Tuesday, January 28, 2014

I Am Whole, Not Perfect: Reflections on Black Girl Perfectionism

Like a classic perfectionist I told myself that perfectionism assisted me. It gave me the edge needed to survive and thrive in spaces where I was doubted due to my race, class, and gender. It made me feel more resilient against charges of inferiority because I could prove that I was intelligent, hard working, and therefore deserving.

Of course, the great lie of perfectionism is similar to the lie of respectability politics. There is nothing you can do to ensure that you are universally respected. This is particularly true if you possess identities which are marginalized and oppressed.

For me perfectionism became an unhealthy coping mechanism for my feelings of self-doubt and low self esteem no doubt provoked by the constant onslaught of racist and sexist microaggressions. I began to commodify myself by believing that I would always be sure to have value as long as I was producing, making things, winning awards, and busy in a quantifiable manner.

Black women tend to celebrate their perfectionism as if it's a benefit instead of a dangerous character flaw that can potentially lead to anxiety and depression. In fact, my perfectionism made me feel like an authentic Black woman for a long time since I was parroting the behavior of the Black women around me.

I normalized putting conditions on my humanity. I lost touch with own sense of happiness and began to believe that societal acceptance was of utmost importance. Even while I struggled with the reality that societal acceptance would never truly be mine.

Perfectionism cannot last forever. Mine lasted for almost four years. And in that time I amassed accolades and awards and accomplished many things that I am indeed proud of. But at the high cost of my emotional health.

It was a hard decision for me to not apply to PhD programs this application cycle. I felt like applying to graduate schools is what I was "supposed" to do and by not complying I was essentially admitting that I was not good enough to do everything at once: overload in academic units, work, complete finals, and turn in top notch PhD applications. I felt embarrassed to admit that I didn't feel like I had the time or the emotional readiness to prepare competitive application packets.

But being forced into the position of admitting that I cannot do it all at once has given me a freedom to start my recovery from perfectionism. Now I value wholeness more than I value being perfect. But recovery has not been an easy process.

Wholeness is not easy. It reminds me of the opening sentence to Toni Cade Bambara's novel The Salt Eaters: "Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?… Just so’s you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you’re well.” 

Being whole brings the weight of personal responsibility. I am now fully responsible for my own happiness. I can no longer live under the guise that happiness will be gained by unilaterally pleasing others and attempting to avoid pervasive and all encompassing stereotypes. 

Perfectionism was my easy way out. It was always easier for me to value what I did more than I valued myself. 

Now I have to accept that I will displease others. And most importantly, I have to accept that I am worthy not because of what I do but because of who I am. This is a difficult lesson to learn. It was the antithesis of what was drilled into me as the child of immigrants. It was the antithesis of what was taught to me as a Black woman. I never experienced  an unconditional caring and nourishing environment in academia: a place where I know I would have never even been noticed had I been "average." 

As I've attempted to break with these problematic ways of thinking the hardest part has been realizing that other Black women who are still stuck in the rut of perfectionism view my new-found liberty as an affront. I am now outside of the box I am supposed to be in so I am like a white girl. I am lazy and needy and entitled. I am expecting and asking for too much. Like Zora Neale Hurston sagely said many years ago: Black women are the mules of the world. And those of us who refuse that position are faulty instead of progressive. 

I remember being recently told that it is my responsibility to go above and beyond. It is my responsibility to work harder than everybody else. But I refuse to do this at personal cost to myself.

This has placed me in some uncomfortable positions, but at the end of the day I am making personal choices to ensure my own emotional health. 

I am now spending more time to myself. I am spending more time doing what makes me feel alive and healthy. I am writing. I am thinking. I am dreaming. I am spending time by myself. I am spending time with close friends. I am saying "no" to doing other people's work. I am even cutting my own workload. I am taking more sick days. I am pushing myself to envision my life path in less traditional kind of ways. I am learning to forge my own path. 

I am learning to accept that my burden as a Black woman is to be constantly questioned and devalued. And yet, to not internalize this so much that I treat myself like an inanimate object without my own unique feelings and desires. 

Perfectionism still has a hold on me. But that hold is gradually loosening as I continue my own individual process of decolonization of the mind. 


  1. Seriously. You have summed up every feeling I have had about myself in these past two years. I respect your mind and value your thought process. This is definitely an inspiration. Thank you.

  2. This is so wonderful - it reflect what I've been feeling for a while in my sixteen years of life. In this case, it's before I've entered college and the full barrage of people's expectations on my workload and happiness, especially how it coincides with my color and gender. I'm learning that I just need to *be*. I need to work hard, yes, but my working hard doesn't come in busybody flavors - it's mental concentration, emotional focus, and physical healthiness, all things I enjoy. This article reminded me that its all inward: strength, health and happiness. I hope I look deep enough. :)

  3. Thank you for writing this, for sharing your journey. It speaks to me so powerfully because I was there 10 years ago myself. Working, going to school, doing for others, never taking time for myself. And I was happy to do it. Or so I told myself. I was proud when I would hear others mention all of my hard work. I told myself that I liked living up to and exceeding their expectations. It didn't matter that I was emotionally drained and physically tired, those feelings simply served as proof that I was on the right path. But then I had an emotional break. A couple of days full of tears that I have only, even now, revealed to a few. A shattering dip into depression that I hid from others and slowly climbed out of on my own.

    But when I let go of the strive for perfectionism, of the strive to fulfill other's expectations, letting go of the unrealistic and overwhelming workload that I'd placed on my own shoulders, I felt relief. I had spent much of my life using perfectionism as a way to ignore my own insecurities and low self esteem. Masking my flaws and fears and hiding them away behind this perfect mask that was nothing like the real me. Snatching that mask off was a revelation. And I was scared out of my mind for sure, but ultimately I felt so much better. And even now, ten years later, I still have these bouts of anxiety where I wonder if I'm doing what I should be doing, or if I could do more, should take on more, expend myself just that much more; but the answers to those questions come more readily. I don't have to wonder for long, because my emotional health is such now that i know the answer before the question is fully formed: As long as I'm happy, then the path I've chosen, even when its hard, is the one I'm meant to walk.

    Some days it seems almost too simplistic a notion, but you know as well as I do that its anything but. Thank you so much for this reminder that I made the right choice. And I pray for strength, resilience, and courage for you as you continue on your path. Its not always easy, but its always worth it.