Being new at something when you’re struggling with perfectionism can be both titillating and downright horrifying. Actively seeking newness, however, is one of the most courageous things you can do to recover patterns of perfectionism. To illustrate my point, let me tell you a little story…
My husband and I are headed to Europe in June. It’s not the first time we’ve gone – it’s where we got engaged just 5 years ago. The last time we were there, we got by with basic phrases. Specifically: “Je suis desolé, je ne parle pas français” (I’m sorry, I don’t speak French). ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
This time, I want to do it RIGHT. I want to be able to talk with the people at Ladurée about which croissants are their favorites. I want to listen in on the people next to me on the metro. Most of all, I want to feel this beautiful language on my tongue as I soak in the magic of Paris all around me.
Early this year, I decided to start working on my French through an app. After doing a bit of research, I settled on starting my French lessons using the Duolingo app.
To my surprise, I had an absolute blast learning through it every day. Because I learned Spanish in high school (honors kid, woot woot!), I’m familiar with the romance languages’ roots. Many of the words are similar. Sentence structure isn’t too far off. My biggest problem was replacing the French words with their Spanish counterparts! I forgot how much I enjoyed learning a language.
A couple weeks ago, I completed all the levels in the app. I was so freaking proud of myself! Most of it came pretty easily to me thanks to my grammar nerdity and the delight I felt in practicing it. I was feeling pret-ty bonne.
The hardest parts for me throughout the course, however, were the speaking exercises. You speak into your microphone and Duolingo tells you if it understands you. Many, many times, I got the “Oops that doesn’t sound right” error. I figured: eh, it’s probably just my mic or the software being slow. For extra practice, I decided to book a French language tutor to start getting into the practice of speaking the language.
I booked my intro lesson and went into it feeling confident and eager to practice what I’d been learning.
My first lesson was HUMBLING.
Sure, I was pretty good at reading and writing French, but to hear it? To speak it?! It’s a totally different ballgame.
I could understand about 30% of what my tutor said without asking him to repeat it or say it more slowly. Then, when I would go to respond, it took me a hot minute to find the right words (if I even could).
My tutor told me that spoken French is like a different language than written French. Whole sentences sound like one word and many words sound the same. Plus, French is the king of silent letters. He also said that the problems I was having were completely normal for where I was in my studies.
When the session ended, we left each other ratings via the language tutoring site. Apparently, tutors also assign learning levels to their students. For listening, I got branded: A2 – Elementary.
And for speaking: A1…
cue: shattering sound (…that’s my dreams)
All of a sudden, I didn’t feel so bonne anymore. My heart sank and my enthusiasm drained right the f**k outta me.
“How could I be beginner level? Wasn’t I better than that? How could I have thought I was so good?”
If you’re an individual who’s never struggled with perfectionism: A) my reaction makes no sense to you because I AM A BEGINNER; and B) I’d like to meet you – there are so very few of you.
Let’s break down my reaction to this experience:
- Not being a whiz at speaking and understanding French made me feel like all the work I’d done was for nothing. (All-or-nothing thinking)
- The rating gutted my self-confidence, which in turn drained the fun from the experience. (Needing external validation)
- My inner perfectionist took the opportunity to connect the completely unrelated quality of being “good/smart enough” to this single experience, throwing all my achievements from the app out the window. She also used this experience to show me “proof” that my concept of “good/smart enough” was flawed, further stripping my confidence from me. (Inappropriate connections between self-worth and abilities)
Looking at it from this angle, you might be able to see that some of my natural mind processes aren’t the healthiest. I’m an all-or-nothing thinker, I crave external validation, and I still connect my self-worth with unrealistic expectations of myself. All of these are typical pathologies of perfectionism.
In the past, I would have given up after that first tutoring session. If I wasn’t the best at something, I stopped doing it.
The feeling of being new at something is so incredibly difficult for us perfectionists. We work so hard to be the best at everything we do. But, here’s the part that our perfectionism-brains don’t seem to understand:
It’s impossible to master anything unless we spend time being new at it.
Perfectionism somehow leads you to believe that if you start something, you better be a f**king pro at it on. Day. One. If we’re not, we beat ourselves up and feel ashamed. Being new – and therefore not the best – is a pain many of us aren’t willing to tolerate.
Perfectionism is a struggle. We’re never, ever enough for our own minds and when we finally “reach our goals,” our perfectionism has already come up with a new reason why that’s not enough. It’s a never-ending cycle that no one can win.
If you’re tired of letting your perfectionism run the show and beat you down at every turn, however, you may want to consider my argument for trying something new.
Every time we’re new at something, we’re presented with an opportunity to choose.
We can either feel what it’s like to be new and – instead of defaulting into perfectionism’s trap – live in the wonder of not knowing, or we can let that fearful part of us dictate what we do and don’t get to do in our lives.
Our perfectionism overshadows the state of wonder that occurs when we’re learning something for the first time; the possibility of something being different than we thought it would be. There’s a magic in that. There’s a world of healing in surrendering our need to know it all.
Without this opportunity that’s presented to us when we’re new, we may never get the chance to work through the junk that’s default for us. We might never get to heal these harmful connections and thinking patterns.
It takes a bada** to go after discomfort. It take bravery and balls. That’s why I think you should try it. Because you’ve got what it takes to rewire this pattern.
STEP 1: Gauge the opportunity
When you become aware of an opportunity to be new at something, ask yourself: does it feel exciting and terrifying at the same time?
STEP 2: Take it or leave it
If so, DO IT. If you’re missing that excitement element, find something that does give you that positive butterfly feeling. The goal is to be positively stimulated, not forced into something you just don’t want to do.
STEP 3: Observe your perfectionism
Throughout your experience of being new, check in with these questions:
- When does perfectionism rear its ugly head at you?
- What does it try to convince you of?
- What’s true and what’s unrealistic expectation of yourself?
- Would you say what the perfectionism is saying to you to a child or loved one?
Whatever your perfectionism is throwing at you, acknowledge it. Instead of running from it, feel it and then, move forward to Step 4.
STEP 4: Redirect it to acceptance, joy + wonder
Chances are, most of the things you catch your perfectionism saying to you are based in unrealistic expectations, all-or-nothing thinking and false connections to your self-worth. After going through Step 3, actively redirect your focus to joy or wonder. Use these prompts if you need help:
- Can you acknowledge that this newness is required and that everyone must go through this stage to get to the point of feeling comfortable with it?
- As uncomfortable as it is, can you honor that you’re a bada** for even doing it?!
- What delights you about this process?
- What’s something new you’ve learned through this newness? How might it help you in the future?
- Why are you choosing to start this new thing? What might it help you with down the line?
- What are some true, positive compliments you could give yourself for facing this fear of newness?
- How do you CHOOSE to move forward: limited by perfectionism, or liberated by the experience of this discomfort and the refusal to run from it?
It will feel difficult in the beginning to choose something other than your default perfectionism response (this is yet another example of the discomfort in newness!). With consistency and active redirection, it will get easier and with time, it will become your new default.
I’m a recovering perfectionist who’s far from fully recovered, but dagnammit I try mighty hard to be aware of and seek out these kinds of opportunities. I refuse to let the fear of being imperfect dictate how I live my life.
While I wanted to give up after that first session, I became aware of what was happening in this default response and then remembered why I wanted to do this in the first place. I want to learn French because it’s fun and because it’s a world I haven’t lived in yet. Every new word I learn is a different way to express myself and connect to a whole new group of people.
With this in mind, I chose to book another lesson. I got back on Duolingo and practiced the levels my tutor said I should focus on. I looked up different formats online to pick up where Duolingo left off.
After my second lesson, I can’t say I’m that much improved, but I’m still trying and I’ve rediscovered the joy + wonder in it. It’s not so soul-crushing when I can’t think of a word or conjugation; it’s just a process I’ve accepted as being necessary to get better. One that I’m willing to see through in all its wonder-ful, perfectionism-poking glory.
One day, maybe I will be as close to perfect at French as one can be. Until then, I’ll just stick with my best. And that’s always good enough.