Italian words of the day:
perfezionista (n) /perfezionistico (adj) /perfezionismo (n)
Perfectionism is defined as having unrealistically high standards; being a total “control freak.”
I still remember the first time I made a mistake in school. I was in first grade, and I had just completed a math worksheet that I proudly showed to my teacher. I was certain that my answers were correct.
I’ll never forget the shame and humiliation I felt when she said that half of my answers were wrong! She pointed out that if I see a minus sign, I had to subtract instead of add. But the directions had said “add OR subtract!” I understood “or” to mean a choice – that I could choose to add or subtract – and I liked addition better, so that’s what I did.
This incident initiated many painful years of loathing and fearing math in school. Math made me feel inadequate and stupid; my brain just didn’t think that way. On the other hand, I excelled in reading and writing. I became addicted to perfection, and tied my identity to getting good grades. If I got anything less than an A, and I would punish myself with a storm of self-defeating thoughts.
I just want to point out that my quest for perfectionism was my own doing, and although I was encouraged by my parents to do well in school, I never felt pressured by them. My quest for perfectionism stemmed more from the fact that when I made a mistake, my grade was reduced, and I perceived that as a punishment for my mistake. I started to feel afraid to try unless I knew that I could do something perfectly. Anything less than an A made me feel not good enough…and who wants to feel that way?
Because I took so much pride in being good at English, I held myself to that same standard when learning French (my first foreign language). I even lived in France (twice), and I felt mortified every time I had to speak French. It didn’t help that I was so hard on myself, in addition to the very blunt comments from French people about my accent or not being able to speak French well. I started using English as a crutch. Eventually, I gave up on French.
I started learning Italian, and rather than criticizing my mistakes, every Italian I encountered encouraged me to try even when I felt shy. All the same, I still felt that fear of making a mistake.
Over the last decade that I have been learning Italian, I have been a control freak. That means if I had a choice between speaking and making a mistake, or staying silent and not making a mistake, I would always choose the latter. Before speaking or writing in Italian, I would have to make sure that every single word was grammatically perfect.
And guess how much progress I have made learning a language through perfectionism? Zero!
I have been holding my Italian to unrealistically high standards. I expect my Italian to be as good as my English. Since I became an English teacher, I have held myself to even higher linguistic standards because I feel like I have to be a model of perfect English for my students. It’s hard to go from demanding perfection of oneself in one area (English), but not another (Italian).
I am compassionate towards my students’ learning process and encourage them to learn from their mistakes, but I haven’t been able to do that for myself…until now.
Now I know what perfectionism really is: fear. Fear of criticism. Fear of not being good enough.
As a teacher (and language learner), I want to change the perception of mistakes in learning. Mistakes are SO ESSENTIAL for progress because they help us learn, but we can’t resist them or get caught up in feeling not enough.
For the first time ever, I am letting myself make mistakes. I decided that I’m going all in to learn Italian. I am willing to make mistakes because I know I will learn from them and finally make progress. I even started speaking Italian on my Instagram stories, and I have gotten so much encourage meant, and I accept every correction with gratitude.
Some of the mistakes I’ve made recently are confusing olio (oil) with aglio (garlic) and calling it “oglio” (which is not a word). I also confused sera (evening) with sarà (will be). I said,
è la sera, when it should be è sera.
But you know what? I feel like I’m having fun learning. Making mistakes don’t bother me anymore! It’s an awesome opportunity to connect with Italian speakers and by letting them correct me. I feel like I don’t have to take myself so seriously anymore. I feel so free.
Imperfection is a form of freedom. ~Anh Ngo
I created a pinterest board of quotes of inspiring quotes to remind me to let go of perfectionism if you need some inspiration!
Have any of you struggled with perfectionism when learning a foreign language too?
La Dolce Vita through from California to Italy. I’m Kelly, an American girl with Italian taste in food & wine. I blog about learning Italian, food & wine pairings, how to find authentic Italian ingredients in the US, and seasonal recipes from scratch.