I Could Be Wrong: The Plague of Expat Perfectionism

I fear your criticism.

I thought I would be better at this.

I procrastinate.

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 . . .

Scratch that.

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.”

 

At a root level for all perfectionists is an unspoken fear. There is an irrational drive to be something (or at least be perceived as something) that is out of reach.

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

 

The Creamy Crop Syndrome

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.

 

The Invisible Baggage

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.

 

The Superhero Mentality

People move abroad because they want to fix something and Superheros don’t make mistakes.

 

The Lone Ranger Complex

International assignments often involve heavy burdens shouldered by a handful of people. Failure would be tragic for the masses, and likely all your fault.

 

The Facebook Facade

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.

 

The Underestimated Transition

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.

 

The High Hopes of Home

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.

 

The Revolving Door

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.

 

Go first

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.

 

Write it down

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.

 

Drag it into the light

Once people have seen your challenges, your issues and your insecurities, fear of exposure loses it’s grip.

 

Ask stupid questions

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.

 

Celebrate mistakes

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.

 

Study Yourself

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?

 

Call it out

Practice the discipline of saying, “yep, there it is” when your perfectionist tendencies pop up. Then move on.

 

Find safe places

If you fear the consequences of vulnerability, who are the people that would never break your trust? Start there. Talk to someone.

 

Relationship, Relationship, Relationship

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.

I’m not.

 

13 Comments

  1. Thank you for these great resources and insights!

    Reply
  2. This is a great post and Very Insightful!

    Reply
  3. Please finish the book. Then find an editor. They may not make it perfect, but they can make it better. You write great stuff and I’m anxious to read the book.

    Reply
  4. I was an expat living abroad but I no longer am. However, I’m involved in an incident that makes me feel stupid and I don’t want others to think I’m stupid but it was a stupid mistake. There, I said it. Maybe I’m The Self-deprecator — “I’ll put myself down so you’ll raise me back up.” I was friends with a lot of expats and had no idea that they might have been experiencing these things. Reading your article and writing this makes me feel better already. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Hey Bobbye — Thanks so much for sharing that. How about instead of raising you back up I just join you where you are? I’ve definitely felt the sting of feeling stupid the fear that others would feel the same. I’m with you. Turns out there are a lot of people in that space. Thanks for dragging it into the light.

      Reply
  5. I would love to say I don’t resonate with this blog in anyway, but indeed I would be entering the trap of the Facebook Facade in such a case. Oh the “perfectionist me” (and yes mine is combined with Type A and being a People Pleaser) stories I could tell…

    Reply
    • I did not mean to be anonymous. I must fix that mistake… (get it?)

      Reply
      • Ha! Anonymous vulnerability. You’re not the first. Thanks for outing yourself.

        Reply
  6. I love this! This is exactly what I needed in this season of life. I have been (most) of the types and I need all of the solutions. Thanks for sharing this. #recoveringperfectionist

    Reply
  7. Hi! I am Nerissa, a Filipino living in Italy.
    We just started a website dedicated to the lives of all those living in a country other than the one where they were born. Thru PeopleAbroad.org we intend to increase connections, awareness, and understanding among people.
    We would like to ask you to contribute as an author to the website by writing even one single post with photos and/or videos about the region of the world you live in. Your post can be externally linked to your personal websites, blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter account, and/or anything else you like, in order to promote your own activity.
    If possible, we would also like you to write your story (bio – where you live and how you decided to live your life abroad) – example: https://www.peopleabroad.org/nerissa-filipino-living-in-italy/.
    To become an author, it is not necessary to live in a different country from where you were born, but simply to know a bit of the world by having lived, studied, or traveled abroad.
    Please, sign up to our website at https://www.peopleabroad.org/register/ and send all your files with things you would like to share (your story or your posts) by email to people(at)peopleabroad(dot)org. In case of big files, send them by WETRANSFER.
    Since this website is still under construction, we do not have yet made it available to search engines for indexation. So, to access it, just type http://www.PeopleAbroad.org.
    We are just starting and that is why your help is essential. We would love to see you onboard!
    All the best,
    Nerissa
    PeopleAbroad.org

    Reply
  8. This is terrific! Thank you for sharing, and please continue!

    Reply
  9. I see the impact of how perfectionism has dug its claws into my clients all the time. Together we work to loosen its grip. What I love about you sharing this is that there is permission to say, “Yeah, I fall into that trap – and I see there is a way out.” On the other side of perfectionism is freedom, joy and high performance. – Sundae

    Reply

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