This post was written by Angela Koreth & Maliha Khan.
A part of the human condition is a need to strive. It stimulates our minds, inspires creativity, and allows us to grow. However, the quest to strive can often put unsurmountable pressure on many in society, and in particular, in the Desi community (pronounced as “They-See,” this is a loose term for persons of Indian, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi birth or descent who live abroad) because of unique factors that come with being a part of this BIPOC group. Overall, it is hard to strike a balance between healthy striving and perfectionism.
Perfectionism vs. healthy striving
Healthy striving is about setting realistic expectations of ourselves and others. With this mindset we view ourselves as worthy not because of what we have to offer, but because we are human. It helps us experience our errors as a natural part of the journey, which ultimately allows us to bounce back more quickly. Additionally, with healthy striving, our desire to grow is based on what we want rather than the pressures of what others may think.
Perfectionism, on the other hand, is holding ourselves and others to a set of unrealistic and often unattainable standards. Perfectionism is problematic because it makes us believe that we must be perfect to be worthy. So long as we are achieving, we feel worthy, but as soon as we hit a block in the road it shakes up our view of who we are. Rather than our struggles being a place of growth, perfectionism makes us view them as failures.
Why it’s a problem for Desis
Talking about our struggles can be a touchy subject, especially for South Asians. Being South Asian comes with the label of being a model minority. Desi families often come from generations of a deeply ingrained idealization of appearing perfect. Conversations at family gatherings surround our children getting into reputable schools, buying their dream home, finding the perfect match for marriage, and getting the latest model of Mercedes. Couple this with a collectivistic mindset which views an individual as a representation of the entire group, and you have a recipe for an environment which stifles sharing the struggles one may be going through, or seeking help.
The struggles we face are kept under wraps because we believe that if they come out it will reflect poorly on our family’s image in the eyes of others. When we lack an understanding of how hard others worked to reach their goals we start to believe that our challenges are a reflection of something innately wrong within us. We don’t get to see someone else’s first draft on reaching their goal. All we see is their arrival at their dream destination. We compare our day 1 to another’s day 300 and begin to wonder why things are so challenging for us.
This ultimately results in a negative impact on our emotional health and well-being. Research conducted in the UK reported higher levels of depression and anxiety in middle-aged Pakistani men and older Indian and Pakistani women when compared to their similarly aged White counterparts. These levels were consistent even after adjusting for variation in socioeconomic status. Studies also show that South Asian youth in the U.K. and U.S. have many challenges due to high expectations and pressure. Ignoring our emotional needs may lead to worsening health.
Coping with and challenging perfectionism
Perfectionism contributes to problems with procrastination, stress, anxiety, and depression, so understanding some healthy ways to cope and challenge our thoughts is key to managing perfectionism.
- Strive to be healthy, not perfect. Set a standard that striving and being good enough is ideal.
- Challenge your behavior and beliefs. Try to redirect your thoughts with positive statements and constructive thinking. Statements such as, “It’s okay if this isn’t perfect, nobody is perfect,” or, “I’m doing the best I can and that’s good enough,” are healthier.
- Set realistic and manageable goals. Perfectionists become overwhelmed by the size of a goal. Break down big-picture goals into smaller, manageable chunks and celebrate each smaller accomplishment.
- Have a relaxed mindset. In moments of perfectionism, try to press pause. Practice relaxed deep breathing or taking a walk. Then allow yourself to reflect on this question: “What will happen if I’m not perfect?”
- Feedback is not failure. Learn to give yourself grace and self-compassion. What might you say to your friend in a similar situation? What advice would a friend give to you?
Desi community as whole
The Desi community has an opportunity to lead with compassion and contentment. Research in the U.S. has noted that there seems to be an aspect of ethnicity that contributes to the development of perfectionism. A possible explanation for why is that there may be an aspect of the Asian-American culture that facilitates the development of perfectionism by harsher parenting styles and that ingrained in the Asian-American-American culture is an emphasis on education and achievement.
A healthier approach for families is emphasizing that we are all a balance of strength and areas for growth. Families should encourage growth and lessons learned, rather than the current state of “perfect.” Gentle comments about the difficulty of the task or appreciation of effort can help strip away fear or shame that comes with failure or unexpected endings. When mistakes become a source of shame, curiosity will be stifled, emotional wellbeing will be sacrificed, and avoidance will take place. There is opportunity here for the Desi community to embrace and create safety when individuals struggle with perfectionism. The community can provide lessons on how to get back up, be stronger and braver than before.
About the Authors
Angela A. Koreth, MS, LPC-S, is the program director of Menninger’s Partial Hospital and Intensive Outpatient Programs. She also sees clients at the Bellaire location of Menninger’s Outpatient Services. Her specialties include premarital and marital counseling, parenting and family counseling, dialectical behavioral therapy, emotion regulation, severe shyness and codependency.
Maliha Khan, MA, LPC-I, is a member of Menninger’s Outpatient Therapy team and also serves as one of the facilitators for adolescent therapy groups.