Do you ever wish you were perfect? Wish you hadn’t dotted those eyes when you meant to cross those tees? Maybe you made a critical error in judgement and it fucked with you for the rest of your life? Maybe it was something as “simple” as saying something awkward to that cashier you keep wanting to hit it off with but you’re worried you ruined it now.
Well, you probably shouldn’t be hitting on people at their jobs, but I digress.
The fact is, many of us (most?) wish we were better versions of ourselves. I know that is true for me and for many others in my life. It’s also true for many people I see online who struggle with their mental health and the realities of capitalism (hint: it sucks) or just everyday regrets.
Whatever the case may be, society has taught us that there’s always a way to be better than what we are right now. And there’s nothing inherently bad or wrong about that message! It is absolutely true that we can always be better as individuals and how we treat others around us (including the planet and non-sentient living beings). But the real question is how we do that and capitalism’s answer is often: Buy more! Work harder!
But what if the ways in which you need to improve yourself require careful reflection? What if what you need is to relax in one place, with no money necessary, and meditate on your mistakes so you can move forward? What if working harder just exacerbates the issue and makes you more stressed?
What I’m getting at is that capitalism wants us to be a hyper-consumerist and hard-working society, yes, but they also want us to be perfectionists and that point is (mostly) well explored in this Jacobin piece:
Self-oriented perfectionism is the tendency to hold oneself to an unrealistically high standard, while other-oriented perfectionism means having unrealistic expectations of others.
But “socially prescribed perfectionism is the most debilitating of the three dimensions of perfectionism,” Curran and Hall contend. It describes the feeling of paranoia and anxiety engendered by the persistent — and not entirely unfounded — sensation that everyone is waiting for you to make a mistake so they can write you off forever.
This hyper-perception of others’ impossible expectations causes social alienation, neurotic self-examination, feelings of shame and unworthiness, and “a sense of self overwhelmed by pathological worry and a fear of negative social evaluation, characterized by a focus on deficiencies, and sensitive to criticism and failure.”
This is a new one for me because I too tend to use perfectionism in the self-oriented sense as well (see above). But the researchers cited in this article bring up an interesting point: Perfectionism doesn’t come out of thin air, in fact comes from others perceptions of ourselves. And, in a larger context, it comes from socety.
Who doesn’t feel like a total fraud when you slack off at work even though you know your job is total bullshit? Okay, some people can get away without much shame, but many of us can’t. Even those who hate work and want a better world and have some idea of what that may look like still feel pangs of regret and disappointment in ourselves for not working harder. Aren’t we supposed to love what we do? Aren’t we getting paid for this? How could we be so ungrateful as to shirk our responsibilities?
Again, some folks are immune to these social pressures (I’m still working on my immunity) and that’s valid, but for most of us, even in our anti-work prime we can still lament how we feel a bit of remorse in doing more or less nothing. I work with dogs for instance and I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent listening to D&D podcasts while they are barking. I pay attention to them as best I can, I break up fights if need be and I make sure their water bowls are full, but after that, well it can only be fun for so long.
Even a job that involves dogs, objectively one of the best animals on this planet (and often far superior to us humans) can be dull over a long stretch of time. You can only pet dogs so many times, pick up their shit, pet them some more, tell them they’re a good girl/boy and so forth before it becomes routine and not in a healthy or helpful way.best
But okay, back to the article!
Curran and Hall attribute this change to the rise of neoliberalism and its cousin meritocracy. Neoliberalism favors market-based methods of assigning worth to commodities — and it designates everything it can as a commodity. Since the mid-1970s, neoliberal political-economic regimes have systematically replaced things like public ownership and collective bargaining with deregulation and privatization, promoting the individual over the group in the very fabric of society.
Meanwhile, meritocracy — the idea that social and professional status are the direct outcomes of individual intelligence, virtue, and hard work — convinces isolated individuals that failure to ascend is a sign of inherent worthlessness.
One thing I’ve always disliked about takes like this is that it makes it sound like if government just had the right people socializing and regulating the public then everything would be great! But this is a myth as old as the unicorn and just as plausible. The history of government is the history of the ruling class and its tools of consolidated and centralized wealth used to oppress the working class, marginalized folks such as immigrants and queer folks, especially queer people of color.
That said, this buzzword “neoliberalism” (whatever that means) belies a basic fact about our economy: We all are competing over resources that are being monopolized by the ruling class. Politicians, capitalists, big-time stock investors, lobbyists, Wall St. upper echelon suits, whomever. The point is, and it’s a fair one, that we are often at the mercy of an economy that sucks out our individuality and tells us the solution is to confuse our self-worth with our productivity! Thankfully, we are worth more than that.
There’s also a criticism of individualism here that leaves a bad taste in my mouth (like bad cornbread, yuck). While many on the left claim we live in a hyper-individualistic society, this can only be said to be true if your idea of individualism is to treat the individual as disposable in the extreme. Whether it is corporations or governments our bodies are frequently and nigh consistently disposable to their own ends as long as they can profit in some ways. And that doesn’t always look like a monetary profit, sometimes a gain in power or social capital is enough. Whatever the case is, the individual suffers, wreaking our chances at collective empowerment.
One consequence of this rise in perfectionism, Curran and Hall argue, has been a series of epidemics of serious mental illness. Perfectionism is highly correlated with anxiety, eating disorders, depression, and suicidal thoughts. The constant compulsion to be perfect, and the inevitable impossibility of the task, exacerbate mental-illness symptoms in people who are already vulnerable.
As I said earlier, those who struggle with mental illness are already likely to dislike themselves or see themselves in the mirror and not like what they see (points if you got that reference). But add to that capitalism’s toxic message that you are only correct as an individual if you have the right car, the right house, the right kind of income, the right skin, the right sexual orientation, etc. etc. and you have a recipe for a huge amount of shame.
And as the study this article is citing notes, it doesn’t just happen to those struggling with mental illness but those who are more vulnerable or likely to fall into bad brain patterns. Capitalistic flavored perfectionism can wreck havoc on our communities and no matter how “queer friendly” they want to pretend they are or how “mindful” they want their workplaces, it isn’t enough. It won’t be enough until we make the system enough for ourselves. And that won’t happen till we abolish capitalism and the state.
One last thing, it’s a nitpick and slightly off-topic but…
It’s not hard to see parallels between the three dimensions of perfectionism and so-called “call-out culture,” lately the hegemonic tendency on the Left: a condition in which everyone watches everyone else for a fatal slip-up, holding themselves to impossibly high standards of virtuous self-effacement, and being paralyzed with the secret (again, not unfounded) fear that they’re disposable to the group, that their judgment day is around the corner.
The pattern is of a piece with other manifestations of neoliberal meritocratic perfectionism, from college admissions to obsessive Instagram curation. And because it divides rather than unites us, it’s no way to build a movement that ostensibly seeks to strike at the heart of power.
You know how people (and by people I mean right-wingers) say that “this kind of stuff is what pushes people to the right”? Well, this is the kind of shit that may actually do that, because it plants seeds into people’s heads that calling people out is now equivalent to a “judgement day”.
In fairness, I get the hate of call-out culture to an extent and it’s not like I don’t have my own criticisms of public shaming. I’ve had my own experiences that, for better and worse, color my understanding of what call-out culture looks like and I think there can often be better alternatives. But calling people out often is not synonymous with “cancel-culture” or treating people as disposable, not necessarily anyways.
It can be a wake up call and a way for folks to grow and learn from their mistakes. Instead of treating it like some sort of fundamental attack on their ego, people are better off treating it as a way of making themselves better, but not in a perfectionist way.
Wanting people to be aware of their mistakes and especially when they’ve hurt others is not the same as saying people are never perfect or should be perfect. This is a gross simplification and one that relies on right-wing caricatures of the left at its base. The idea that we’re all waiting for someone else to slip-up is just not true (I’m watching for the memes, mostly), most people inevitably slip-up and hurt other people.
That doesn’t make it OK though and I think it’s fine if others want to call attention to that. Take the recent case of Chelsea Cain, I don’t know a ton about her but I know she is a cis woman who tried to write trans folks in fiction, did poorly, didn’t take the feedback well and then offered trans people to look at her work and edit(?) it for free. As in, you know, “for the exposure” basically. Needless to say, Twitter wasn’t happy about this.
As a result, Cain has recently deleted her Twitter account due to how much negative feedback she got. Now, I’m not here about to defend every single comment but on the other hand, what a shitty thing to do, right? On all fronts, trying to raise our voices but then not listen to them and only to try to raise them through exploitative means says many things about you, but most of them are not kind. Is this some sort of “judgement day” for Cain though? I doubt it. If she was in a position to get this kind of attention to begin with then it seems unlikely she doesn’t have backups.
Still, I think it’s always good to reflect on how capitalist norms of perfectionism can seep into our own leftist mores around morality itself and how we judge each other. There’s something to this inane criticism, but it needs more fleshing out and less basing itself off of right-wing criticisms to resemble anything informative or helpful.
Ah well, as they say…pobody’s nerfect!
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