Have you noticed your daughter suffers from high anxiety surrounding failure? Does she become easily frustrated when trying something new? Maybe she’s self-critical or easily embarrassed. If these behaviors sound familiar, she may struggle with perfectionism.
By Heather Landreth, GPS Upper School Counselor, & Casey Caldwell Santos ‘08, GPS Middle School Counselor
Perfectionism. We hear the term all the time—in fact, many of us likely use it endearingly. If someone compliments your daughter on her perfect test score, for instance, you might smile and say, “She is such a perfectionist!” But the line between working toward attainable goals and focusing her physical and emotional bandwidth on unreasonable standards can be thin.
Perfectionism vs. Healthy Striving
Most people experience that inner drive that guides them to improve. Whether it’s acing a presentation or running a faster mile, a yearning to do better is healthy. The issue lies in setting expectations; when it all boils down, are they realistic?
Described by psychologists Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill as a mixture between excessively high standards (“I must excel at everything I do”) and significant self-criticism (“If I fall short, I have failed”), perfectionism can be debilitating for a girl’s confidence and can wreak havoc on her emotional wellbeing. When a girl suffers with perfectionism, she sets standards that are unattainable and becomes preoccupied with fears of failure or disappointment. She may become overly defensive when criticized or see mistakes as evidence that she’s unworthy.
Healthy striving, on the other hand, is all about setting standards that are high but within reach. When a girl has a healthy determination to succeed, she enjoys the process as much as the outcome. She can bounce back quickly from failure and can see falling short as an opportunity to learn and grow. Fear of failure won’t hold her back. Criticism can even provide perspective.
The Lasting Effects of Perfectionism
When there is a fear of falling short, even if expectations are unrealistic, girls can experience anxiety that results in an unwillingness to try, to take risks, or to make decisions. This cycle of uncertainty leads to decreased performance and thus, additional stress—it’s a vicious cycle.
The Dove Self Esteem Fund found in its Global Beauty and Confidence Report that nearly 8 in 10 girls feel pressure to never make mistakes or show weakness. A follow up study showed that doubts like these result in girls avoiding friends and family or trying out for a team or club.
The lack of confidence and preoccupation with perfection continues well beyond school, hindering career opportunities as well. In a survey of employees working at Hewlett-Packard, women admitted to applying for a promotion only when they met 100 percent of the qualifications, while men applied when they met just 50 percent.
Tips for Managing Perfectionism
If you recognize perfectionist tendencies in your daughter, addressing them early will help set her up for success in the future. In her book Enough As She Is: How to Help Girls Move Beyond Impossible Standards of Success to Live Healthy, Happy, and Fulfilling Lives, author Rachel Simmons offers tips for shifting the narrative to exchange perfectionism for healthy striving:
- Help her identify what she can and can’t control. Whether your daughter wants to be the star athlete or tries to get a perfect score on every English test, help her understand certain circumstances that influence her success are out of her control. She can’t control how athletic her peers are or how challenging her teacher makes the tests. Her effort in each area is what she can control.
- Model healthy self-talk. If you want your daughter to practice what you preach, it’s important you serve as a good role model for her. Try using self-compassion rather than self-criticism in your own life. If you mess up, instead of saying, “I failed and embarrassed myself,” say, “I’m proud of myself for trying.” In new situations, rather than saying, “I’ve never done this before, I’ll probably be bad at it,” consider, “This is a great opportunity for me to learn from others and grow.” When your daughter hears you speak positively about yourself, she’ll realize it’s OK to be kind to herself as well.
- Evaluate your own expectations. Sometimes we don’t realize that we are putting pressure on our children to be perfect. Monitor your expectations over time to see if you are asking too much. If your daughter continually fails to meet your goals or wants to quit, you may be setting unrealistic expectations that can’t be met. Additionally, speak with her about setting her own individual goals. After all, she knows best what she’s capable of, when she can push herself, and when she should give herself grace.
- Praise efforts over outcomes. Rather than praise your daughter for getting a perfect score on her math test, praise her for studying hard. The goal is to help her understand that achievement isn’t the only thing that matters. You can also praise her for things such as being a good friend and trying new things.
- Share your own failures. It’s important that your daughter understands you aren’t perfect, and you don’t expect her to be. Tell her about times you have fallen short, whether it’s a test you bombed, a job you didn’t get, or a time you didn’t put your best foot forward. What did you do next? How did you learn from your mistake? She’ll appreciate hearing that you don’t expect her to get everything right.
- Teach healthy coping skills. While failure is uncomfortable, it’s also inevitable. Teach your daughter healthy habits for dealing with disappointment. Perhaps it’s talking it out with a friend or writing her feelings in a journal. A long walk in the fresh air could also do the trick. The idea is for her to work through her emotions rather than bottling them up and letting them fester.
If you feel your daughter is struggling with perfectionism and could use additional help, reach out to a counselor or therapist. A professional can help your daughter jumpstart her journey to becoming the competent and capable young woman you know she can be.