How perfectionism holds the South Asian diaspora back, and what we can do to break free

Perfectionism in the South Asian diaspora is a real thing. As a community, we value survival and stability so much that we place a lot of pressure to make sure we do our best to get ahead. Sometimes the mindsets we develop and teach down generations can have drawbacks in the long-run. One of these mindsets is a perfectionistic mindset.

So, what is perfectionism?

Perfectionism is a complex way we relate to the world and to ourselves. Often people assume it’s just about high standards, but it’s more than that.

People with perfectionism tend to 

  1. set high standards,
  2. be very self-critical (and sometimes very critical of people closest to them), and
  3. can be preoccupied with how others perceive and judge them.

Perfectionism is associated with a lot of mental health distress, which makes sense since we’ve found a way to relate with ourselves (and sometimes others) that is quite unfriendly, conditional, and stressful.

Why is perfectionism particularly a drawback for South Asians?

We can get so preoccupied by a deep desire to meet our ever-increasing standards, that we ignore our needs and successes. The inner critic can also distort our perception of ourselves, which can have an impact on multiple facets of our lives. For example, imagine what perfectionism does to how we view opportunities whether in the workplace or elsewhere, and what we think we have to offer? We may also be unintentionally be passing on and reinforcing these patterns of critical high standards with our loved ones, whether it is our partners or with our children as they learn how to make the most of their own potential. As a result, it can hurt our most important relationships. Learn more about other drawbacks here. 

Possible Reasons for Perfectionism

There might be multiple reasons some South Asians struggle with perfectionism. Some of the common themes that may have come up in childhood that contributed to this pattern include:

  1. Our families may have coupled their high expectations with criticism or punishment: As a result, we may have begun to associate our worth with our accomplishments and our mistakes with immense loss and pain.
  2. Being taught to be attentive to the family or community, in a way that seems to exclude or minimize your individual perspective: As a result we may feel more disconnected from our own experiences and focus excessively on what others expect. The very real panic-inducing “what will people say?” phrase in the South Asian community is a great example of this. 
  3. As a way to cope with discrimination or bias from within and outside the South Asian community. There might be a greater tendency to work as hard as possible, minimize mistake making, and to wear the “I have no flaws” armor when navigating bias or insensitivity (whether due to gender, religious bias, body size, skin color, caste, or racism), particularly if it comes from “our own.” 
  4. Desire to respect the sacrifices made: Sometimes there might be a deep desire (and guilt) to make our parents’ sacrifices worth it. As a result, there’s a desire to achieve as much as possible, but in a way that may make us discount our needs, history, personality, and qualities.
  5. A learned pattern of motivation through fear: Many South Asian families might be 0-3 generations away from living through traumatic experiences that forced a fear-based/can’t-afford-any-mistakes approach to life. Many family members may not have learned how to motivate using joy and empathy. As a result, we may have been given the only tools that our families understood as effective in helping with motivation and survival.

Now What? 

Now, at this stage of the blog post, if you relate to this dynamic, you’re probably criticizing yourself for being a perfectionist. Let’s pause that cycle now.

You might be one of the first in your family to ask and have the time to contemplate, “Can I do this differently?” 

Let’s try instead to offer yourself empathy and context to your experience. Take a deep breath, and ask yourself:

  1. What circumstances helped encourage this internal pattern?
  2. What did you get from it?
  3. What might you be losing from this pattern?
  4. What do you hope you gain from shifting this pattern?

Use your answers to help guide you as you shift out of this pattern. The key piece is to create an ally relationship with yourself. Some suggestions include:

  1. Acknowledge your and important others’ victories, no matter how “small” they might seem.
  2. Train yourself to notice and reward effort in addition to outcome.
  3. Offer empathy to yourself, as well as others. Fun fact: you can hold people accountable for their behavior and still offer empathy.
  4. Frame mistakes as opportunities to learn in a productive way. If you ever had a kind mentor who has helped you in the past, what would they say? 
  5. Include listening to your perspective in addition to others. It does not need to be an “either-or” experience.
  6. Create patterns that protect and nourish you long-term, including protecting your health through rest, rejuvenating activities, and creativity. 
  7. Respect your context. Context plays a big role in how we plan and set goals, and if you’re constantly ignoring your context, it becomes easy to set goals that are quite mismatched. 
  8. When the critic comes up with yourself or with others, pause and ask yourself, “What is the real message here, if I ignore the putdowns, the if only, or the shoulds?”
  9. Build two-way relationships with people who are also value motivation through encouragement and support, so you can help each other up when you fall down, through empathy, problem-solving, and connection.

Sometimes when we shift a pattern that feels entrenched in a culture, it can be scary. Remember though that if you watched a movie from the 1980s versus now (irrespective of where it was made), you will see the subtle and not-so-subtle differences.  We are all part of a community, and we shape and evolve our cultures all the time through our individual behaviors.