Girls today are pushing for perfection in all areas of their lives. Whether their goal is to attain the perfect smile, take the perfect selfie or perform perfectly at soccer, dance, martial arts — or possibly all of the above — girls are striving to excel, yet suffering when they can’t quite seem to reach that elusive destination called “perfect”. The moms whose daughters I work with often express deep concern about their little perfectionists, especially when they, themselves, struggle with perfectionism too.
What’s perplexing about this trend is that this generation of girls has the most opportunities, choices, and potential than any other generation before them. It’s natural to assume that this expansive freedom of choice should lead to greater happiness, yet girls today seem to be unhappier with themselves than ever. But this paradox begins to make sense when we consider the impact of our fast-paced, hyper-stimulating culture and the role of social media, which has been proven to promote low self-worth and negative body image. We need to understand both the causes of perfectionism, and how to navigate it in a healthier way.
What is it that fuels a growing girl’s perfectionist tendencies? To start, she’s socialized to want to emulate what she sees all around her, and in today’s mainstream media and her own social media channels, she sees a lot of artfully manufactured “perfection”. Photoshopped, filtered posts and images now come not only from famous pop stars and Netflix or YouTube sensations, but also from her peers and family. Exposed to more than 3,000 such images each day, she logically concludes that “perfect” is a healthy and attainable goal.
Marketers target the insecure, vulnerable, and impressionable young girls who are being groomed to believe they need expensive beauty products and name brand clothing to feel beautiful – or even acceptable. The beauty and fashion businesses are booming, but at the cost of girls’ plummeting self-esteem.
Girls can also become trapped in an illogical, black-and-white way of thinking that says, “If I look and act perfect, and if I am flawless in my performance, then I will be liked, which means I have value and worth”. The problem with this rationale is that there is no such thing as perfection. When a girl falls short of her target ideal, or doesn’t get it right the first time, she concludes there must be something wrong with her. To perfectionists, this can only mean one thing: she must try even harder to be perfect. This is a dangerous and self-defeating cycle, in which girls strive harder and harder to measure up, even as they feel they are falling further behind.
So what are girls really yearning for when they say they want to be “perfect”? They are longing for approval and validation. By linking their value to approval from others, they are searching outside of themselves in order to feel good and worthy. This quest often breeds disconnection from their true self-worth and their ability to nurture and grow their self-confidence, leaving them feeling tired, hopeless, and inadequate.
Ideas to support a perfectionist girl
Debunk the myth of perfection. There is no such thing as perfection – it’s merely a constructed idea, and believing in it not only wastes time and energy, but also provides a false sense of hope and security. Teach your girl that making mistakes is a natural and necessary part of life. As humans we all have our strengths and flaws, our virtues, values, and vices. The human experience is complete with triumphs and failures, moments of feeling good and also times of feeling not good enough. There is no perfect person, perfect day, or perfect moment. And there is certainly no such thing as the perfect life she believes populates her Instagram feed. There’s always a story behind the snapshot, and what she sees is not what she gets. Girls need to know this.
Discuss the idea of “perfectly imperfect”. Help her to shift her focus to the depth of connection within. This means embracing all of who she is and taking the time to explore her uniqueness, coming to understand she is “good enough”. Instead of constant criticism and self-rejection, girls needs to accept that a gap-toothed smile can be a beautiful expression of happiness, a quirky laugh can be wonderfully infectious to those around her, and a body that’s not model-thin can be a strong and healthy vessel for her mind and heart. Whatever the perceived imperfection, we can teach her to own what she’s got.
Teach her how to fail. Girls are great at avoiding failure. In fact, if failure is a potential outcome, they tend to avoid trying at all. Many girls are expert procrastinators when it comes to trying a new activity, fearful of failing, falling, and finding out they are not naturally gifted in that area. You can help by encouraging her to take baby steps toward mastering a new task, whether she’s learning how to skip rope or count by 10s. Emphasize her bravery and willingness to try more than the outcome itself. When girls can view striving as a process that inevitably includes mistakes and setbacks, they will be much more likely to begin feeling good about their incremental growth along the way.
Introduce her to self-compassion. I first learned about compassion from researcher Kristen Neff, who convinced me that it’s a wonderful way to shift attention away from the harsh criticism of perfectionism. Perfectionists often believe there is only one way to succeed – pushing, demanding more, and judging their own efforts. I hear a constant barrage of self-deprecating language from girls I work with and I have learned to help them become aware of their words and find replacement phrases. “I’m so bad at math; I’ll never get it” becomes “I’ll keep working hard and improve my math skills a little every day.” “I can’t believe I answered the wrong question in class and everyone laughed at me” becomes “We all make mistakes and it was pretty funny”. Self-compassion is self-kindness, especially in moments of suffering or difficulty, and it’s a gentle reminder that we need to show as much compassion towards ourselves as we would show a friend in need.
Striving for excellence is not all bad. Girls should have high standards and challenge themselves with goals that push them out of their comfort zone. Perfectionists, in particular, tend to have outstanding work ethic and determination. So we need to take the very best aspects of perfectionism and turn them toward acts of kindness, care, and compassion toward the self and others. This encourages girls to take risks, be braver, and enjoy the journey of being “perfectly imperfect”.
Lindsay Sealey is the author of Growing Strong Girls: Practical Tools to Cultivate Connection in the Preteen Years. She is also the founder and CEO of Bold New Girls and lives in Vancouver.