The internet seems to be divided over Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles prioritizing their mental health over choosing to compete in the French Open and the Tokyo Olympics respectively. While it has spurred conversations around the pressures athletes face, a lot of the surprise and outcry from the public seems to stem from the narrative that professional athletes are meant to be unassailable, almost godlike in their strength and agility. Interestingly, it may be this very notion that is affecting athletes’ mental health, as perfectionism is associated with a higher risk of mental health concerns, including depression, anxiety and eating disorders.
The struggle perfectionists go through tend to be invisible, as long as they keep performing and doing well in their fields because of the consistent pressure they’re under. Unfortunately, mental health concerns are only visible and valid when they affect people’s productivity like in the case of Biles. If someone is forcing themselves to overwork and perform at their peak, it is not likely to be deemed a ‘problem’ by their workplace, peers or family. Worse, chances are people will be praised and rewarded for it and may not recognize there is a problem and seek or receive any support for it.
The pressure that comes with achieving perfection does not affect all sections of society in the same way.
The quest for perfectionism extends beyond just those in high-pressure jobs. Recently, researchers have also discovered an association between childhood trauma and perfectionism. It’s a coping mechanism for survivors; when an abuser is observing, monitoring and criticizing one’s every move, attempting to be faultless becomes a way to avoid punishment and criticism and this may carry on into adulthood. The pressure to keep performing flawlessly in their jobs or in other areas creates a near-constant form of stress. In a heartbreaking account of her experiences, childhood trauma survivor, Monika Sudakov writes of her perfectionism:
“My litmus test for simply feeling adequate enough and in control of my world was perfection. Any failure on my part not only made me feel like I didn’t deserve to be alive, but like I had brought anything bad that ever happened to me upon myself for not being good enough.”
The pressure that comes with achieving perfection and being a high achiever does not affect all sections of society in the same way and many have pointed out how Osaka and Biles’ decisions are particularly radical given their identities as Japanese and Black women respectively.
The pressure to be successful is greater for minority groups like Asian American and African Americans, while they also simultaneously face hindrances in accessing opportunities to succeed. Gaslighting, lack of other minorities as role models and peers due to racism and other forms of discrimination may add to the pressure to prove oneself in predominantly white spaces.
The conversation about letting go of perfectionism and prioritizing one’s mental health over productivity has been slightly louder since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic. Work from home and the concomitant ‘slowing down’ of our lives influenced people in different ways. Some people found the additional time on their hands restful, many are making decisions to not take on so many responsibilities even after the return to ‘normal.’ We’re also seeing large numbers of people quitting jobs because of a toxic workplace culture or worsening work-life balance.
Political struggles for our collective liberation from oppressive systems are important.
While this conversation may be new in mainstream discourse, disabled activists and scholars have criticized our collective infatuation with productivity and ableist ideas of achievement for many years. In a world that is designed specifically for certain types of minds and bodies, disabled people are often shamed and undermined for not being able to ‘keep up’ academically or in the workplace.
Autistic psychologist Devon Price argues that laziness doesn’t exist, but hidden barriers to succeeding do. As a teacher, when Price sees a student not ‘performing well’ academically, they think in terms of what might be holding back the student, instead of blaming them. These reasons could range from mental health concerns, trauma, or other disabilities that require accommodations or additional support. They note that after providing this support, a student’s performance improves significantly.
Sunny Taylor, a disabled artist, goes a step further and believes in the right to not work. Her belief is that we have a right to not have our worth determined by employability or salary, especially given that the world we exist in privileges certain types of bodies and minds over others. Her art and lifestyle are meaningful and legitimate, in spite, of them being ‘unproductive’ according to our current economic system.
The idea that we are only valuable if we are achieving, creating and producing is harmful for everyone, but more so for people who exist on the margins. Political struggles for our collective liberation from oppressive systems are important and on a smaller scale, so too are our individual struggles to claim leisure. Resting is a privilege, but also a radical act in a world that constantly shames us for it, a momentary glimpse into a world where work is not the epicenter of our existence.
Farah Maneckshaw is a therapist at Ummeed Child Development Center. She also works as an independent journalist and writes about mental health-related subjects from a socio-political lens.