Becoming Imperfect Through Languages, Part 2: From Perfectionism to Paralysis

Last 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 thinking and an upward breakthrough of self-love. I was surprised, especially as a new blogger, how many people reached out to share bits of their own stories of perfectionism. I strongly believe in the healing power of telling our stories, especially when it enables us to strengthen our community by realizing that we aren’t alone. I’ve sat at the computer countless times since releasing Part 1, trying to piece together Part 2. I’ve written and re-written certain sections, unsure if I’m making sense or portraying my history as accurately as my mind remembers. I tend to shy away from public vulnerability, avoiding anything that forces me to face my imperfections. But, seeing as how I started this series as part of my path toward living with perfectionism in a healthy way, I decided it’s time to hit “Publish” and let this story work its healing magic. So here goes…

There’s an interesting, yet non-intuitive, cycle in which us perfectionists often find ourselves. Looking back, I see this pattern running its course throughout the history of my life, but I had never recognized it as an effect of my perfectionism until I became a language learner at age 33. In fact, until researching for this post I didn’t even know the cycle actually exists. I only knew my own history of habits, and it wasn’t until after I typed my own question about severe procrastination into the almighty Google that I realized how deep this seemingly predictable sequence of events runs.

The cycle is known as the 3 P’s — Perfectionism, Procrastination, Paralysis. I knew there was a link between perfectionism and procrastination. I’ve been a procrastinator for as long as I can remember, and I self-discovered its connection to perfectionism sometime in my 20s. In middle school I was too unorganized to start working on projects early. In high school I was just too busy with marching band and work to spend time properly managing long-term tasks. In college I told myself that I just do my best work under pressure. Papers, projects, book reports, and college applications were always done exceedingly well and submitted on time, but I was usually found doing the majority of the work at the last possible minute.

In hindsight, I can see how procrastination lent itself to paralysis numerous times throughout my life, sometimes more obviously than others. In each of these situations, it’s so clear to me now that toxic perfectionism was the root cause my paralysis. For most of my life, the consequences of this paralysis phase were rarely dire. Every time I procrastinated to the point of inaction, I would simply navigate to a different path to forge ahead. For example, terrified at the potential of not making the high school basketball team, I skipped tryouts and joined the marching band instead. In college, when I put off taking anatomy, which was required for the MCAT exam for entry into medical school, I instead decided to change my major to math, which was my real passion anyway. In both of these cases, and in many others, the new path I chose was a respectable one on which I learned and thrived. Yet there’s still a shadow cast over these memories because I know that the new paths were always chosen because they were the safe ones where I knew I would more easily avoid failure.

Fast forward to 2017 when I found myself living in Italy and wanting to learn Italian. I took classes, I studied (and by “studied” I mean crammed vocabulary before class and completed homework assignments the morning they were due), I listened to Italian music, and I tried having small conversations when necessary. But my inner desire to avoid failure prevented me from really putting myself out there. I didn’t initiate conversations with other moms at my kids’ schools. I only bought preschool level Italian books to read to my kids. I didn’t watch TV in the language because even Peppa Pig was difficult to understand. The more I tried to engage in the language, the more I realized I didn’t know. The more I talked, the more mistakes I made. At some point, probably about a year into this journey, I decided that I “should” be fluent by now. I “should” be able to understand regular TV. I “should” be able to read Anne Frank in a weekend or so. But by what measure should I have been able to do these things? The measure of multilingual immigrant friends who had reached fluency in six months? The measure of my kids picking up the language in one year at school? Or, perhaps even more erroneously, by the measure of my own uninformed, self-proclaimed goal?

The thing about perfectionists is that we deeply want to avoid failure at all costs and at all levels. I wasn’t failing to learn the language. In fact, I was learning it. Every step of the way I learned new words and phrases I could use often, I understood more of what I heard around me, and I started reading more elementary level books with ease. But to the perfectionist, these successes are often impossible to see through the darkness of forgotten vocabulary, improperly conjugated verbs, and misused prepositions. Every mistake is magnified in our minds, and the slew of “shoulds” that follow can be debilitating. For me, when I didn’t understand a grammar point quickly or didn’t remember a certain number of words in a week (Perfection), I simply started putting off my self-study lessons (Procrastination). There was always something else I could be doing instead, and I allowed every single one of them to take priority, including my self-proclaimed relaxation with a glass (or bottle) of wine. Not long after, I would listen to a song or try reading a short story only to find myself struggling to understand, usually having backslidden due to my procrastination. Frustrated and guilt-ridden, I often said, “Screw it, I’m having a beer” (or six) instead of buckling down and re-engaging with all the vocab that was slipping out of reach. Eventually, I stopped doing any studying at all and just went straight to the drink instead (Paralysis).

As I mentioned in Part 1, language learning wasn’t my only stressor at the time, of course. I was also an online math grad student, taking courses that went live at 1:00 a.m. my time. I had two young children who didn’t sleep well, one who was struggling to socially adjust in her new Italian school. I had lost my incredible gym when moving and saw my strong body I worked so hard for start slipping away. And, of course, there’s just the general stress of moving to a new country and adjusting to a completely new way of life. Learning Italian, however, was the part of my life that was most glaringly imperfect. Simple, everyday activities like taking my kids to school or going to the supermarket were constant reminders that I wasn’t yet fluent. While my toxic perfectionism made me want to avoid failures, I couldn’t. It seemed like the failures were all around me, and there was no alternative path I could choose that would be “safer” but equally satisfying. Giving up wasn’t an option, so I continued to sink into a world of negative self-talk and berating myself over not meeting my (unrealistic) expectations. Seeing my mistakes on full display led me to put off studying in order to avoid more mistakes there. Putting off studying led to making more mistakes when interacting with the native speakers around me. Seeing more mistakes led me to numb. Escape. Ignore. Drink. Scroll social media. Paralyze. Compound this with constant feelings of failing my kids, ideas that I’m a horrible mother, and asking myself why I’m even attempting to go back to school in my late 30’s, and I found myself procrastinating and paralyzed in nearly every aspect of my life.

I still made progress during these 2-ish years engulfed in the vicious cycle of the 3P’s, and thanks to that progress I found something to grab on to when I peeked my head out of the hidey hole of paralysis. When I decided to stop drinking alcohol completely in February 2020 (right before COVID hit Italy, for you history buffs) I needed to create a life I loved, surrounded by the people and things I loved. I needed to face the things I had tried controlling with perfectionism (like parenting, body image, and languages) and learn how to make and accept my mistakes. I had to learn to sit with negative feelings without allowing them to morph into negative self-talk. Whew, and it’s been hard! Stumbling through a conversation where I know the words, but they just aren’t coming out, only to have the other party stare at me blankly, completely confused – this is a situation that, two years ago, would have led me to go home and open up the Prosecco. Now, I still feel frustrated. I still feel small and inferior. I still feel embarrassed. However, when I leave these situations, I put in my headphones and listen to an Italian podcast instead. I go home and look up the words I stumbled over and write out some sentences with them for further practice. Perhaps most important of all, I let the negative feelings pass through me without latching on. They’re a natural consequence of disappointing situations, but they do not define me. They are not indicative of who I am as a language learner, a parent, or a human being.

Emerging from the depths of perfectionist paralysis, I discovered so many joys in the areas of my life where I had most strongly feared failure. There are so many ways in which I’m learning to break the cycle of the 3P’s and live alongside my perfectionism without letting it burden me. And this is where I want to go next time with Part 3. I want to explore exactly how my language journey has transformed through the lens of a clear and sober point of view and how it has become the solid foundation of my internal, personal growth, as well. I hope you stay tuned.

2 responses to “Becoming Imperfect Through Languages, Part 2: From Perfectionism to Paralysis”

  1. […] been working my way through it for over a month. Why? Part of it, I think, goes back to the cycle of perfectionism. Deep down there’s a part of me that holds tight to an all-or-nothing mindset. If I […]

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  2. […] a level that I rarely had to waste time looking up words or concepts while helping her; and I had overcome my addiction to alcohol, which had stifled my ability to support my daughter in the ways she needed. Yet, our dark history […]

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