Becoming Imperfect Through Languages, Part 1: I Am A Perfectionist

Hello, my name is Heidi, and I am a perfectionist. I don’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t a perfectionist, most specifically with respect to school. I had perfect school attendance from kindergarten through high school graduation. I thought my life was over in sixth grade when I got my first B in typing class (for my non-U.S. American readers, we used an alphabetical grading system, where A is the highest grade, and F is the lowest). If I made a mistake when taking notes with pen, I would have to re-write the entire page instead of just crossing it out. I’m still donating to organizations that plant trees in order to counterbalance the many that sacrificed their lives for the sake of my perfectionism.

Those closest to me have often laughed off or minimized my perfectionist tendencies. Having over-studied and under-slept most of my way through high school just to bring home that perfect report card, I would be met with an impassive, “We didn’t expect any less from you” or “Yep, that’s our Heidi.” Perfection in school and education-related activities became my identity. I didn’t know how to exist without doing school and doing it perfectly. I value education to an extremely high degree. Yet for me, the unstated primary goal of school wasn’t to get an education. It was to get the grade. And I was good at it.

I was 33 years old when we found out that we would be moving to Italy, and I immediately knew I would learn the language. I’d always been fascinated by languages, and I was secretly jealous of those who grew up in bilingual families. For years I had subscribed to the idea that I just didn’t have the right kind of brain for languages and that I was too old to soak it in “like kids do.” Moving to the country, though? This was finally my shot! Yet I also knew that my perfectionism with learning would get in the way. I remember saying to my friends, “I’m just going to have to set my perfectionism aside in the beginning as I’m learning the early stuff” as if it were a switch I could turn on and off whenever I chose.

Some may think that perfectionism would be a useful tool for a language learner. It could be a motivator for working hard at it. You’ll really nail down grammar points and refine your pronunciation. And yea, maybe this could have been me in an idyllic world where I only learn languages through self-study and immersion with no other obligations. But in reality, I had two very young children, I was in graduate school working on my master’s degree in mathematics, and I had an extreme amount of personal and emotional baggage deep down that I didn’t yet know needed to be confronted and healed. All things considered, in my reality, perfectionism was perhaps the number one barrier standing between me and that lofty fluency goal.

So what exactly is perfectionism, and how can it harm us? According to Psychology Today, “Perfectionism is a trait that makes life an endless report card on accomplishments or looks. When healthy, it can be self-motivating and drive you to overcome adversity and achieve success. When unhealthy, it can be a fast and enduring track to unhappiness. What makes extreme perfectionism so toxic is that while those in its grip desire success, they are most focused on avoiding failure, resulting in a negative orientation.” My personal brand of perfectionism looks exactly like this. My life is an endless report card of accomplishments, and I focus mostly on avoiding failure.

Let me dive a bit deeper into the latter. What’s the difference between focusing on success and focusing on avoiding failure? Is not success the opposite of failing? Doesn’t avoiding failure mean you’re successful? The real key here is mindset and how that mindset shapes our view of the situations in our lives. With respect to language learning, there is a massive chasm between a mindset of success versus a mindset of avoiding failure. When focused on success, I see success. I observe the newly-learned words being used correctly. I spot the proper agreement between nouns, articles, and adjectives. I acknowledge a short conversation with the barista or fruit vendor, and I celebrate the victory!

When focused on avoiding failure, however, I see failure. I observe how I mispronounced that newly-learned word that was used correctly. I spot the improper verb conjugation in the sentence where my nouns, articles, and adjectives agreed. I acknowledge how my tongue tripped over the words in my short conversation with the barista, and I feel defeated. More often than not, this is what my perfectionism looked like during the early years of my journey with Italian. If I didn’t say something exactly right, or more specifically, if I didn’t say something exactly how I wanted to say it…like, say, how I would if I were speaking my native language…I would beat myself up. I focused so much time and energy on the mistakes that I completely ignored most successes. I failed to really see my progress because there was just always so much I wasn’t getting right. There was always so much I still had left to learn. And the more I tried avoiding failures, the more visible my failures became, and the more I felt like a failure. I internalized that as a definition of myself, which pulled me further and further from the success that I so desperately longed and worked for.

This is the part where my story as a healing perfectionist language learner really begins to unfold. In this story there are several years filled with self-doubt, negative self-talk, and personal regression. These are the years where I was drowning yet constantly reaching for a fictitious lifesaver called perfectionism. The harder I tried to hold onto this original identity I had created for myself, the deeper I sank. This story is just as much about my slide into numbing my feelings with alcohol as it is about mistakes I made as a language learner. It’s also just as much about how I uncuffed the shackles of addiction as it is about honestly assessing my language abilities and creating a sustainable plan forward. This story is just as much about how, in the brutal honesty of sobriety, I’ve learned to face my perfectionism as it is about how I’m now flourishing in my acquisition of the German language. You see, language learning turned out to be the thing that really made my extreme perfectionism surface. It’s always been there, but nothing has brought it out so strongly as language learning has. Yet, when I forced myself to confront my inner demons, language learning was also there to help me measure my personal growth. It was there to prove to me that I can do hard things, and I can do them while making mistakes. I can do them imperfectly. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s preferred.

To be clear, my perfectionism still exists. I have no expectation of getting rid of, mastering, or overcoming perfectionism. But it is something that I’m learning to live with in a mentally healthy way, and the bulk of this shift, I’ve noticed, has happened through language learning. More specifically, it’s through my maddening and destructive process of learning Italian under the pretext of “shoulds,” uncovering and facing the pieces of my past that fed my perfectionism, and discovering the beauty and liberation of learning German as a perfectly imperfect human being.

I hope you stay with me as I release the pieces of my story over time. I have no formal plan for telling my story as so much of it has yet to be put to paper. Please respect that I’m using this platform as a way to continue improving myself both as a language learner and as a human being. I believe in the power of our stories, and I intend to be completely transparent, but I also know this puts me in a vulnerable place. Whether you’re a perfectionist or not, whether you’ve struggled with any form of addiction or not, or whether you’re a language learner or not, I hope that something in the telling of my story will inspire you to share yours. I hope that in telling our stories we continue to strengthen this community of imperfect human beings just trying to be our best selves in the most passionate and honest way we know how.

Stay tuned for Part 2…

3 responses to “Becoming Imperfect Through Languages, Part 1: I Am A Perfectionist”

  1. […] how I did (or did not) in order to determine what changes (if any) need to be made for April. Now, I’ll take a moment here to bring up my perfectionism again because perfectionist Heidi views not reaching a goal as a failure. It doesn’t matter if […]

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  2. […] month I wrote about my life as a perfectionist, bringing to light how language learning acted as a catalyst for both a downward spiral of toxic […]

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  3. […] already have a solution to this problem. Speak more. Easier said than done, of course, because as a perfectionist, I tend to shy away from activities that reveal my inexperience or weaknesses. But I’ve kept […]

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