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It’s the flaw that many of us have come to proudly declare, but to what extent is perfectionism a strength to be celebrated? And what is the relationship between perfectionism and race? In this blog, I will explore the intersectionality between perfectionism and race, as well as sharing some practical tips for managing perfectionism.



 

What is perfectionism?


We know that perfectionism is on the rise (Curran & Hill, 2017) - but there is a gap in the evidence-based research on the intersectionality between perfectionism and race. Before we delve into that, it’s important to explore the different types of perfectionism, as coined by Hewitt and Flett (1991). To what extent do you resonate with these questions?

  • Do you set unrealistic goals or standards for yourself or are you overly critical of your perceived flaws/failures? (Self-oriented perfectionism)

  • Do you hold others to unrealistically high standards? Are you overly critical of their perceived flaws/failures? (Other-oriented perfectionism)

  • Do you think that other people hold high standards for you and will view you less highly if you don’t ‘succeed’? (Socially-prescribed perfectionism)


If any of these resonate with you, perfectionism is likely to be influencing your thoughts, beliefs and/or behaviour to some extent. For some, the idea of striving for perfection creates motivation, purpose and resilience in achieving goals and so becomes a positive part of people’s lives. However, this isn’t the case for everyone, as for many people perfectionism plays out as a fear of failure, causing them to take less risks, refuse/avoid help and deal with issues of procrastination and poor time management. It is important to note that perfectionism can change over time and manifest differently depending on the context. It is not exclusive to individuals from one group, perfectionism can thrive in almost any system. Therefore, it’s important we engage in an open dialogue to support friends, family and colleagues, to ensure the struggle for 'perfection' doesn’t impact negatively on an individual’s mental health.


 


How are race and perfectionism linked?


When exploring the intersectionality between perfectionism and race, let’s start by considering the systems you belong to; family, education, social, cultural, organisational – the list is endless. And if we know that racism infiltrates these systems, then it isn’t a leap to highlight the intersectionality between perfectionism and race. Raymundo (2022) explored the impact of perfectionism on Black students studying STEM at college and identifies this as a form of oppression for Black students – the pressure that is placed on high achieving Black students and the narrow definition of ‘success’, were found to perpetuate systems of white supremacy and anti-blackness... yet we still celebrate perfectionism as the ‘ideal flaw’. Below are a few other ways these systems intersect:


  • The concept of The “concrete ceiling”, (Otaye-Ebede & Shaffakat, 2022), where people from under-represented groups see that they have to work harder, longer and more ‘successfully’ to be considered for job opportunities – creating and fuelling self-oriented perfectionism in order to compete for these positions. (It can also result in feelings such as imposterism, but perhaps that is a blog for another time...!)

  • The knowledge that your leader has different views or expectations of you due to race – read Dear white boss... (Caver & Livers, 2002) for an explanation of how unrealistic demands on employees from under-represented groups can lead to a belief that they are expected to go above and beyond their role, to justify their position.

  • “You’re Asian! You’re supposed to be smart!” (Thompson, Kiang & Witkow, 2016) - The 'model minority stereotype’ (MMS) is one way that socially prescribed perfectionism exists. It is suggested this also works in reverse, when others expect under-represented groups to ‘fail’ and so individuals develop perfectionism to try and change the narrative and/or survive.


 


How can perfectionism be managed?


This will be different for everyone, depending on an individual's identity, experiences and beliefs. However, here are some starting thoughts to start embracing imperfection:


  • Explore the root of your perfectionism – which type is it? Where did it start? How does it impact your personal and professional life? What biases are at play? Give yourself time and space to reflect on this, either with yourself, a friend or a professional coach.

  • Reframe your thinking – I like the phrase ‘I have perfectionism’, as it helped me to shift the idea that perfectionism is part of who I am, to something of less permanence that I can control.

  • Recognise when it stops feeling like a strength and becomes a burden – this is when you need to seek additional support.

  • Partner - When creating deadlines, defining ‘success’ or developing strategies, work alongside colleagues to identify what is achievable with the timeframe and resources that you have.

  • Practise – notice when you are fearing failure, and lean into it – start with a small risk, or saying ‘yes’ to an offer of help; over time you will grow in confidence that what you offer is enough.

  • Time: accept that dismantling perfectionism is a process that takes time and hard work - you may not see instant improvements but over time, you can find a place where you celebrate your achievements, accept your mistakes as part of the learning journey and enable others to do the same.


The drive to do our best can take us through a whirlwind of experiences and emotions – all of which can impact our identities and wellbeing. It's clear that some evidence-based research is needed in this area, but we all need a reminder sometimes that perfection is an unattainable goal. So here's to some new conversations and new reflections, and a final thought to remember...

You are worthy, you are enough.


Cath x


 

References:


Caver, K.A. & Livers, A.B. (2002). Dear White Boss. Harvard Business Review. [Online] Accessed: October 2023.


Curran, T. & Hill, A. (2017) Perfectionism is increasing over time: A meta-analysis of birth cohort differences from 1989 - 2016. Psychological Bulletin, 145 (4) pp410-429.


L. Otaye-Ebede & S. Shaffakat, (2023) BME Women: Breaking through the ‘concrete ceiling’ to achieve career success. University of Liverpool.



T.L. Thompson, L. Kiang & M.R. Witkow (2016) “You’re Asian; You’re Supposed to Be Smart”: Adolescents’ Experiences With the Model Minority Stereotype and Longitudinal Links With Identity. Asian American Journal of Psychology, Vol. 7, No. 2, 108 –119.



Reflections on my experience of the Time to Think approach.


In recent months, I've had the privilege of joining an amazing group of women on a journey to become skilled Thinking Partners. As a qualified Thinking Partner, my role involves creating a nurturing space, posing thought-provoking questions, and most importantly, empowering individuals to think for themselves... think a little more... and then see how much further their thinking can go. I have been inspired by this experience and my reflections have deepened my level of self-awareness. In this blog, I am going to delve into my experience of Time to Think and reflect on how it can be a tool to support psychological safety in the workplace.



New beginnings


It’s day one of the course; I felt nervous, on edge, stomach churning, mind racing, all the ways anxiety plays out for me – but I hadn’t given myself the time to work out why... and so as soon as I was asked, ‘What would you like to think about...?’ tears streamed down my face. The opportunity to think about my feelings more deeply during a Thinking Pair led me to realise that I was nervous of how safe this space was for me to be vulnerable, honest and authentic. I knew I needed to be all of these things and more to get the most out of the course, both as a Thinking Partner and as a Thinker. It wasn’t only nerves that I felt, I was scared. Scared of judgement and scared to reveal my true self. I spoke, uninterrupted, for these 10 minutes, I was given full attention and afterwards the course facilitator hugged me and said ‘You’re safe here,’ - was it enough to feel safe? No, but those 10 minutes and that moment had certainly given me encouragement to be a little braver, to go a little further and to have a little hope that this space would be different, unique and safe.


Being a Thinker


When it came to being a Thinker later on the first day, I sat with my fear, noticing it but trying not to let it control me – I talked about past experiences that I hadn’t shared before, including how racism has affected my life and how lots of these experiences weigh on me to this day. Saying it out loud was liberating. Challenging the assumptions that I had allowed to be my narrative gave me a sense of control and empowerment. Like I had a choice of how to use these experiences positively, to understand they don’t define who I am, that I can choose to grow and develop and be a force for good. Who could have imagined that having time and space to think in this way could be so powerful? And what was it that allowed this space to feel safer than others?

It was striking that I could make progress on this in one hour, after a lifetime of resisting and putting the thoughts in a box. The Time to Think approach seems simple on the surface, but what I discovered was how powerful truly thinking for yourself can be. It doesn’t provide an instant fix, but it does promote self-awareness, challenge limiting assumptions and supports Thinkers to move forward positively in their lives, creating environments where people can learn, grow and flourish.


Bringing Time to Think to the workplace

When people feel safe, they can reveal their authentic selves. This vulnerability is the foundation of being able to admit mistakes, offer and receive feedback, as well as exploring creative solutions. Time to Think was a demonstration of how a leader’s commitment, and the words and actions that they use to support this, can be a powerful force for inclusion. Being told I was safe and then noticing how every behaviour, every movement and every word showed me that I was, made the Thinking Environment one that I could expose my inner thoughts and feelings, in order to think for myself and move forward with my challenges. How else might leaders use Time to Think to support psychological safety? A summary of my thoughts:


  • Start with a promise not to interrupt - it will change everything!

  • Listen, listen and listen some more... if someone comes to you with a problem to solve, try giving them uninterrupted space to think through their ideas and identify their own next steps.

  • Have a clear vision – spend time thinking about it deeply and create it with people who are different to you.

  • Articulate your vision aloud and then match every behaviour to this vision – simply saying ‘You’re safe’ isn’t enough, you have to use this as a lens to live by.

  • Be curious – about every person, decision and challenge that comes to your door - asking questions that help you to understand who they are, their experiences, the systems they are working in and the challenges they face, will empower your colleagues, particularly those from marginalised groups.

  • Simple doesn’t mean easy: we shouldn’t assume thinking just ‘happens’ - it is hard work, it takes courage to hold up that mirror, to be honest with what you see and to commit to moving forwards with something that might have been holding you back.

  • Appreciate: share your admiration for the qualities of people in your team, not just their outcomes, but the innate personal qualities that inspire you.

Time to Think is not a new concept, yet we remain in a world where thinking for yourself is so undervalued and happens so infrequently that we can easily forget its power. When was the last time you gave yourself time and space to think through an idea or challenge without interruption? I view Time to Think as a lens to live life through – empowering others to think for themselves and making a commitment to do this myself has changed my world. I’m proud and inspired to become a Thinking Partner, and I am looking forward to journeying further into the Time to Think world, and seeing how my relationships, career and life will benefit from doing so.

If you have something on your mind, let's chat and see how a Thinking Partnership can help you to move forwards and achieve your goals.



Microaggressions and anti-racism in coaching.


Systemic racism remains deeply embedded in our society, yet its impact on coaching remains under researched. While there is a need to broaden the evidence base and build on work such as Roche and Passmore (2022), I believe coaches can implement some simple, practical strategies to promote inclusion in their partnerships. In this blog, I will share my reflections on how I think coaches can develop their anti-racist lens and create an inclusive coaching partnership.

A group of diverse hands and arms reaching towards the centre of the image. Hands are placed on top of one another symbolising unity, collaboration and inclusivity.

Understanding microaggressions:


Microaggressions are subtle acts that perpetuate racism. Coaches who are informed about what microaggressions are and who reflect on their daily interactions, are able to be more mindful of their language choices. For instance, instead of asking, "Where are you from?" a more inclusive coach might ask, "Tell me about yourself...". Or, if you have commented on a characteristic of a client, such as ‘You’re so articulate for someone who...’, do an internal check on where this comment originated. Was it based on an assumption or a stereotype related to the client’s identity? Was the language offensive? Could the comment lead to the client feeling undervalued or discriminated against? Did it disregard or invalidate the client’s experiences? If the answer to any of these could be yes, it’s important we own it, apologise (we’re all human!) and then take steps to educate ourselves and begin actively unlearning and challenging the assumptions that contribute to racism and discrimination of other marginalised groups.


Recognising privilege:


Inclusive coaches acknowledge and accept the role of privilege in their practice. Privilege does not negate personal experiences but rather refers to the advantages gained due to certain aspects of someone's identity, such as being white or male. Coaches who are aware that their privilege may influence their perceptions and interactions with clients may still ask questions like, "What resources do you have that could help?" but are being cognisant that different individuals may have varying access to resources based on their privilege, as well as different levels of safety in accessing such resources. Similarly, if you are developing your own resources, are they reflective of a rich and diverse range of materials that are available? Is it tailored to a specific group or can it be used for all leaders/clients? Challenging ourselves in this way will reduce the impact privilege has on our practice.

Understanding the impact of privilege on bias:


When coaches reflect on how privilege affects their biases, they are more likely to engage in behaviours that create an effective coaching partnership. For example, how does interruption present for you when working with clients from marginalised groups? Research has shown that men interrupt women 33% more than they interrupt men (Hancock & Rubin, 2014). By noticing and addressing biases such as these in coaching partnerships, we can critically examine our own actions and prejudices, supporting coaches to work towards creating a more equitable coaching environment. If a client shares with you experiences where they have been discriminated against, validate their feelings, as comments interrogating the validity of this (e.g. asking what evidence the client has, or what another interpretation of the behaviour could be) minimises the experience and may lead to a deterioration of the coaching relationship as well as negatively impacting the client.


Embracing intersectionality:


Recognising that individuals can belong to multiple groups encourages coaches to create a safe and non-judgmental space where clients can share their lived experiences and how those experiences have shaped their identities. By acknowledging and valuing the intersectionality of their clients, coaches can provide more meaningful support, including identifying and challenging limiting assumptions.

Developing cultural competence:


Inclusive coaches are open to continuous learning, particularly about the history and experiences of marginalised groups. Acquiring this knowledge equips coaches with the confidence to sensitively challenge assumptions and fosters inclusivity in their partnerships with clients. When coaches make statements such as "I don't see colour," they perpetuate a system of white power. Addressing power dynamics and amplifying marginalised voices is vital for creating a true partnership in coaching. However, cultural competence is not sufficient on its own; anti-racism should transcend coaching sessions and become a guiding principle in all facets of life.


Celebrating Successes:


Genuine validation and acknowledgement of clients' experiences and achievements are crucial for strengthening the coaching relationship. As coaches, let's appreciate our clients with statements that reflect who they are as a person - how you admire or respect specific characteristics or how inspiring their values are. And if you receive a compliment, accept it and try to internalise it, even if you find this hard!


My concluding thought in this piece is the importance of coaches watching recordings of their sessions through an anti-racist lens. It can be difficult to notice and address unconscious bias in the moment and viewing recordings is a great way of bringing the unconscious into the conscious and then taking meaningful action. I hope these reflections may serve as a starting point for fostering an inclusive coaching environment, however, this is by no means an exhaustive list – it's important for us to continue the conversation and explore further ways to promote anti-racist practices within the coaching world, including issues surrounding training and accreditation. What additional strategies would you add to this list? What successful anti-racist practices have you witnessed in coaching?


References


Hancock, A.B., & Rubin, A.B. (2014) Influence of Communication Partner’s Gender on Language. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 34(1), pp 46-64.


Roche, C. & Passmore, J. (2022) Anti-racism in coaching: A global call to action. Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Practice and Research, 16:1, pp. 115-132.

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