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Am I “worthy”?: Perfectionism and Ableism

Author: Tl McMinn

Perfectionists are often portrayed as high-achievers; they are your top athletes, academic superstars, and entrepreneurial geniuses. They have a high work ethic, great attention to detail, and are diligent about getting things done. These can be amazing qualities to have and many successful people have these traits, but true perfectionism is less about getting things done and more about making sure that everything you do is done perfectly. Perfectionism and disability are linked, not because perfectionism is a disability (it isn’t), but because through ableist ideals people with disabilities have been made to think that they aren’t good enough or that they aren’t a whole person. This perception of disability often insights a need to prove that they are worthy of perfection; but perfection is relative, and many of these ideals are skewed by an ableist projection of what is and isn’t “perfect.”

Being a perfectionist means that individuals put upon themselves impossibly high standards. Perfectionists in leadership positions often impose those high standards onto other team members, and if tasks are not done to their level of perfection (which they usually aren’t), the criticism can be hurtful and damaging to an individual’s self-worth. The idea of perfection, in the mind of a perfectionist, is inextricably tied to a person’s self-worth and self-esteem; even though everything they do may not be perfect, they expect it to be, and when it isn’t to their level of perfect, they think less of themselves. In the mind of a perfectionist, anything they perceive to be a “failure” makes them look bad and inhibits their ability to be viewed as successful, important, or to gain a semblance of worth from other people and themselves. 

As humans, we are fallible, meaning we make mistakes and usually often. Although this is a good thing, as we learn from our mistakes and try to do better, perfectionists view this fallibility as a flaw and as something that needs to be fixed. The irony is that, often, their expectations of perfection are the reasons why they “fail” or aren’t able to achieve their goal. This is because perfectionists are prone to procrastination, have exaggerated performance standards, have difficulty letting go, and are extremely self-critical. And although perfectionism isn’t itself a mental health condition, expecting perfection from yourself and others can have severe psychological and/or physical consequences. For example, perfectionists (and those impacted by them) often experience increased levels of stress, anxiety, and depression because in their minds, asking for help is a sign of weakness. Studies have also found that high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease are more common among perfectionistic people.

So how are ableism and perfectionism connected? To answer this, let’s first unpack ableism and why it is harmful. Ableism is a form of systemic oppression that affects people who identify as or are perceived to be disabled. People who have ableist views live with the belief that non-disabled folks are superior to those with disabilities. Like most oppressive viewpoints, how they are enacted varies in extremes; • from acts that seem “unharmful” but aren’t, like thinking that an employed disabled person is inspirational, • to acts that are physically and mentally harmful, like thinking that it is okay to abuse someone with a disability because they are “conveniently vulnerable,” • to systemically harmful acts, like forced sterilization. To further frame the relationship between ableism and perfectionism, I am going to share a story about myself as an example.

I am a perfectionist. I know this about myself, and it is something that I have been fighting against since early childhood. If I didn’t get every question right on a test (and I rarely did), I felt like a failure, no matter who tried to persuade me otherwise (my teachers, my mother, etc.). This was particularly true when it came to maths; maths has always been an impossible subject to me, and as a child, I would have nightmares about having to do mental math quizzes in school. Those short ten-minute quizzes that seemed so easy to everyone else only added to my feelings of guilt and self-loathing, because I couldn’t do them. I would sit and stare down at the page on the brink of tears and think: “I can’t do this; I don’t understand the questions, so why even try?” For most quizzes, I would be lucky to get 1 answer down out of the 10 or 20 questions on the sheet. At the time, this was probably assumed to be test or math anxiety, thinking that I didn’t study hard enough, that I didn’t finish the homework, or simply lacked the intelligence to figure out the questions. Now I’m able to see that this had nothing to do with my intelligence; not being able to answer those questions had to do with my issues with perfectionism that was exacerbated by a learning disability I didn’t know I had until I was an adult: dyscalculia. Because I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to get the “perfect” mark, there was no use in trying. In my mind, getting a 0 was better than getting some questions right and some wrong. And although it would take me a long time to realize this, my “failure” at these quizzes had nothing to do with me not being smart enough, it had to do with the fact that my need for perfection was ableist.

But why was it ableist? As a person with dyscalculia, experiences with maths are torture, because numbers don’t make sense. Performances of mental maths are particularly painful because they require you to remember how to perform equations without examples or guides. People with dyscalculia are often able to understand mathematical concepts but are usually unable to apply those concepts to an actual problem. So that shows that the design and implementation of the quiz were ableist, but what about my perfectionism? 

For a long time (and still today), there was an understanding that if you had a disability, particularly a visible or intellectual disability, perfection was unattainable, because having a disability meant that there was something “wrong” with you. People saw disability as something that needed to be “fixed,” that because someone has a disability they are somehow less-than people who do not have a disability. How people have sought to “fix” or “cure” disability has evolved through the ages, from religious intervention (prayer, exorcisms, etc.) to medical means, that included institutionalization and the implementation of eugenics. Eugenic practices, which are “the selection of desired heritable characteristics” and the deselection of undesirable heritable characteristics that would be used “to improve future generations,” were built on this idea of “perfection.” Thus, an “ideal” or “perfect” person couldn’t have a disability because having a disability meant that you were “imperfect.”

This ableist perception of perfection is still true today, particularly for those that require and use accommodations. Accommodations are supposed to “level the playing field” so that all people, regardless of ability, can reach that same level of perfection within any particular institution. But what happens if someone still isn’t able to achieve that level of “perfect” that you and everyone else expect? In the mind of a perfectionist, the accommodations weren’t enough because they aren’t enough. The fact that it might not have been the right accommodation or that it needs more modifications wouldn’t be a factor in their reasoning, the focus would solely be on that “perfect” wasn’t achieved because their disability is a weakness, a flaw, and something that needs to be fixed. 

So why is perfectionism ableist? It’s the dichotomous thinking that perfectionism seeks to conform everything into “perfect” and “not perfect,” and ableism seeks to prove that disability is inferior to able-bodiedness. It is because the “…negative connotation” of disabilities is a “projection of fears about facing one’s own imperfection and finiteness” (Martz). As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, the word disability inherently implies imperfection, and to a perfectionist, able-bodied or disabled, perfection is the ultimate goal. But what needs to be understood is that “perfect” is relative and universally impossible to achieve. Perfectionism expects a level of perfection that no one can achieve. This is why instead of expecting “perfection” from ourselves and others, we need to “appreciate the unique qualities that they and others have in differing capabilities, amounts, and levels” (Martz) because humanity is imperfect, but that might be perfect enough. 

I hope that this article has inspired you to revisit the idea of ableism, perfectionism, and standards that may be impacting your workplace. If you need help with any of these areas, feel free to chat with an associate.

Header and Feature Image by Angelina Litvin on Unsplash ❤️

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