The Danger of Perfectionism in Girls: How Parents Can Help Their Daughters Let Go of the Need to Be Perfect

You’ve likely heard the phrase “I’m a perfectionist” during interviews or project reviews. Often, this refers to someone being overly meticulous about their work—striving for “better” or procrastinating due to fear of failure.

Perfectionism is at the root of these behaviors. The American Psychological Association defines perfectionism as the tendency to demand an extremely high or flawless level of performance from oneself or others, exceeding what is necessary. This leads to a relentless focus on achievements and an incessant drive to always be better.

A study on perfectionism highlighted it as a personality trait marked by excessively high personal standards and harsh self-criticism.

Perfectionism is more prevalent among teenage girls than boys. This tendency can persist into adulthood, impacting their tasks, stifling creativity, and ultimately affecting their overall performance, health, and well-being.

A global study by Lego found that girls as young as five were exhibiting traits of perfectionism, with their quest for perfection hindering their creativity.

The Problem with Perfectionism

While striving for excellence can motivate overcoming adversity and developing resilience, perfectionism becomes an endless pursuit of the unattainable.

The National Institutes of Health in the United States reports that the pursuit of perfection can increase the risk of health issues such as eating disorders, anxiety, pathological worry, and, in severe cases, premature death.

Signs of perfectionism include:

  • Self-criticism
  • Holding oneself to different standards
  • Basing self-worth solely on achievements and performance
  • Constant comparison with others
  • Excessive checking, overthinking, and delaying tasks
  • Perpetual procrastination
  • Difficulty relaxing or “letting go”
  • Persistent thoughts of “not being good enough”
  • An all-or-nothing mindset

Interestingly, procrastination often accompanies perfectionism. Experts explain that perfectionism involves both seeking excellence and avoiding failure. When someone procrastinates, it may be due to the fear of not achieving perfection, causing them to delay tasks as long as possible.

Australian author and well-being coach Megan Dalla-Camina, writing in Psychology Today, noted: “For many people, this combination of perfectionism and procrastination can lead to roadblocks that deter success and progress.” She added that the stress from these behaviors can lead to burnout.

Dr. Sng Khai Imm, a clinical psychologist and director of Hope for Tomorrow Psychology Centre, agreed: “When girls seek perfection, they can become overly focused on achieving this ‘perfect’ standard. Their focus becomes very narrow. They also avoid mistakes and are less interested in novel ideas that have less certainty for perfection, putting them at risk of failure. As a result, creativity, experimentation, and fun are lost.”

Girls Are Too Hard on Themselves

The pursuit of perfection often leads girls to be hard on themselves and strive relentlessly for an unattainable standard, according to Dr. Sng. “This creates a lot of stress and pressure,” she said. “Sometimes they ‘play it safe’ and avoid activities they feel they cannot perfect, limiting their experiences. For instance, they may abandon a hobby or activity when faced with difficulties instead of accepting setbacks as part of the process and developing resilience.”

Cultural factors also play a role. Asians tend to perceive higher perfectionistic expectations from their families compared to Western cultures, noted Dan Ng, a trainer counselor with over 10 years of experience. “In contrast to Western cultures, the consequences of shame (from failure) for Asian individuals can often be interpersonal in nature and even considered a cultural norm.”

A 2021 study found that perfectionism can extend well into adolescence, particularly affecting girls aged 16 to 19. This study also observed that girls were more impacted by socially prescribed perfectionism—pressure from family, friends, and their social circle—than by self-oriented perfectionism, which stems from internal pressure.

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