Many girls I work with tell me they are stressed — really stressed. They feel exhausted and overwhelmed. They have headaches, trouble sleeping, chronically tight muscles, fatigue and lack of appetite or weight gain, which are recognised signs of stress.
Why do our young women feel such debilitating pressure?
I believe many teen girls are suffering from the Supergirl epidemic. They feel they must be smart, popular, thin and attractive, all while displaying a Paris Hiltonesque worldliness. American writer Courtney Martin in her book Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters sums up the modern girl’s dilemma this way:
We have the ultimate goal of effortless perfectionism.
The reality is that striving for perfection is actually unachievable, let alone exhausting.
Many girls desperately fear making mistakes, believing they cannot let down their guard for even one moment. For my upcoming book, The Butterfly Effect, my interviews with girls gave me valuable insight:
I worry so much about getting things wrong in class. What will people think of me if I do? If I don’t know something, I pretend I do so the teacher won’t think less of me. Everyone thinks I am such a great student and that learning comes easily to me — and I do get good marks, but I feel sick sometimes thinking about how long I will need to keep up this effort for. — Joanne, 14
The worst thing about being a teen girl is people condemning you when you fall when, in fact, you only just tripped and learned something. — Yan, 16
If I make a mistake I want to cry. I hate that I am a big failure. But you can’t let anyone know you feel like that so you just shrug it off and go, ‘whatever’. But I replay my mistakes over and over in my head later. — Lucy, 15
The message we need to send our girls is that while they can do anything, they do not have to do it all at once, nor do they have to get it right every time.
We can serve as positive role models by refusing to buy into the hype that we need to be “Yummy Mummys” who can do it all. This may mean letting our own guard down and setting aside our perfectionist tendencies. Amelia Toffoli, the Principal at St Brigid’s College Lesmurdie, one of Enlighten’s Western Australian client schools, offers this great advice:
A mother should share personal failures as well as successes and explain to her daughter what she may have learnt from mistakes. It gives daughters hope that they too can move on from a poor choice.
Another angle is to create opportunities for girls to engage in exploration and self-discovery, and pursue activities that make them feel good — even if they won’t result immediately in a concrete reward such as good marks or acclaim. In a May 2009 article on teen girls and perfectionism, a teacher in the United States, Jamie Donohoe, shared his favorite assignment that he gives his English students: to fulfil a small secret dream, something the student always wanted to do but never dared to for fear of failure or embarrassment. I love this!
Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that Enlighten Education’s Chill Out workshops are increasingly popular with schools. We involve girls in practical, fun techniques that can help alleviate the physical symptoms of stress. For instance, positive visualisation helps girls develop new, more positive self-talk so they can respond calmly and optimistically to life’s inevitable challenges and setbacks. This is something we perhaps all could benefit from. We cannot always control the events that we experience, but we can control how we respond.
Do you know of any other good ideas for helping girls move beyond perfectionism?