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4 Things Your Well-Behaved Daughter Secretly Needs From You

Caralena Peterson

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I am the child you’ve never had to worry about – the self-motivated “good girl” who has become quite skilled at meeting and surpassing expectations. Other parents make comments to you about me: “Y’all must be so proud” and, of course, you are. But what you might not know is that I live for that feeling of making you and my community proud. My successes have led me to internalize that I am most valuable, most lovable, when living up to the standard of effortless perfection that demands I have the perfect grades, perfect body and perfect social life, and make all of that seem like it is just flowing out of me as a natural expression of who I am.

For now, I am more than happy to be that girl – I am ensured love, attention, and conventional success for as long as I fit this persona. I don’t yet realize how restricting it is. I don’t yet realize the extremes I go to to avoid conflict, or how overwhelmed I feel by the psychological cost of causing someone to feel irritated with or disappointed in me. When I feel any negative feelings or resentments, they have to be internalized. They do not contribute to my “good girl” image, so they aren’t allowed to exist. I have to be always happy, always thankful, always smiling. Never angry, never bitter.

As a parent, this mindset is hard to understand. You’ve never demanded this from me. You’ve even encouraged me to try things outside my comfort zone and not be afraid to make mistakes. But for some reason, I cannot let go of my sense of self built on pleasing others.

To the outside eye, I am a brilliant ball of potential poised for nothing but success. In reality, I am setting myself up for a major mental breakdown. And when the time comes, I won’t know how to ask for help because I’ve never been the squeaky wheel before. Here are some of the ways you can make it easier (and more fruitful) for me to ask for help:

Know the Stats

Depression disproportionately affects women. By late adolescence, I am twice as likely as boys my age to experience depression — a trend that continues throughout adulthood. By the age of nineteen, there is a one-in-five chance I’ve already experienced a depressive episode, and an even higher likelihood I’ve encountered minor or mild symptoms of depression.

College can be an especially hard time for the “Effortlessly Perfect” girl because, though I’ve been told time and time again that this will be the best four years of my life, that is not always the case. Unexpected challenges await. According to the 2013 National College Health Assessment, which examined data from 125,000 students at more than 150 institutions of higher learning, “About one-third of U.S. college students had difficulty functioning in the last twelve months due to depression, and almost half said they felt overwhelming anxiety in the last year.” Furthermore, the National Alliance on Mental Illness found that, while only 7 percent of parents report that their children are experiencing mental health issues in college, a full 50 percent of college students rate their mental health as below average or poor. Most likely, I am (or will be) good at putting on a brave face and fake smile, but that doesn’t always mean I’ve got everything under control.

Open Lines of Communication by Sharing Your Own Vulnerabilities

Many parents fear pushing their children away by making them talk about serious topics. I can be a particularly difficult vault to crack as the “Effortlessly Perfect” girl, because I’m used to being the fixer. A core part of my identity is helping others with their struggles while asking for nothing in return. The best way to get me to open up to you is to share one of your own vulnerabilities first, as I have a hard time trusting I am still valuable and lovable if I need something from someone and have nothing to give in return. When we both share, the conversation feels more like a communal experience and opportunity for group commiseration as opposed to an intervention addressing a flaw that I alone bear.

I don’t necessarily want or need to be “fixed.” I just want someone to reassure me that it is possible to go through jolting realizations about the often unpredictable nature of our world and come out the other side okay. Your stories of struggle provide proof of just that for me.

It’s understandable that parents often feel the need to always present stoic strength to their children to provide them with a sense of stability, but if used properly, vulnerabilities are jewels that can be used for building relationships. When we open up about our vulnerabilities, we are communicating to our confidant, “I know that by telling you this secret about myself I am giving you the ability to hurt me, but I am choosing to give you that power anyway because I trust you.” That trust is the foundation of all deep relationships.

While the parent-to-child relationship is different from a friend-to-friend relationship — the line for oversharing lies in closer proximity — it is still a necessary part of forming a sense of shared experience. Once that shared experience is established, you, as the older, wiser confidant, have the ability to deliver the message that I, as your child, need to hear: “I know you feel you can’t trust the universe right now to make sure everything will be okay, but you can put your trust in me to trust for you that you will be okay.”

Affirm the Validity of My Feelings

As the “Effortlessly Perfect” girl, I often struggle to ask for help because I don’t feel whatever I’m going through is “bad enough” to feel the way I feel. I might say to myself, “I have the perfect life. I get to attend XYZ college. I get good grades and have access to great internships and future jobs. I am well-liked…” The shocking stories I see on the news and social media are a constant reminder that there are others who have been through so much worse. So, I feel the odd need to “earn” my mental health struggles. Sexual assault is not enough; it has to be a violent rape. Depression is not enough; it has to be a suicide attempt. I fear being seen as weak, shallow, unappreciative, and attention-seeking to ask help for anything less.

As my parent, I need you to help me understand that this is an unfair schema for judging my mental toughness. The probability one will experience depression ultimately boils down to two things — genes and environmental triggers. Depression is a biochemical condition and, depending on our genes, some of us are more prone based on our brain chemistry. However, whether or not certain elements of those genes express themselves depends on external factors such as stress and trauma, which “activate” them. Thus, an individual who has inherited a susceptibility to “brain chemistry imbalance” may feel stress and tragedy more deeply than an individual without that susceptibility would.

Mental health is not a contest. Pain is pain. Hurt is hurt. Just because someone else I know experienced something worse than me and seems fine doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to ask for help regarding my own issues.

Encourage Me to Question My Sources of Motivation

Many girls like me who struggle with perfectionism wear it as a badge of honor, rather than recognizing it as the maladaptive coping mechanism and form of self-harm it often is. We are addicted to the reassurance given by outside approval. Our need for validation causes us to inspect ourselves through the lens of others: What will THEY think of me? Will I make THEM proud? How can I prove my worth to THEM?

Do me a favor, and ask me who this mysterious “They/Them” is. After some internal probing, I may realize my perfectionist drive has much less to do with gaining approval from this never-satisfied “Them” and much more to do with keeping my own personal insecurities at bay. Often, “Them” is merely a projection of my own internal struggles on the rest of the world. I have a hard time wrapping my head around this because I don’t want to believe this kind of intense pressure could be coming from within myself.

Author and spiritual leader Marianne Williamson writes, “Until we have met the monsters in ourselves, we keep trying to slay them in the outer world.” Indeed, I need to learn to live with my demons, instead of compartmentalizing them within walls made of compliments and awards and leadership titles. I need help making this connection and, also, taking some responsibility for the pressures I feel.

One way to get this message across may be sharing with me the following metaphor from another acclaimed spiritual leader, Maurice Boyd. One of his famous sermons draws an eye-opening parallel: “At Waterfords [sic] Crystal, each piece of crystal is meticulously inspected, held up to the light, each surface appraised for the slightest crack or deformity. If any is spotted, the piece is immediately shattered … for a defect nearly invisible to the human eye. Notice how close perfection is to despair.”

Help me understand, when the flip side of perfection is obliteration, it makes sense to feel like everything is constantly at stake. That’s too much pressure to bear. I need to develop a healthier standard of success for myself, or I will continue to feel like I’m constantly one step away from disaster.

All in all, young women like me, who’ve become accustomed to being the child their parents never need to worry about, feel the need to protect our parents from what we are feeling inside. By knowing the mental health statistics surrounding women my age, opening lines of communication by sharing your own vulnerabilities with me, affirming the validity of my feelings, and encouraging me to question my sources of motivation, you are taking four key steps to help me lower my guard and let you in. I likely still need you more than I’m willing to realize.

 

Caralena Peterson’s book, The Effortless Perfection Myth: Debunking the Myth and Revealing the Path to Empowerment for Today’s College Women, is available today on Amazon.

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