How Perfectionism Kills Progress

Cable cars over Madrid

In less than two months, my language partner has already figured me out. We meet every week to learn each other’s languages. She corrects my Spanish, and I help with her English. I have taken various Spanish classes since I was 13 years old, so I know a lot about Spanish and how it works. But over time I have realized that fluency has become less to do with the technical details and more about sounding natural.

I arrived in Spain ten months ago. Enough time for a full-term pregnancy. Friends tell me that my Spanish has progressed well since then. The classes have helped, but simply using Spanish in daily life is the real test. Talking with friends, store employees, waiters, and even strangers on the street lets me practice what I learn from books. It also is more stressful.

“You are a perfectionist.” That is my language partner’s summary. I know she is right. I can’t argue. My biggest difficulty in Spanish isn’t the conjugations or vocabulary. It’s a fear of mistakes.

Often when I’m talking with someone, I will notice a mistake as soon as I say it out loud. I immediately try to correct it. Therefore, I’m repeating myself multiple times in a conversation as I verbally edit myself. Or if not that, I speak in starts and stops, taking long pauses between words to order my thoughts and avoid any grammatical errors.

My friends have a lot of patience.

My language partner says I need to speak more naturally. Without fear.

We had this conversation while riding in a cable car over the city. We passed over a highway while cars rushed by under us. I was happily taking photos of the scenery without a thought to what a fall from that height would do to me. I don’t have a fear of heights. But when it comes to Spanish, I explained to her, I find myself with stage fright.

Relax, she told me.

View from the cable car

Instead of helping, my perfectionism is getting in the way. Being afraid of making mistakes actually makes it harder for me to communicate and connect. This applies to much more of life than simply learning a foreign language.

Since birth, we’re trained to avoid risk. We learn to be cautious to survive. The risks we do take are controlled and managed to reduce negative outcomes. Instead of asking someone out face-to-face, we date online. We submit anonymous complaints to our workplaces. We watch TV programs about travel instead of going ourselves. We don’t talk to our neighbors. We keep the stable job instead of pursuing our dreams.

My language partner said I was brave to come to Spain. I’ve heard it before, but I don’t feel it. The truth is I’m still afraid. Deciding to come was easy. The unknowns, everything I have yet to learn, the daily stretching and growing…these are the hard parts. These are the things I cannot control.

I hope that this blog can be an encouragement for anyone, no matter where you are. But I particularly want to write for other people living and working cross-culturally. We cannot be perfectionists. Every day is messy work. The best we can do is relax and take each day as it comes. Worry and fear will not help us. Instead, we must limit our self-expectations, knowing that mistakes are inevitable, and let God handle the rest.

“Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” Proverbs 3:6
In which area of your life do you need to relax and trust?

One thought on “How Perfectionism Kills Progress

  1. I find great enjoyment in the way you put your thoughts down. I will be looking forward towards your next blog post. Dad.

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