Turning Perfectionism Into a Strength

Don’t aim for perfection. Aim for ‘better than yesterday’.

Izey Victoria Odiase

Reading time: 3-5 minutes.

In an ideal world, we could travel to a foreign country and communicate with the natives effortlessly and flawlessly–no grammar mistakes, no contextual misunderstandings. However, we all know that such a world doesn’t exist, and as the saying goes: nobody’s perfect. 

The real question is: if nobody is perfect, is it even worth it to try and get to that point?

Simply stated, the answer is yes, but there are a few catches. 

Researchers from the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium took a more in-depth look at perfectionism and its role in the human mind. They stated that there are two distinct forms of perfectionism:

  1. Adaptive Perfectionism (perfectionistic strivings)
  2. Maladaptive Perfectionism (perfectionistic concerns)

Overall, adaptive perfectionism is what causes us to strive to do better and be better. It’s what motivates us to work from an A- to an A+ in a college class or to increase our work performance. Most would consider adaptive perfectionism to be a good thing, but without the proper perspective, it can turn into maladaptive perfectionism. 

Here is a great video explaining how maladaptive perfectionism can occur within us:

The Problem With Perfectionism

Maladaptive perfectionism is what happens when we seek perfection out of fear of failure instead of a desire to be a better self. Those who have maladaptive perfectionism may experience higher levels of anxiety and depression. The fear of failing can be so intense in these individuals that it will hold them back from being their best selves. 

So how do you know if you experience maladaptive perfectionism in your language study? Take some time and ponder these questions (adapted from rtor.org): 

  •  Do you worry about what others think about your language skills?
  •  Do you find you are never satisfied with your language level?
  •  Do you feel like something only counts if it is done perfectly?
  •  Do you feel hesitant to work on a particular skill you know needs improvement?

If you said yes to any of these questions, then it is likely you have experienced maladaptive perfectionism. The real problem is, how do we change our perfectionism for our good?

Try it Out!

Time Required: 3-5 minutes

Here is a list of suggestions provided by Dr. Jessica Rolfing Pryor at Northwestern University to help keep perfectionism in perspective. Take a few minutes and think about how you could apply these to your language learning:

  • Remember: Perfectionism is an “absolute illusion.” People are barraged throughout their lifetimes with distorted messages—from parents, teachers, peers, and broader sources (e.g., entertainment, social media)—that nothing but the best is good enough and that perfection is possible.
  • Break goals into bite-size pieces. Perfectionists may become overwhelmed by the size of a goal, such as planning a wedding, studying for college or graduate school exams, or taking on a new work project [or language study]. Break down big-picture goals into smaller, manageable chunks and celebrate each small accomplishment.
  • Interrupt the self-critical voice in your head. Replace it with a positive statement, or try to redirect your thoughts to more constructive thinking. Tell yourself, “It’s okay if this isn’t perfect.”
  • Do something positive for yourself. In a moment of stressed-out, perfection-seeking behavior, try to press pause. Practice relaxed breathing, or take a walk if possible. Stay grounded in your five senses. Then allow yourself to reflect on this question: “What will happen if I’m not perfect?”
  • Use a mantra. Develop a positive mantra such as, “You are enough” or “Your best is enough,” and say or think the phrase at times of stress.
  • Recognize it may be in your genes. Some research shows that perfectionism has biological components and may be linked to genetic markers. External link  Acknowledging that your perfectionism may be inherited can help push back against negative feelings of self-blame.
  • Reach out to a professional. Pryor’s research shows that individuals with maladaptive perfectionism are less likely to seek out help from family and friends or professionals. If you are suffering from perfectionism, talk about it; seek counseling. Reach out to friends, family, or your health care provider if you need assistance finding a counselor and don’t know where to start.