoken by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the founder and spiritual teacher of the Art of Living Foundation, when I was attending an Art of Meditation class in Los Angeles in April 2012. You’d think that having an authority figure like him give me permission to drop my perfectionism would have been hugely helpful to my spiritual practice and subsequent spiritual growth, but ironically my own internalized perfectionism, planted there no doubt by generations of white authority figures, proved much harder to dethrone. When I look back at my history of spiritual inquiry and practice, and the growth that I’ve experienced, I clearly see how white supremacy culture influenced me to be much more dogmatic in my practice than was healthy for me. If I failed to meditate consistently, I was a failure. If I heard about another spiritual approach that my gut told me might be good for me—like mindful self-compassion—my internalized “one right way” prevented me from truly trying it out, for fear of allowing temptation to compromise the “purity” of my approach.

Responsibility

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar taught me that responsibility is the key to my power. Sadhguru taught me that my ability to respond is limitless. Combined, this means that I have access to limitless power, if I choose to use it. But when perfectionism entered the picture, the ways in which I responded now reflected on my basic worthiness. What if I respond and I make a mistake? What if I respond and someone judges my response? The simple answer in each case, unencumbered by white supremacy thinking, is that now I have a new situation to respond to and therefore a new situation from which to access my limitless power, but for my mind to even get that far I would have had to get past the “obvious” catastrophe of making a mistake or being judged by someone I deem to be an authority. In this way, perfectionism can be a killer of responsibility.

Community

Though I have never been in possession of much authority, as a proud social justice warrior, I have at times believed in my own moral superiority over people who do not see eye to eye with me on every issue. This belief in my own “one right way” and objective truth, and the resulting disrespect I felt towards others who fell short of my own definition of moral perfection have hampered my ability to build community with potential allies.

So what does ACT have to say about all of this?

Thoughts and beliefs are just words. They have no power over us unless we give them that power. You can’t control what thoughts pop into your head and you can’t control what beliefs you have been conditioned to hold. But you can train yourself to have a new relationship with these thoughts and beliefs. One in which you neutrally observe all the emotions, thoughts, and beliefs as they arise, and examine how they impact your actions, with a specific lens towards how they affect your follow-through on your core values. If a belief tends to stop you from acting on your values, it is not a helpful belief, and ACT teaches us to practice “defusing” that belief. This means that we practice seeing this belief as just a set of words that we do not have to listen to or identify with if we don’t want to. Defusion is a skill, and it requires practice, and obviously perfectionism may cause the process to take longer than we’d like, but that’s okay. That’s life. My dad always says that anything worth having is worth working for. And if you ask me, a life unencumbered by white supremacy culture, and its attendant fears of unworthiness, is worth having.

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Nauser Bear is a licensed marriage and family therapist in California (LMFT#123099; licensed with the BBS as Nicholas Jon Reynolds). To work with Nauser, send an email to nauserbeartherapy@gmail.com, call (510) 394-5373, or schedule a free 20-minute consultation by clicking here.

Disclaimer: This blog and comments on it do not constitute medical or mental health advice. If you are in need of support and live in California, contact me to set up a consult to see if working together is a fit. Otherwise, seek mental health support in your area. If you are in danger of hurting yourself or someone else, please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention hotline, which is available 24/7, at 800-273-8255.

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