Embrace Imperfection

Advocates for just causes are visionaries: we have a vision of the way the world could be, which is a gift. However, this vision often translates into a vision of how the world should be, and we can end up becoming deeply frustrated.

People’s frustration is always commensurate with their expectations. So when we expect perfection and don’t get it, we feel frustrated. We need to relate to the way the world is, rather the way we wish it were—just as we wouldn’t dress for warmth and sunshine when the forecast is for cold and rain. We need to appreciate the gift of our vision while not letting that vision bring us, and other advocates, down.

Perfectionism is the belief that people and things (e.g., events or activities) can and should be perfect. It’s based on an illusion: perfection is an impossible goal, since everything can be improved upon indefinitely.

Perfectionistic thinking causes us to hold ourselves and others to impossible standards and to feel angry and defensive when reality hits. This increases the chances that we’ll contribute to infighting. It also makes our outreach less impactful because we waste precious time trying to perfect outreach methods and activities rather than accepting them when they’re good enough and moving on to new ones.

The consequences of perfectionism

Perfectionism can have damaging consequences for us, for our fellow advocates, and for our groups and movements.

“If you’re not with us, you’re against us”

Perfectionistic thinking lacks nuance. It causes us to think in terms of good or bad, right or wrong. This kind of thinking drives ingrouping, whereby we buy into the maxim “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” So, for example, when another LGBTQ+ advocate has a different opinion about how to advocate for marriage equality, we immediately see them as our opponent.

One form of perfectionistic thinking is traumatic thinking, which many advocates experience. In this mindset, we see everyone as either a perpetrator, victim, or hero, with no overlap or nuance among the categories. Such thinking increases the chances that we'll become misanthropic, more contemptuous of the perceived “perpetrators” in our lives, and more ashamed of ourselves for not living perfectly in alignment with our ideals and being the “heroes” we’re striving to be.

When we step out of the perfectionistic mindset, we can see how people can be both supporters and detractors of a cause.

For example, nonvegans who eat animals but who donate money to vegan organizations may spare many more animals than they harm through eating them, and vegans who don’t eat animals but represent veganism ineffectively may ultimately have a net-negative impact on the movement.

The less perfectionist our mindset, the less likely we are to have unrealistic expectations of other advocates and ourselves. And the less likely we are to think of those we disagree with as opponents.


Perfectionism can cause advocates to feel that their efforts are never enough, which can cause them to overwork. We can also feel that we have to use every opportunity to further our mission, which prevents us from engaging with others from our roles outside of our activism (e.g., daughter, friend, teacher, explorer, and so on) and experiencing our lives more fully. This way of being is exhausting and can increase our risk of burning out.

On top of this, the dominant culture often projects the expectation of perfection on to advocates. Advocates often get the message that they have to be perfect ambassadors for a cause if they hope to be effective. For instance, if we lose our temper during a heated conversation about an injustice we’re working to end, we may be framed as the unhinged, angry activist. And if we admit that we don’t have all the answers to the problem our movement is trying to solve, someone may use this as an excuse to invalidate everything we stand for. Many advocates struggle to feel entitled to simply say, “I don’t know.”

Reduced impact as advocates

Perfectionism can cause us to avoid taking important actions to further our mission—such as trying out new outreach methods or sharing our opinions about strategy—because we worry that when we make mistakes (which we will, as we all do), we’ll see ourselves and be seen by others as having failed. People who fear making mistakes are often people who end up doing nothing. Learning to fail well, which means learning from our mistakes, is essential to being able to achieve our goals.

When we’re perfectionistic, we can also turn off potential new supporters of our cause. When people see an issue as consisting of only two options—you’re either a “perfect” environmentalist and part of the solution or you’re not, and you’re part of the problem—and they’re unable or unwilling to get fully on board with the former, they’re left with no other options for helping to transform a problematic system.

As the renowned animal rights activist Henry Spira said, when you go into a negotiation asking for all or nothing, you usually end up with nothing.

These are just some of the ways perfectionistic thinking can harm us, other activists, and the causes we’re trying to support.

Embracing imperfection in our organizations

In Think Again, Adam Grant explains how organizations in which imperfection is embraced are more resilient and effective. This is in large part because the staff feel safe knowing that if they make mistakes, they won’t be punished or shamed for doing so.

Mistakes need to be made so that people can learn and grow.

When people fear making mistakes, they’re less likely to take risks—so they miss out on opportunities to learn from their mistakes. And when mistakes do happen, people are more likely to cover them up instead of finding ways to resolve them (which can lead to even bigger problems, especially when small errors snowball into more serious ones).

Mistakes need to be made so that people can learn and grow.

Living with contradictions

Each of us has no choice but to live with contradictions. When we accept this fact, we can stop judging ourselves (and others) as hypocrites when we don’t act perfectly in alignment with our ideals.

We have to make imperfect choices, because we’ve inherited an imperfect world. In other words, we have to make choices that we wouldn’t make if the world were ideal. For example, an animal advocate may have to feed meat to the sick cat they rescued, because the cat is unable to tolerate vegan cat food. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to rescue cats in the first place, nor would we have to save one animal by supporting the slaughter of others.

If we give ourselves and others permission to be the messy, complicated, fallible people we are, we give ourselves and those in our life a great gift. Our relationships—with other advocates, with nonadvocates, and with ourselves—will likely improve immensely.

How useful is the information on this page?

Not useful Very useful