Perfectionism in Girls · ep. 33 · 10 for Teens + Tweens

Perfectionist girl holds several trophies

Girls feel immense pressure to achieve in school, activities, accomplishments, and even appearance. And when they don’t measure up, perfectionism wreaks havoc in their lives. How can tween and teen girls beat perfectionism?

Practice makes “Perfect”?

When I was a tween and teen, I tried a few sports, had piano and voice lessons, and took dance and acting classes. Are you involved in any activities like that? Ok, so over those years of lessons and practices, I heard (and internalized) the phrase, “Practice makes perfect.” Are people still saying that? The phrase has been around for a long time, and while it’s meant to encourage someone to keep trying something so they get better at it, some people–especially girls–feel immense pressure to achieve perfection. And not just in performing arts or sports, but also perfection in school, accomplishments, and even appearance.

This is called perfectionism.

What Perfectionism is

In their book, The Confidence Code for Girls, (highly recommend!) authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman describe their metaphor for Perfectionism as,

“A really dangerous disease. An invasive, strangling vine that creeps into your life and chokes everything in its path. It stresses you out and keeps you from taking risks. And most importantly, it keeps you from being you.”

I couldn’t agree more! I’ve struggled with perfectionism my whole life and that’s exactly how it feels: invading, strangling, stressing, and restraining.

So what is Perfectionism? It’s not accepting anything less than perfect. It’s having unrealistic, high expectations or trying to meet impossible standards. Perfectionism wants you to be the most and the best; to do and get everything right. Perfectionism strives only for excellence and flawlessness. There’s no room for mediocrity or mistakes.

It’s all or nothing: either you are perfect or you fail, nothing in between.

What Perfectionism look like

How does perfectionism show up in teen and tween girls? Can you think of any high expectations and standards? Like some girls stress about a grade less than 100%. Or worry they don’t have enough experience to look impressive on an application; or feel if they don’t win 1st place, it’s like coming in last; or get very discouraged if they make even one mistake during a performance; or if they miss a play, especially at the end of the game, they let their team down.

And how about appearance, like the impossible standards of perfection set by the beauty, diet, and fashion industries about hair/makeup/features, body shape/size, and trendy clothes/shoes/accessories. Those expectations are then reinforced on social media, and not just by brands, celebrities, and influencers, but by people you know who “woke up like this” and are “living their best life.” On top of that, there’s pressure to post certain content to get likes/followers/emojis.

Perfectionism stems from pressure to meet expectations from self and others. Because of constant critique, criticism, judgement, comparison, and competition, girls often strive for perfection to get approval, acceptance, validation from friends, family, teachers/coaches and others as reassurance that they are “enough.”

Perfection is unrealistic to expect and impossible to achieve, yet we perfectionists still aim for it.

And when we don’t measure up, perfectionism wreaks havoc in our lives.

Perfectionists

Dr. Elizabeth Scott, a psychologist and stress expert, identified these 10 traits of perfectionists:

  • All or nothing thinking
  • Being highly critical
  • Feeling pushed by fear
  • Having unrealistic standards
  • Focusing only on results
  • Feeling depressed by unmet goals
  • Fear of failure
  • Procrastination
  • Defensiveness
  • Low self-esteem

Perfectionism in tween and teen girls has also been linked to mental illness. As Katie Hurley shares in her book, No More Mean Girls (also highly recommend!),

“Perfectionism comes at a hefty cost. … Whether [girls] feel the need to meet their own self-prescribed and unrealistic expectations or the expectations they feel others place upon them, the end result is symptoms of both anxiety and depression.”

Progress > Perfect

If you can relate to those traits or feelings, I feel ya, you’re not alone. And the fact that you can recognize perfectionism will help you beat it. 

Here are a few more tools that can help when you notice your thoughts are skewed by perfectionism:

  • Challenge the thoughts by asking yourself, “Is this really true?” Whether it’s negative self-talk, all or nothing thinking, fearing failure (fixed mindset), take a step back and see if you can reframe the thoughts, like reword it with a growth mindset (listen to ep.001 You Are Enough for more).
  • Practice self-compassion by giving yourself the same kindness and understanding that you would to a friend, like we discussed in ep.007 Empathy. I doubt you would criticize your friend if they didn’t dance like a viral tik tokker, so treat yourself the same way.
  • Allow yourself to mess up! Everyone does because no one is perfect. You’re human and you’re going to make mistakes–and even fail–and that’s okay because those can help you learn and improve. This is also self-compassion, and it can really take the pressure off.
  • Redefine success by setting realistic goals and focusing on your progress, then celebrating it! (check out ep. 006 Go Get Your Goals Girl) Practice doesn’t make perfect; practice makes progress. And you are a wonderful work in progress.

A note for Parents

As a quick note to any parents who are listening, look I’m not a parenting expert, but I’m a parent and I’m sure our girls would appreciate if we practiced these tools, too. Girls feel pressure to live up to parents’ expectations. They want us to be proud of them and don’t want to let us down. If you haven’t seen Turning Red yet, I won’t share any spoilers, but a line from the beginning of the movie really struck me: “Honoring your parents sounds great, but if you take it too far, well, you might forget to honor yourself.”

Being perfect is completely overrated. To quote Harry Styles (apparently),

“A real girl isn’t perfect, and a perfect girl isn’t real.”

Download: A Real Girl Isn’t Perfect Poster

And you bet I put that quote on the poster for this episode for you to print out, personalize (maybe add a picture of Harry), and post on your wall where you’ll see it, remember it, practice it, and believe it — that’s the important part.

More on Perfectionism:

You may also want to check out:

Books:
A Perfectly Messed-Up Story, by Patrick McDonnell
What to Do When Mistakes Make You Quake: A Kid’s Guide to Accepting Imperfection

Movie: Peanuts

If you have favorites to add to this list, or have a topic suggestion, I’d love to hear from you! Send an email (tweens get the OK from your parents) to [email protected] .

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