I fear your criticism.
I thought I would be better at this.
I sometimes feel like I’m faking it to get by.
If people knew ________ they would be SO disappointed.
I start things and never finish them.
I want you to think I look good.
I need you to think I’m smart.
I hope you think I’m funny.
I’m judging you.
I’d call it an epidemic . . . but it’s a subtle one.
Expats get pounded by perfectionism (more so than the normal-pats). That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.
I’m not a psychologist but I am a bit of an expert on this topic. It’s a part of my job to help expats get real about their issues and perfectionism comes up A LOT. Sometimes it’s an annoying stressor. Sometimes It’s debilitating. Sometimes it’s toxic. I’ve spoken with more than a thousand expats over the past seven years and . . .
I AM a perfectionist and I’m just now discovering it. It’s not pretty.
It took me so long because I’ve been busy fixing the other perfectionists AND I don’t fit my own stereotype. I’m not “type A”, over-structured, anal retentive, detail crazed, unreasonably demanding or hyper critical.
Turns out perfectionism comes in a lot of different flavors.
Here are some (there are many more)
- The Self-promoter — “If I convince you I’m amazing you won’t know the truth.”
- The Self-deprecator — “I’ll put myself down so you’ll raise me back up.”
- The Workaholic — “I’ll prove my worth by never stopping.”
- The Procrastinator — “I won’t start until I can do it right.”
- The Never Finisher — “There is always one more thing that could be better.”
- The Paralytic — “The way it should be is out of reach, so . . . I can’t move.”
- The Pleaser — “If everyone loves me, they won’t see my flaws.”
- The Hater — “If everyone hates me, I don’t have to care what they think.”
- The Dominator — “If I’m in control, you won’t know that I’m not.”
- The Toxic Defender — “If I can villainize the people around me, I can be the hero.”
- The Loner — “If I stay over here, you won’t see my flaws.”
Perfection is never an option but it is always calling.
The internal tension is daunting and the fear of exposure is relentless. To feel constant pressure pushing towards an unattainable goal is a draining existence.
Here’s why expats are especially at risk
Most expats have to pass a test to get the gig. It’s (generally) a high-functioning, motivated, well funded crowd. That’s a lot to live up to.
International assignments come with a clean slate. No one knows all of the stupid things you did in your past. Don’t mess that up.
People move abroad because they want to fix something and Superheros don’t make mistakes.
International assignments often involve heavy burdens shouldered by a handful of people. Failure would be tragic for the masses, and likely all your fault.
Social media becomes even more significant for disconnected friends and families. However, people tend to post their best moments which creates the facade that everyone else is happy and successful — so you should be too.
You were a superstar back home. That’s why they wanted you so bad — but it takes time to adjust in a new world. You are never your best in transition which can create a fear of exposure.
Whether you feel the weight of “we believe in you, (don’t let us down)” or fear the thought of “we told you this was a bad idea (just come back)” pressures from your homeland can intensify the need to succeed.
Vulnerability takes time and trust. The constant incoming and outgoing of an expat community can put a strain on both of those.
Risks are compounded by the other risks of living abroad. Isolation. Anonymity. Distance from your traditional support structures. Grief and loss. The stress and shock of ongoing, never ending adjustment.
Cross-cultural transition is a breeding ground for insecurity. Perfectionism is a natural response.
Here’s what we can do about it.
There is something rich about the three simple words, “I’ll go first.” Step out. Take a risk. Be vulnerable. Finish the sentence, “I’m afraid that if I . . . ” Open the door for other perfectionists to own it.
Just start writing. Don’t think. Don’t craft it. Don’t use spell check. Don’t give it to anyone. Writing is a powerful tool to make sense of senseless things.
Once people have seen your challenges, your issues and your insecurities, fear of exposure loses it’s grip.
It’s hard to ask questions when you should already know the answers (even if you don’t). Intentionally asking questions that feel stupid breaks down the brick wall between you and learning something new.
Own it when you mess up. Creating a culture of learning when we trip not only pads the fall, it makes it enjoyable to get back up.
Know where your drive for perfection comes from. Who did you have to please as a child? What kind of perfectionist are you? What is it doing to you? What about the people around you?
Practice the discipline of saying, “yep, there it is” when your perfectionist tendencies pop up. Then move on.
If you fear the consequences of vulnerability, who are the people that would never break your trust? Start there. Talk to someone.
Perfectionism thrives in the shallows. You can hide, judge, please, dominate and appear perfect much more easily in a world full of surface relationships. All of that crumbles when people really know you and you really know them. Invite people into your space.
You’re not so perfect there.
Is this post about you? Do you live abroad and struggle with perfectionism?
If so, share your story. You are SO not alone.
I’ll go first.
I am paralyzed by the thought of criticism. When I write I delete 70% because it’s not perfect. I have started writing multiple books that are floating around on my hard drive,unfinished because they need to be just right. I start and stop ALL THE TIME. I love an accolade but lose sleep when I’ve offended someone. I tell jokes, which protect me, and keep me in the shallows where I’m safe.
I would prefer it if you thought I was perfect.