Overcome perfectionism when speaking English

Introduction

The English language is a beautiful thing to master, but it’s hard. It takes time, effort, and patience. If you’re a perfectionist—someone who believes that everything must be perfect—then learning English can seem like an impossible task. Perfectionists tend to set unrealistic expectations for themselves and their work, then beat themselves up when they don’t meet those expectations. This cycle of disappointment can cause them to freeze up or give up when faced with challenges in the learning process. But there are ways to overcome this pattern and get back on track toward meeting your goals! In this article we’ll talk about what perfectionism is (and isn’t), why it’s so common among learners of English as a Second Language (ESL), how perfectionism gets in our way while speaking English and how to overcome perfectionism when speaking English.

What is perfectionism?

Perfectionism is the tendency to set unattainable expectations and then punish yourself when you don’t meet those demands. It often includes a fear of failure, obsessive thinking, reassurance-seeking, and unrealistic goal-setting.

Perfectionists are different from “high-achievers” because their drive to “get it right” comes from a fear of failure, rather than an intrinsic motivation to improve. Perfectionism may cause us to procrastinate, over-prepare for simple tasks, and even avoid speaking English completely because we’re worried we won’t be “perfect.”

Perfectionists tend to have all-or-nothing thinking patterns

You may have noticed that perfectionists tend to think everything is all or nothing and have very black-and-white thinking patterns. We either do something perfectly or do not do it at all. This type of thinking makes it extremely difficult for the perfectionist to make progress and practice their English skills, because they are so afraid of making mistakes, even in a low-stakes environment like a conversation with friends, that they avoid practicing their English completely.

Why is perfectionism so common among ESL learners?

There are many reasons perfectionism is common among language learners. Here are a few:

  • We’re used to communicating fluently and easily in our first languages, so when we make mistakes we feel foolish.
  • We assume others think that because we don’t use the language “correctly,” we must be stupid.
  • We may have been taught English through grammar drills and vocabulary quizzes- activities that have a “right” and a “wrong” answer. Because of this, we may have internalized the belief that accuracy is the most important element of language learning, so we strive to always “get it right”.
  • We may have had unfortunate experiences with a teacher or classmate ridiculing our attempts at using the language.
  • Perfectionists may be more attracted to language learning or reaching high levels of language competence, and view English through the same lens they view other areas of their lives.

How does perfectionism get in the way of achieving success with English?

Perfectionism can sound good in theory. Who wouldn’t want to be the best at whatever they do?

But perfectionism is not a positive trait. It can make you feel bad about yourself and your language ability, afraid to take risks, and even stop you from reaching your goals. And this is all because of one thing: it makes you think that being perfect is the only way to succeed.

Perfectionists often spend hours over-preparing for simple tasks, may freeze up when they don’t understand a single word, and avoid speaking English altogether because they don’t want to risk making a mistake. Surprisingly, most of the English speakers I’ve met who suffer from perfectionism have a very high level of English (B2 or C1) but are often too afraid to use it. Why learn a language if you don’t use it? So now, how to overcome perfectionism when speaking English.

How can I overcome perfectionism when speaking English?

Notice your behaviors

First of all, you need to identify your perfectionistic tendencies and notice how they are impacting your English. Notice if you avoid using English (even though you have the level for the task) or when you spend hours and hours writing a simple, unimportant, email to a colleague. Do these behaviors stem from a fear of failure? Are you worried about making a mistake?

Avoid black-and-white thinking

It’s important to notice your thought patterns, too. Do your thoughts contain absolute words like “always” or “nothing”? If so, you may have fallen into the very common pattern of black-and-white thinking. Black-and-white thinking refers to the tendency to see things as extremes or absolutes. Most things in life, including your English ability, lie somewhere in the grey area, or that space between extremes.

For example, if you notice yourself thinking “I NEVER understand ANYTHING in meetings,” examine if that’s true. It’s more likely that you SOMETIMES or OFTEN understand SOMETHING or MOST of what’s happening in the meeting. 

Avoid Catastrophizing

Catastrophizing is related to all-or-nothing thinking and when it happens we assume that one small mistake will cause the very worst to happen. When we catastrophize, everything becomes an emergency and every situation is “life-or-death”.

For example, let’s imagine you have a job interview in English and you think you MUSTN’T make ANY mistakes in English, not even with a tiny preposition, because if you do, there’s NO WAY you’ll get the job. This is an example of both black-and-white thinking and catastrophizing.

What do do instead

To overcome catastrophizing, stop and rationally think about the probable outcomes of the situation. Here are some possibilities:

If I make a mistake with a preposition:

  1. the interviewer may question my English ability, and judge my level based on just ONE mistake
  2. the interviewer may question my English ability, and judge my level based on EVERYTHING I say during the interview, NOT just the one mistake
  3. the interviewer may not even notice the mistake

If you do this, you’ll notice that the very worst-case scenario has at best, a 1/3 chance of happening, it’s not a certainty. Even if that situation does come to pass, maybe you wouldn’t want to work for a company that bases its appraisals on one small mistake.

Cultivate a Growth Mindset

Growth mindset is a belief that your abilities can be developed through effort. A person with a growth mindset believes they haven’t reached their potential yet, so they constantly work towards improving. They work on getting better by embracing their mistakes and feedback in their environment and then trying again to get it right. Unlike perfectionists, people with a growth mindset strive to get it better, not get it perfect.

Focus on Progress, not Perfection

Finally, to overcome perfectionism when speaking English, you should set realistic goals for yourself. For example: “Improve my grammatical accuracy” is an attainable goal, “Speaking without making any mistakes” is not (even in your first language.) If you base your goals on improvement, you’ll reach them much more often and maintain your motivation.

Conclusion

As you can see, perfectionism is a common problem that affects many people. It can make it difficult to speak English because you’re so afraid of making mistakes or acting imperfectly that it hurts your confidence and prevents you from fully enjoying the benefits of speaking English. But there are some ways you can overcome this! First, notice your behaviors, then avoid all-or-nothing thinking and catastrophizing and finally cultivate a Growth Mindset with attainable goals.

If you’re interested in overcoming your perfectionism, consider joining my Get Aligned for English course starting 7 November 2022. We’ll work on cultivating the mindset, habits, and techniques you need to communicate more confidently in English. Check it out!

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