Ep 127: The Paralysis of Perfectionism

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Manage episode 191582887 series 173058
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My husband is fluent in both French and English. During the first years of our marriage, I worked hard to learn some French on my own. I wanted to be functional in the language when we visited his family overseas. Afraid to Speak I established basic grammar from used textbooks I picked up at bookstores, and my husband coached me on pronunciation. I bought a set of cassette tapes—yes, they were still around—and CDs, and eventually a video series, which I worked with nearly every day. Over the course of five or six years, I built up a fairly strong base. But the times I actually visited Belgium, I relied entirely on my husband to translate for me. I knew my grammar would be off if I spoke, and I hated the thought of sounding like a child. As a language person, I wanted to express myself perfectly. My career as a writer focused on my drive to find the best phrasing possible and make the fewest mistakes. I was too proud or vain or nervous or shy to try express myself in baby talk in another language. In this arena of life, I was a perfectionist. I could have jumped in and made mistakes and learned along the way, but I didn’t. Forced to Speak One year we were in Belgium to attend my brother-in-law’s wedding, and on that visit my husband became gravely ill and was hospitalized. My in-laws helped me comprehend all the medical jargon throughout the ordeal, but day-to-day interactions were no longer translated for me by my husband because he had surgery and was confined to a hospital bed for several weeks of recovery. If I wanted to purchase bread at the bread store or buy stamps or visit with family or friends, I would have to risk sounding like a child. I would have to let go of my stubborn perfectionism. On that trip, on an unusually sunny afternoon, I left the hospital after a visit with my husband, and thought to myself, “Hey, you know, he almost died. Why on earth am I worried about how I sound to these people?” Free to Speak And I decided I just didn’t care about how I sounded any longer—or, rather, that I didn’t need to care. Being too proud to speak French because I didn’t want to make a mistake seemed pretty silly and vain in light of our situation. I finally let go of my pride and perfectionism and self-consciousness and whatever else was at play. Better to use what I had and sound like a child—or, a foreigner, which is what I was—than to say nothing. Starting that day, I tapped into the French inside me and started to speak. When friends and extended family came to visit my mother- and father-in-law, I listened to the conversation and, on occasion, opened my mouth and spoke a little French. Everyone was so pleased to hear my attempts, they helped me along by supplying a missing word or gently correcting pronunciation or verb tense. Grocery store clerks leaned in and listened to try to understand my question or spoke slowly when I explained I was American and spoke only a little bit of French. The woman at the bread store gladly bagged up my requests when I pointed at the pistolets and baguettes and held up my fingers to indicate the amount of each and followed up with merci. I’d take my kids to the park and listen to other children’s chatter. If they talked to me, I’d tell them my children and I spoke English but if they repeated it slowly, I’d try to understand their French. Guess what happened? My French got better. Fast. By taking the risk of sounding immature and imperfect, I willingly made mistakes, rapidly gaining skills and learning how to wield the language. Use It and Improve Because I wasn’t so uptight or nervous, my brain relaxed. I could tap into the knowledge I had accumulated to speak as thoroughly and accurately as I was able, knowing it wasn’t perfect. By putting myself out there, imperfect and humble, I added words and phrases to my repertoire, collecting appropriate responses to certain scenarios and situations. As my vocabulary grew, so did my confidence.

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