Perfectly imperfect internationals


Don’t you hate that? You did a good job, you tried your best, yet there is always a part of you that isn’t satisfied. I call it the inner Perfectionist. And while we need someone to keep us on our toes, more often than not, inner Perfectionists push us to the point of becoming destructive.

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When it relentlessly pursues us with its ‘must do and can do better’, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, something is out of balance. That’s bad enough living in the comfort zone of your wn national identity, but for expats, who are already confused about the new cultural and linguistic paths they have embarked on, it can become a hinderance, rather than a help to settling in.


International Perfectionists

The one thing I hear most from newcomers to the international life is: I thought I would have settled in, spoken the language, be doing better by now. And the one thing I and other veterans of multiple moves have learned is: If only we’d been more patient and a little kinder to ourselves.

People that are learning a new language seem to fall into two groups. Some will open their mouths and practise, practise, practise, by blurting out whatever they can in their newly acquired language, regardless of grammatical or even vocabulary accuracy. Others will bide their time until they feel they can come out with sentences that are grammatically correct, using words that don’t force the listener to make wild leaps of imaginative fancy to know what you mean.

Whether you belong to the first or the second group, you will know you’ve passed the language test when people will actually laugh at your impromptu Swedish language jokes, rather than assume you made a mistake.

This example of language goes to the heart of how much risk we are willing to take to be considered not foolish or silly, or even imperfect. The Perfectionist hates to look silly, hates to feel that others judge him or her to have failed, even just a little.

I’m not a Perfectionist… yuck!

Have you noticed while you are reading this how you react to the word perfection? Little Miss Perfect, young Master Perfection. These are stereotypes that most of us won’t want to recognise as being us. After all, anyone who has ever read any self-help books knows that it is a bad thing to be a Perfectionist, right? I certainly didn’t think I was, until someone pointed out to me how hard it was for me to just let things happen, instead of controlling every event so that nothing could go wrong. Inner Controllers and Perfectionists go hand in hand.

However, when we slightly change our perspective and instead assume that almost everyone has a Little Miss Perfect, or a young Master Perfection residing in their psyche, it might be easier to take a long hard look at your own.

While none of us wants to recognise ourselves in trying to be perfect you’d be amazed at how, unconsciously, these inner perfectionists are pushing us along, striving to be the best that we can be, and more, and more…. good is never good enough.

We moved countries so we are, by definition, adventurers who have moved outside of our comfort zone, and more often than not that goes hand in hand with character styles that are highly achieving, that set themselves a high standard, that want to put their best foot forward. We want to be the best we can be. And why not? I now hear you inner Perfectionist say. What’s wrong with wanting to give it your best in every situation?

The untouchable Perfectionist

The inner Perfectionist, of all the aspects of self that congregate in our psyche, is the one that it is hardest to work with. In therapy I see people who are at the end of their tether, sometimes on the brink of a burn out. First the inner Perfectionist hides form sight and is unrecognizable to the person who is never satisfied with being the best she can be. The person who never asks, Why can’t I just ‘be’? To these people – and I was very much one of their ranks – the words ‘good enough’ might as well have been written in Sanskrit. The way to tease out an Inner Perfectionist is to offer some Bohemian lifestyle tips. Very quickly the Perfectionist will show him or herself by arguing But that way, NOTHING will ever get done! But then, once they’ve been teased out in daylight, they can seem irreproachable. After all, why not be the best that we can be?

The Perfectionist is like the beautifully tailored and manicured blond who exudes power (though seldom charm) and who seems to say – ‘Who wouldn’t want to be me?’ She is the patron saint of anorexia, plastic surgery and workaholics.

Imagine this dialogue with someone who is on the verge of a burn out because he or she just cannot stop from wanting to be the best he or she can be:

“How do you feel today?”

“A bit shaky. Apparently my blood pressure is sky high and I wake at four every morning and can’t go back to sleep.”

“Did you try some of our relaxation exercises?”

“I tried … but stopped because I didn’t feel I was doing them properly. Every time I sat down to do the deep breathing I was worried that I wasn’t breathing the right way, and that made me feel more anxious. I mean, there’s no point doing something if you can’t do it right, right?”

“I see … so just sitting and breathing, without worrying too much about whether it was right or wrong was not possible. What would it have been like to just sit, forget about the exercise, and stare out the window?”

“That would have felt like a waste of time, I mean, I’d just get even more stressed. And I will never fit in to my company if I stare out the window all day.”

“All day, or just five minutes … there is a difference.”

“Well … we can do it here. Last time I was here, just closing my eyes and breathing deeply made me feel a lot better. I thought you said I had done a good job…”

What I hear in that inner dialogue is that the Perfectionist stopped themself from doing the one thing needed to help feel less stressed. Perfectionists have favourite mantras: Why do anything if you can’t do it perfectly. right’ (this is the procrastinating perfectionist) or If I do that, the world will go under (taking the five minute suggestion and turning it into forever). Basically, as far as the inner Perfectionist is concerned, if it wasn’t in this person’s life, then everything would fall to pieces and all hell will break out. And their biggest enemy? Chillout!

Chill… become a perfectly imperfect expat

So how does all of this pertain to the experience of making a new home for yourself in a country that is not the one you once considered home? Is there such a thing as ‘settling in burnout?’ I see people come to this country with huge demands on themselves. Our psyches are doing overtime to find our way in this muddle of new impressions, foreign words, and unwritten rules. If we were ants our antennas would reach from here to Umeå. But still it isn’t good enough.

The inner Perfectionist always shows you how much of the mountain still needs to be climbed, not how much you’ve already covered.

It was only years later that I realised that it takes a long time to integrate into a group of people that have no real need to make new friends.I could have continued learning Swedish, but also indulged in a little international relating too. I could have allowed my sense of constantly falling short to be mitigated by hanging with people who thought I was just good enough, regardless of the fact that this expression brought my inner Perfectionist out in hives!

If, as you read this article, you begin to wonder whether you are ‘attacking’ your international experience with mainly your Perfectionist in the driving seat, then see if you can make him or her take the foot off the gas this very minute. What would be the least I am perfectly settling in to my new country behaviour that you could experiment with right this minute? Watch back to back episodes of Greys Anatomy? Go for a long walk in the park? Or go to a meeting where people speak your own language? How do you access your inner Chill Out man or woman?

Your inner Chillout says You’re doing great … you actually managed three words in a row today … you got a wave from the neighbour. The Inner Chillout will tell you what did go right, not everything that still has to happen. The Chillout can be your own personal Comedian that howls with laughter when you get it wrong. But with you, not at you – like the inner Critic would do. Put your foot in it, make less progress than you expected – it’s fine, you will get there in the end … and you will be happier and healthier too.

There is a time and a place for an inner Perfectionist. Their place is in balance with other parts that know you are Good Enough, and their time is when you ask to have that extra little push from them, for an exam, for a job interview… but not to tell you if you are okay as a person.

You are already okay, end of.

So please, don’t stress the psyche any more than it needs to be stressed. You’ve taken yourself well out of your comfort zone, and being perfect, really, is about the last thing you should worry about as you stumble through a land where neither language nor etiquette nor climate will make any sense to you until enough time has passed for it to become second nature. Let Chillout and Perfectionist become teammates, not rivals, and you will sail through your new life experience.

– This article was first published in 2013 on Your Living City Stockholm

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