Overcoming perfectionism in the fight for social justice
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 constantand 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,, 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.
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 thewe 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.
Recently I have been reflecting on the ways in which this creates a form ofwithin 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 toand 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.