Sitting down to write this about girls and the curse of perfectionism, it dawned on me that I too have perfectionist tendencies. I hesitated to get started as I was worried that I would not get it just right. I became frustrated and cross with myself for obsessing about each sentence. Before I knew it, hours had passed as I was caught up stressing about how I was ever going to get it done and then whether it was even going to be any good!
The pressures today for girls to be perfect permeate from every aspect of their lives. Whether it is posting gorgeous Instagram photos and getting the commensurate number of ‘likes’, sending witty Snapchats, gaining a string of A*’s, making the A team (and looking good doing it) or winning an art scholarship - the pressure is ubiquitous and unrelenting. It's exhausting and it's a big issue.
Perfectionist tendencies are well documented to be more prevalent in girls than in boys and it starts early. Research by Girlguiding UK found that a quarter of seven-to 10-year-old girls felt the need to be perfect. It is also clear that the pressures continue in their later lives as an internal survey of women working at Hewlett-Packard found women applied for a promotion only when they met 100% of the qualifications. Men applied when they met just 50%.
Perfectionist pressure, seeing anything other than perfection as failure, results in girls playing it safe and it crushes risk taking, creativity and ambition. The loss of self believe that comes from falling short of unrealistic expectations can push girls into a vicious cycle where the anxiety around perfection hinders their willingness to try, to take risks or to make decisions then performance suffers and stress increases.
Rachel Simmons’ book The Curse of the Good Girl argues that in raising the ‘Good Girl ‘and urging her to be perfect we teach girls to embrace a compromised version of themselves. “Good girls who are expected to follow rules and appear perfect, are taught to make little room for risk… They end up playing it safe and it becomes a self-reinforcing habit: the more comfortable girls become with taking the easy road, the more terrifying failure will become…”
These girls who are afraid to take risks for fear of failure are at a minimum selling themselves short and in the extreme, are at risk of severe anxiety that can lead to mental health problems. Our aim should be to raise girls to be the most courageous confident and authentic versions of themselves. So how can we help?
To accept less than perfection these girls need to change their mind-set. Instead of focusing on and worrying about the outcome they need to relish the process and enjoy the journey, while accepting and embracing failure and recognising that real learning comes from the struggle. Perhaps most importantly they need the self-esteem to be able to tell themselves that less than perfect is ok, that they have done or are being their best.
The good news is that there is a growing focus on busting the myth of perfectionism. Educators in particular are increasingly vocal in pointing out that “striving” to be this good perfect girl erodes self-esteem or, worse, means that self-respect is disproportionately dependent on striving and achievement.
As Tom Nehmy of The Healthy Minds Institute puts it: “We need to teach our girls the distinction between a healthy striving to achieve and an unhealthy perfectionism which is usually a self-imposed pursuit of unrealistic high standards”. Brave and resilient but not perfect.
Being brave means operating outside your comfort zone and being able to let go of perfection. “We want to teach our girls to be comfortable with imperfection” says Rashma Soujani who set up the highly effective “Girls who Code” programme in the US and is a champion of crushing the perfectionist myth. She argues that in teaching girls to code she has ‘socialied them to be brave’. Coding is an endless process of trial and error – it requires perseverance and imperfection. The girls gain competence and confidence which in turn boosts their self-esteem.
Help girls to unburden their fears, worries thoughts and ideas. Research confirms that naming and sharing emotions helps lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone in our system. Naming the tough feeling is shown to be first step in addressing the emotion and gaining some perspective. When we empathise without judgment or criticism without trying to fix the problem, we create a safe place for our daughters to share. Show your daughter that they are loved and accepted for who they are right here and now. We can also help them to work on their self-talk. Challenge their assumptions and teach them that they can retrain their thoughts to look at situations from a more realistic and helpful perspective.
Once we have listened with empathy we can help them problem solve. First break goals down – when faced with a task that appears overwhelming such as a pile of homework or joining a new activity, work with them to break it down in to small manageable steps. Approaching challenges one step at a time builds confidence and helps them feel competent. Remind them that a journey of 1000 miles starts with the first step. Slowly building competencies and feeling in control and successful is a key to reducing anxiety and stress and builds self-esteem.
Problem solving skills also teach resilience. Rather than offering solutions and fixing problems for them, we need to help our girls articulate and define the problem and then explore possible solutions. Feeling ownership of the solution is empowering. Over time this problem solving approach helps girls learn flexibility and builds resilience to the challenges that they encounter. They will have the bravery to take risks and try and fail if they feel competent in their ability to problem solve.
How we react to our children’s mistakes and struggles can contribute to how they feel about them. Are we unwittingly contributing to the embarrassment or shame the self-critical can feel over the smallest mistakes? Children take on our values when they see them in action. We can model using mistakes and failures as a learning opportunity. Walk the talk by showing them that what they put in is more important than the outcome. I am taking up French again and it gives me ample opportunity to model making mistakes and showing the frustrations that come with improving or learning a new skill. Talk about your mistakes, how you coped and focus on the positive: there is always a silver lining. Importantly show how you moved on and don’t revisit or dwell on the mistake or failure. This teaches girls that they are not defined by their mistakes and it is liberating.
We can help them focus on the attitude, the effort and the striving to do their best rather than focusing on the achievement or outcome or indeed the performance of others. This is a growth mindset approach as developed by Carol Dweck of Stanford University. In Dweck’s studies students are taught that the brain is a muscle which strengthens with use and that mistakes are a vital part of the learning process. Dweck found that trying to be perfect stops us from reaching our potential. How are they going to enjoy the struggle that is a key part of learning if they are not willing to be brave and take the risk? If we communicate and positively reinforce this growth mind-set skill through noticing and mentioning the struggle, the input and the effort we can help reinforce this approach.
Girls are increasingly influenced by a bombardment of images and messages on social media - and the influence is to be perfect. We need to get involved in the conversation and work with our daughters to limit the time they spend on social media, keep an eye on what they are experiencing on-line and coach them to understand that what people do and say on line can be very false: it is a manifestation of what they think the world wants of them, what they want to portray which is often very different from reality. We can also teach them how social media works - it is not weakness on their part that they are feel distracted or in extreme cases addicted to social media, but rather it is the design of the apps and the nature of the interaction that pulls them in and keeps them there. Awareness, limits and communication are the key.
The perfectionist is chasing the mirage – a far off thing of beauty and of nourishment that, despite one’s efforts to reach it, remains allusive. Understanding the agony of perfectionism – striving for the perfect life, the perfect marks, the perfect relationships helps us appreciate the importance of helping our daughters to develop a healthy mind-set around their own self-worth and endeavour. We are not suggesting our girls shouldn’t strive to achieve their realistic goals. However, we want them to do so believing that they are capable and good enough and that they should not define themselves by what they achieve but rather how they travel along the road to self-satisfaction all the while knowing that they are loved and accepted for being brave, courageous and not perfect.
Article by Heather Rutherford for The Parenting Partnership
Published September 16, 2019