Bravery, Perfectionism and Mental Health
Updated: Aug 1, 2018
As the father of a young girl and as someone who has worked with a huge number of teen girls struggling with anxiety and low self esteem, I encourage you to watch this video and think about how you relate to the young girls in your life.
I have seen a natural bent towards perfectionism and fear of failure in both my children (currently my girl is 8 and my boy is 6). Now I think there can be genetic and other experiential reasons why someone, regardless of gender, can lean toward perfectionism which leads to risk avoidance, but a lot of my experience suggests that our socialised expectations of girls are often reinforcing and encouraging this.
My personal experience in secondary schools, as a teacher originally and for the past 10 years as a counsellor, is that the argument being made here holds a lot of truth. I am constantly challenged as a father to reflect on any unconscious bias I have in my expectations for my daughter. To make sure I am supporting her to take risks, fail, make mistakes and learn from them, as I am also trying to do the same for my son.
It is good for everyone to be brave, not perfect.
This video talks about the impact of this on achievement but only alludes to the mental health cost of this socialisation. I have worked with so many girls who are crushed by anxiety around getting it perfect, to the point where they won't attempt something if they don't think they can succeed at it. Furthermore, if something occurs that prevents them from living up to their own internal expectations of perfection, it becomes a massive internal crisis of identity that is overwhelming, often leading to panic attacks and extremely low self esteem that can have drastic effects on their mental health.
To believe that to “be smart" means to never make a mistake, is exceptionally common in those suffering from extreme anxiety and, in my experience, girls are highly represented in those statistics.
Now, many people move through life coping with the internal pressure of these deeply held beliefs, and many never stop coping, but it shapes and limits their life. Others hit a wall, the coping stops and they are pushed into fight or flight mode, often hurting themselves and the people around them as they struggle with fear, anger or self loathing. To be clear, often there are really understandable reasons why someone is no longer coping. A challenging life circumstance is often the final straw, but sometimes is just the cumulative effect of an internal pressure over time.
If you're feeling challenged by perfectionism and you are realising it is controlling your life choices, you're living with high anxiety or simply feeling really bad about being you, a self help tool you can engage with as a starting place is Think Ladder. This is a New Zealand designed app that can help you begin a journey towards no longer being controlled by beliefs that are not helping you live life fully who you are. Seeing a professional counsellor like myself to gain support to change is a powerful tool you can also use on your journey.