A Culture of Perfection is Inhibiting our Girls

What can we do as female role models to make a positive change? I’m on a challenge to…

What can we do as female role models to make a positive change?

I’m on a challenge to eradicate perfectionism in girls’ education.

It’s a big challenge, but not a new one. It requires an army of female role models to lead the way and I believe this can start with small behaviours that we can all relate to. There is a strong correlation with the more successful our girls (good grades, exceptional at sports, stellar musicianship), the greater chance of perfectionism creeping in, leading to a lifetime of self-doubt. Just ask any successful woman about her ‘inner’ journey and the challenge of achieving a perfect persona, all while feeling the need to have it all. This is when authentic conversations on the reality of the journey begin to flow.

No one talked about the crippling effect of perfectionism when we were young.

When the bar is set impossibly high, a constant feeling of being inadequate can result in our girls developing behaviour patterns such as giving up quickly, avoiding success, not taking action and questioning their self-worth. This is the last thing we want for our girls.

While times have changed and we know more about how negative perfectionism can be for females, we still have a long way to go.

I believe there are THREE key behaviours and lessons that we can embrace as female role models for the next generation:

Lesson 1 – Self-compassion is more powerful than self-criticism.

Recently our school celebrated Book Week. This is a day when our girls dress up as their favourite book character. As a Principal, I love this day. It showcases our girls’ love of reading and stretches their imagination. However, as a working parent, I dreaded this day every year when my children were younger. It was less stressful in the early years when you could rely on a fly-by visit to Spotlight (usually the night before!) to purchase a fully-crafted costume with all the bells and whistles to ensure your child looked the part.

The pressure increased significantly when schools changed the criteria to encourage a homemade creation that kept the costs low (apparently!) and required the children to create their own costumes (with guidance from parents). With limited costume creativity in my household, the night before Book Week celebrations was always intense and ended every year with a meltdown and texts to the Drama Department the morning of the event to raid the costume department for a cape and a wand. Every year my children were wizards and would head off to Book Week looking just like Harry Potter.

For years I felt like the worst parent at school, especially when I would see the other families’ efforts. I needed to remind myself, and my children, that it was the best we could deliver at that time, given the millions of things we were juggling. They still had fun and even saw the humour at the repetition of their costume each year. We all learnt that self-compassion is more powerful than self-criticism.

Lesson 2 – Calling it out – knowing when comparisons are NOT helpful.

The trajectory of success is not a straight line. There are many twists, turns, backward steps and hills on the way. So why do girls, and women, constantly compare themselves to others at key moments in time? Too often we hear our girls question themselves. Are they smart enough? Funny enough? Pretty enough? Social enough?

As humans we can all get stuck in the comparison trap, but what can we do to help our girls to think differently and know when comparisons are useful, and not harmful?

Comparisons can encourage our girls to aspire to something positive and challenge our girls toward self-improvement, but comparison is also a sure way to fuel negative self-talk. Comparisons can make our girls create a fictional version of what they want people to see and what they wish were true. The minute they fall into this trap, their authenticity starts to fade, and feelings of insecurity, low self-esteem and unrealistic expectations start to creep in.

Working in girls’ education, I see this too often when girls compare their achievements. Comparison of grades, results, scores, and outcomes can be crippling to a girls’ self-confidence. For example, the result of a B grade for one girl may be a celebration of hard work, whereas a B grade for another is the result of cruising and putting little effort in. To help combat comparison, girls need to discover their inner strengths and what makes them great. It also helps to be reminded that people are not always focussed on them or thinking about them all the time.

In a recent conversation with a Year 12 student, only a few weeks away from graduating, I asked her what she was hoping to do next year. She started her reply with, ‘Well, at school I’m just average so …….”. I interrupted her immediately and asked her what her strengths were. This changed the conversation instantly. I then reminded her of how her uniqueness will be one of her greatest assets beyond the walls of school. It was the truth. The young women in front of me was anything but average. She was bright, entertaining and delightfully engaging. She just needed to be reminded of her potential.

Knowing when comparisons are not beneficial to a girl’s confidence is key. I encourage all female role models to help our girls realise this difference by calling out negative comments and behaviours, before they gain momentum. Sometimes our girls will compare themselves without even noticing they are doing it. Channelling our girls’ thinking in a different way and replacing this mindset with a positive self-belief can help our girls change their behaviours and thinking patterns.

 Lesson 3 – Complimenting girls’ efforts, not their results and not going overboard with praise.

The research is alarmingly clear on the impact of focussing on efforts and process, rather than results and natural talents. Not surprisingly, this applies to adults as much as it applies to girls. Studies show that girls that are praised for effort, rather than their intelligence, are willing to try harder tasks than those who are told they are smart. Focussing on effort empowers our girls with an action that they can control. In the long term, the results of this approach, leads to better outcomes for our girls.

Research on effort and success concludes that a person with a growth mindset (versus a fixed mindset) has a higher chance of developing a strong work ethic, perseverance, and resilience. This mindset is so much more important in the long run for our girls to help them prepare for the real world. Part of the process of working towards a goal is also making mistakes and getting things wrong. Imperfection is one of the best cures for perfectionism!

Too often as parents, and educators, we over marinate our girls with praise. Don’t get me wrong. There is absolutely a place for praise, especially when it’s well deserved. It makes us feel noticed and proud. However in the last decade the need for praise has exploded. Some girls have learnt to constantly seek praise and recognition. It’s not uncommon in schools to receive comments such as “why was my daughter not recognised in the newsletter, or on social media, or mentioned at the assembly?” This need for praise can also come from the girls, which does nothing more than fuel an unhealthy addiction to praise. Praise becomes their fix, their dependency, and when our girls enter the world beyond school and praise is not forthcoming for everything they do and achieve, they won’t have the capacity to rely on their intrinsic reward. As with all things, it’s the balance that counts. The right kind of praise at the right time in the right quantity is key.

Perfectionism kills our girls’ ability to love themselves for who they are. As the adults in their lives, whether you’re their teacher or their parent, we have an obligation to change this narrative and demonstrate that making mistakes is part of being human. Remove the comparisons and show them what it looks like to know your own strengths, so that they can see theirs. Use your power of praise carefully and powerfully and teach them that they don’t need someone else to make them feel special – they are enough.