Future Present: Perfectionism Is a Trap; Embracing Messiness Lets Us Be Whole

So many are rushing to get “back to normal” — we think we can do better than the “normal” we came from. Business as usual was good for those in power, not for us. Future Present explores what we’ve lost that we’re better off without, what we can build in its place, and what new futures and ways of being we can imagine in this space of possibility. This series is launched in recognition of Autostraddle’s investing in a new editorial vision, new relationship to community, and top-down restructure of priorities and resourcing. We asked our community to invest in these possibilities along with us (and you did!), and are sharing this series as a promise of what we can do and be. This series is intertwined with our fundraiser to keep up the Autostraddle we love, and at the same time fuel a vision led by Editor in Chief Kamala Puligandla and Deputy Editor Carmen Phillips. We’ve now made our goal; thank you for helping us build the Autostraddle of your wildest dreams! Supporting us makes work like this article and the series it’s a part of possible, and we’re grateful we can now bring you more writing like this!

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Panic rose hot in my throat all day. That night I was supposed to cut my spouse’s hair for the second time, and it felt like a gargantuan task for which I was simply not equipped. I’m not a barber! As a kid I used to shave my step-dad’s head in the backyard, but Wynn’s hair was too cute to shave off. I was scared of messing it up and of them getting mad at me. (I was terrified of compromising my worthiness). I knew it wouldn’t be perfect, which felt like failure.

Of course — you probably saw this coming — it was fine. It was not the best haircut they had ever gotten, but neither was it the worst. When it’s not safe to have a stranger touching your head for 30 minutes, this is the best we can do. Perfectionism, a deeply internalized trait, makes the stakes of everything feel impossibly high and wrecks my sense of scale, so that prospect giving a haircut can lead to days of anxiety.

In the COVID-19 era, perfection is out of reach. Thanks to colossal governmental failure, a morally bereft culture of individualism, and a deadly virus we never saw coming, it feels like we are constantly trying to make the least bad choices among terrible options, and about decisions with much higher stakes than haircuts. I know people who have left unsafe jobs and who have stayed in unsafe jobs; people who are sending their kids back to in-person school and who are keeping their kids home and clawing their way through homeschooling; people who have traveled to the funerals of loved ones and who have mourned via Zoom. There are no perfect choices, only best guesses and deep breaths and crossed fingers.

Perfection has always been a myth, a false idol. It’s a trap set by white supremacy and capitalism. We should leave it in February 2020 and never look back.

Perfectionism stunts individual and collective thriving. The “White Supremacy Culture” framework developed by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun transformed the way I related to my own whiteness, to anti-racism work, and to my daily life. Though it aims itself at organizational culture, it applies to individuals and the ways we relate to each other too. The framework provides a list of characteristics of white supremacy culture, including defensiveness, worship of the written word, either/or thinking, and power hoarding. The characteristics “are damaging because they are used as norms and standards without being proactively named or chosen by the group. They are damaging because they promote white supremacy thinking.” The very first item on the list is perfectionism. Here are some of the aspects of perfectionism:

  • 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
  • mistakes are seen as personal, i.e. they reflect badly on the person making them as opposed to being seen for what they are – mistakes
  • making a mistake is confused with being a mistake, doing wrong with being wrong
  • often internally felt, in other words the perfectionist fails to appreciate her own good work, more often pointing out his faults or ‘failures,’ focusing on inadequacies and mistakes rather than learning from them; the person works with a harsh and constant inner critic

This understanding of perfectionism speaks to systemic and structural norms, often assumed rather than stated, that set white supremacist standards of behavior for everyone to comply with around etiquette, dress, goal-setting, achievement, and much more. These expectations make people feel like they can never measure up and create roadblocks to success for marginalized folks. Expecting perfection of others is toxic, and so is demanding it from ourselves. Perfectionism is rooted in lack and scarcity instead of abundance. It drives us toward individualism and self-reliance and away from mutual aid and community care. For example, it may drive someone to critically evaluate, through an ableist, white supremacist, classist lens, whether someone whose GoFundMe they see on Twitter is worthy of funds (or worthy of care). It may lead us to deny our own need for care because it might require acknowledging our imperfection, and we fear the consequences of that.

In the past few months I have had trouble extending myself any compassion when I have struggled enormously to complete tasks, whether it’s meeting work deadlines or keeping up with the damn dishes. Regular shame spirals are keeping me from nurturing relationships and showing up for my communities online and in Nashville. I am drowning. So many of us are drowning. A dear friend and classmate recently expressed a desire “to prioritize the stuff this year that I care most about instead of the stuff authority figures want me to prioritize. It is very hard.” We learn from toddlerhood to invest our perfection in systems and cultures that limit our thriving instead of investing our goodness and our dreams into communities and relationships that make us alive and make the world better for everyone.

Perfectionism, like the other characteristics, is pervasive and often subtle. We’ve seen this summer, like many times before, how it shows up when individuals and groups try to fight white supremacy and becomes part of how white supremacy sustains itself.

In the past few weeks, I have seen my fellow white people desiring to respond meaningfully to this summer’s global anti-racist uprisings and getting stuck at the “sharing Instagram stories and reading books” stage because they (we) are so afraid of getting something wrong, saying something offensive, or taking up space in the wrong way. As a result, we often remain passive — surely someone who knows more than me or is qualitatively better than me will do the work and I won’t have to risk either hurting someone or looking foolish.

The solution to this is not for white people to swing to the other extreme and ask a lot of questions, center our feelings, or demand that our Black friends teach us what not to do or say. There is plenty of that happening already. But for those of us who have ever felt frozen in place by fear, working to unlearn and divest from perfection — our own and that which we expect of others — could be a meaningful starting point.

The White Supremacy Culture framework offers antidotes to each of its characteristics, and of the several included for perfectionism, the one that I carry most closely is this: “realize that being your own worst critic does not actually improve the work, often contributes to low morale among the group, and does not help you or the group to realize the benefit of learning from mistakes.”

Let go of perfection and we can be creative, collaborative, compassionate, and authentic. Let go of perfection and we can see the best in our peers and accomplices, learn from our mistakes, and offer sincere apologies and practice repair when we commit harm. Instead of being trapped, we will grow. Instead of being afraid, we can be humble. Instead of assuming we know the perfect answers, we can participate in generative, collective work.

Like many people, I have been studying a bit obsessively about abolition this summer. I have sought to learn from the wisdom of teachers and dreamers like Mariame Kaba, Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Tourmaline, Dean Spade, and the coalition behind 8toAbolition. For more than a decade, I have believed intellectually in abolition but thought it was too fantastical. It didn’t seem like a perfect solution, so I didn’t know what to make of it.

But abolition doesn’t claim perfection; it claims to be messy, complicated, and evolving. In response to a class assignment, I co-organized a reading group with some of my divinity school colleagues so we could study together and consider how to put our learning into practice in Nashville. I was terrified to do such a thing, feeling unqualified and ill-equipped to facilitate discussion on something I am still getting my head around. Still, I moved forward, compiled readings, wrote discussion questions, proposed action steps. We had four challenging conversations in which we struggled with texts, asked questions, acknowledged what we didn’t know, made commitments to what we wanted to learn, and imagined how we might practice abolition in the micro-community of our university community. We tried to be realistic about what we could commit to as grad students navigating a pandemic. If we truly seek to practice abolition, we can’t bring perfection with us.

Abolition seeks to uplift human worthiness outside of the concepts of state-ordered guilt and innocence. It gives us visions of restoration, accountability, and transformative justice that center collective responsibility for creating a better future. It insists that no one is disposable. These radical ideas are possible, but they take time and resources to implement, which activists, organizers, and community leaders often struggle to acquire. If something doesn’t work perfectly the first time, those invested in the status quo take it as proof that the whole concept of abolishing police and prisons is a failure.

As Critical Resistance co-founder Rachel Herzing said on the Beyond Prisons podcast, “[Abolition] will not happen unless people clear a path for some of the things that people are trying to take hold, to gain some legitimacy, to have some space to actually get tested. We get a grant cycle or we get a tiny, tiny window to try something out, when the prison industrial complex is trying its stuff out on us all the time for decades and decades without remedying anything, but only creating more harm and violence.”

Based on centuries of evidence, the PIC doesn’t have to be perfect, and the government is constantly self-immolating. Imagine what would be possible if our communities claimed the necessary space to try things, to make messes, and to start again! I long and witness others longing for non-perfect relationships, workplaces, and movements with human well-being at the center. What would it take to create such a world? Some thoughts:

  • Core values of grace, curiosity, and patience
  • Networks of mutual care that nurture creativity, honor rest, and welcome growth
  • Divestment from productivity as a marker of success or worthiness
  • Shared resources and a collective commitment to ensuring each person’s access to health care, education, food, shelter, and joy.
  • Commitment to accountability and openness to transformation for self and others

This is far from exhaustive, and none of this is ground breaking. Even in the modern day U.S., communities of Indigenous folks, Black folks, queer folks, rural folks, workers, incarcerated folks, and more have modeled these possibilities. It is difficult, in this capitalistic hellscape, to imagine how we might begin to implement and scale new ways of being that are so contrary to the individualistic lie that those who have wealth and stability have done the “right” things and those who are marginalized have done the “wrong” things. But if we don’t imagine it, it will surely never be.

If we are to unlearn perfectionism, we should consider where we learned it and what we’re getting out of it. I’ll start. I learned that perfection would keep me safe when, as a child, my parent would become enraged if I made a mistake at my piano recital or someone arrived late to a holiday meal. My parent’s reaction the time I made snicker doodles and mixed up the salt and sugar plays in my head every time I make a mistake that feels like the end of the world even though it has no material consequences (like giving my love a haircut). I also learned it from the disciplinarian culture of schools and from the parts of Christian theology and rhetoric rooted in fallenness and condemnation.

Getting in trouble is my deepest fear, followed closely by being embarrassed. These fears limit me every single day. I learned to equate “doing wrong with being wrong,” as Okun puts it. I have sacrificed so much joy, connection, and possibility to this lie, but it has also kept me safe. Still, I know I have outgrown it.

A pandemic is a perfect time to unlearn perfectionism. We have so many chances to practice saying no. We have daily opportunities to let go of our anxiety over that email we didn’t respond to in time. We have constant moments to rethink our response to the adrenaline spike that happens when we see someone we think is being reckless or when we are worried we aren’t making the best, most safe possible choice. We have ongoing motivation to work on directing our anger and action toward institutions and people in power rather than our neighbors and loved ones.

I am not suggesting we be thoughtless or lackadaisical toward our relationships, our work, or our activism. I am firmly on team “caring is cool.” Rather, I propose that kindness, curiosity, and humility are far more important than perfection. I propose that rest and saying no and asking for help and acknowledging and repairing harm contribute to the personal and public good. If we leave perfectionism in the old normal, we can create something far better than perfect.

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Adrian is a writer, a Texan and a Presbyterian pastor. They write about bisexuality, gender, religion, politics, music and a whole lot of feelings at Autostraddle and wherever fine words are sold. They have a dog named after Alison Bechdel. Follow Adrian on Twitter @adrianwhitetx.

Adrian has written 153 articles for us.


  1. wow wow this is a wonderful article, and i’m excited to read more in this series.

    i’ve been really grappling with the “white supremacy culture” article since i first read it last year, since the values it describes are so deeply entrenched in me as a white person that it’s hard for me to imagine another way to be for a lot of them. this is such a thoughtful and kind deep dive, and i know i’ll be returning to it.

  2. I think the white supremacy culture article is useful but just kind of a statement without evidence? I’m not convinced that the values described are specific to whiteness. They seem way more specific to non-profits in the US context under capitalism, which I imagine is who they thought would be interacting with the training. Which, there’s an argument to be made that non-profits are usually white supremacist or that US capitalism is but that is not what the article does.

    Has anyone seen an expansion of these ideas that tries to illustrate that the qualities therein are specific to white culture or white supremacy? Or if theres one or several other cultural approaches in particular that they’re trying to contrast with I wish that were explicitly named. As it is trying to think of other cultures in primarily non white contexts, plenty have similar values.

    It seems like the authors are gesturing vaguely at Haudenosaunee philosophy by talking about 7th Generation thinking but it’s not named.

    It feels sloppy to me. Like… the things the article talks about are basically unhelpful or bad. But they’re not bad just because we called them “white supremacist” and they’re not white supremacist just because we said so.

    One reason the ellision of supporting argument bothers me is just for clarity of thought, but it also bothers me because I know the tendency leftists have in ‘cancel culture’ to throw names around for pretty innocuous activities. I.e. anyone who second guesses my narrative of abuse is a rape apologist. It’s easy to see this sliding into “your wanting me to be accountable to accomplishing a task in a timely way means that you’re a white supremacist”.

    I know that the referenced material is from a larger training and they only have so much time in a workshop and these ideas were written down with the intent that they would be discussed so I fully appreciate the authors for their gift of a starting framework of ideas. But I’ve seen it used a lot outside of that context and I think it’s time somebody fleshed it out since it’s getting so much airplay

    • Thank you so much for saying this, this is exactly what I was thinking when reading the cited article on white supremacist culture. It rings especially hollow and untrue to me having grown up in a non-Western culture, where all the markers of perfectionism are found

  3. Thanks for this article, your reflections are so on point.

    Always at the back of my mind is the saying “if you can’t do something perfectly don’t do it at all”, I may have heard it only a few times in this iteration but boi did it stick ! And it’s really damaged me tbh. I’m… not very good at things, it takes me a long while to learn, I don’t have much dexterity (or sinisterity, being left-handed), so I’ve consistently given up on learning to do things because of not being able to “master” a task quickly. And there it is, the word “master”.

    Letting go, allowing myself to just do something because I enjoy it, surrounding myself with like-minded individuals who are interested in being, learning and sharing their love and playfulness, has really been healing on a personal level, I can just imagine what it would do to whole communities.

  4. I really appreciate everything you’ve shared regarding how to overcome the perfectionist culture that’s become so commonplace over the last few decades.

    But I do disagree that perfectionism is somehow a result or symptom of white supremacist culture. I grew up in India, and the symptoms of perfectionism were everywhere, especially in the household: the culture of not performing classical music (in orthodox schools) until the student was “perfect” with their melody – usually taking upwards of 6 years , the same for orthodox classical dances where many gurus will turn away older learners because the expectation is that dance needs to be instilled while young or it’ll never be perfect, or the competitive culture around doing the best in your class, or festival rituals that demand exact attire & a full set of dishes made at home in exactly the right way. These symptoms existed far before India opened up its economy (and began a slow embrace of capitalism) in the 90s.

    What feels myopic to me is this idea that somehow white people managed to engineer all the bad things. White supremacy culture is believing that non-Caucasian cultures need to protected, and infantilising them by saying they can do no wrong, while self flagellating with an inward gaze.

    To be clear, white supremacy HAS left the world tattered and broken, and many many things can be attributed to it’s impact. Not everything, though.

    The US, and to a lesser extent, other Western countries, need to – for once – turn their gaze outward and learn to understand cultures that are not theirs before navel gazing.

  5. I let my annoyance with a citation get in the way of all my other feelings, so I want to reiterate and say that I really enjoyed the rest of your article, especially, ESPECIALLY regarding how that relates to abolition and how we need to discard that shackle of “perfect” so we can move towards a kinder future. <3

    YES to learning from other cultures, NO to defining all cultures in opposition to or in relation to Western Culture. YES to seeing cultures for their full, imperfect selves (including Western culture), no to the short-sighted gaze that seeks to rewrite all cultural imperfections in its own image.

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