Overcoming perfectionism in the fight for social justice

Melz Owusu
Melz Owusu

Founder of the Free Black University and a PhD researcher at the University of Cambridge

We know racism affects our mental wellbeing. And we also know that sometimes the voices of people from minority groups don’t get the same attention as others. That’s why for Black History Month 2022, Mental Health at Work will raising up Black voices, and asking our readers to listen and learn from these experts by experience.

In this blog post, Melz Owusu, the Founder of the Free Black University and a PhD researcher at the University of Cambridge, shares their thoughts on what makes an ally – and why you don’t have to be perfect to start talking about racism in your workplace.

I used to indifferently proclaim that I am a perfectionist – as if there were anything indifferent about the debilitating anxiety and stress that comes from trying to make everything I do absolutely perfect. I would set every goal in the skies and if I were to land amongst the stars, I believed there was nothing worth celebrating. It pushed me into a space of constant burn out​Burnout in the digital age: how to avoid workplace stress Web page Stress is something that affects almost all of us at some point in our working lives. This web page from Ben explores stress and burnout, explaining what they are, how work can impact them, and the warning signs to look out for in yourself and others.Free By: Ben View resource and sadness.

When you continue to aim for perfection you will always fall short, because perfection simply does not exist. We end up aiming and striving for an impossible standard – nothing that we do can ever be good enough. Sometimes it can become so paralysing that we end up doing nothing at all. Herein lays the real danger.

I have had to navigate perfectionism from many angles

For several years, I have worked in the space of decolonisation, queer and trans visibility​Supporting someone who is LGBTIQ+ Web page Sadly, people who are not straight or cisgender are more likely to experience mental health problems than the general population. This web page from Mind explores what you can do to help if an LGBTQI+ person tells you they are experiencing poor mental health.Free By: Mind View resource, and generally have been an advocate for a number of social justice issues. Through doing this work I have had to navigate perfectionism from many angles. As we live in an imperfect world the utopic visions of a society free of oppression is not a simple course to attain, and therefore I can at times look at this as if I am falling short.

It also means that there’s often someone way over there ready to critique and proclaim that for whatever reason the approach I am taking is wrong for whatever reason. I feel we don’t speak about this enough – amongst people that are committed to social justice we often come up against each other in cycles of criticism and looking down upon each other because we would have done something differently. Even the people that many of us will look at as really leading the charge have people in all corners that will criticise them from every angle. We end up demanding perfection from each other in incredibly harmful ways.

A lively board room discussion

It is also a question as to whether those who take on this role of constant critique are engaged in active work themselves? It can be a lot easier to theorise and criticise how others are doing the work when you haven’t been in their shoes, or done anything comparable to the work those on the other side of the criticism have.

You’re never going to do something in the exact way every single person thinks it should be done. You’re never going to make everyone happy. Sometimes you’re even going to let yourself down. Does that mean you shouldn’t do anything at all? Absolutely not!

We can be hard on ourselves if we are not living in our desired future immediately

I believe that many of us collectively have a desire to get free – to make the world a better place for all. But in a world that is so rooted in the injustices​What is moral injury and how do you deal with it? Web page Working in healthcare or the emergency services, it's likely you have to make difficult decisions that affect other people's lives on a daily basis. This could put you at risk of a moral injury.Free By: The Awareness Centre View resource we passionately fight against – it is expected that our fight will be imperfect because in many ways we must navigate and wade through the logics of a deeply imperfect society. We have visions of utopias, and we can be hard on ourselves and others if we are not living in that desired future immediately. We can look down on others if they are not perceived to be meeting our personal standards of how we think things should be done.

Two employees look unhappy

Recently I have been reflecting on the ways in which this creates a form of imposter syndrome​Amber Le Bon’s experiences of imposter syndrome Video Amber Le Bon shares her stories of uncomfortable moments in the industry, her anxiety and panic attacks, and of the 'little voice' she sometimes hears telling her she is not meant to be a model.Free By: The Be Well Collective View resource within spaces that should be based on community and collective support. By this I mean that sometimes people end up choosing not to try to do the work of anti-racism or various forms of social justice by virtue of fear that they will get it wrong.

What if instead of reprimanding others when things veer off course, we instead look at this work as a series of marvellous experiments? None of us know exactly how to transform the world as if we’ve been given a scene-by-scene playbook. Sometimes we will get it right, sometimes there will be an opportunity for learning and growth.

We need compassion for ourselves and others

This requires both trust and compassion. We must learn to trust each other more and recognise this as a radical act in a world that teaches mistrust amongst us all. If we are able to trust that each of us are doing the best that we can based on the ability and understanding we have – we can then approach each other with more compassion and understanding. We need compassion for ourselves and others, this is what allows us to move through this perfectionism and begin doing the work of social justice imperfectly in an imperfect world.

To begin something, you do not have to be perfect, you simply have to do the best you have with what you have. Be open to change​Coping with change PDF Change in the workplace is often inevitable, but the impact it can have upon employees will differ. This guide helps managers guide their staff through stressful periods of change.Free By: RBS Group View resource and refinement of your approach when new information becomes available. The greatest disservice we can do to each other – and the work – is not doing anything at all.

About this website

Your guide to mental health at work

Whether you work with 10 people, 10,000 people or just yourself, paying attention to mental health in the workplace has never been more important.

Find out more