The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.
Over the years as a senior science teacher, I have noticed a trend among high achieving girls* (read note below on why only girls) that I call “hollowing out”.
Hollowing out is when the student shows up in the physical sense but “they are not there”; their soul, spirit, joie de vivre has disappeared and shut down. I have observed hollowing out in seniors who were previously dynamic, outgoing, and high functioning. I have no data to support this, only anecdotal conversations I’ve had with students and their parents over the years about this change in attitude, energy and grades.
A quote from a student struggling to hang in during her grad year after a successful high school career, has stuck with me:
“I am just so tired Ms. Durley, so tired of making everyone else happy, I just can’t do it anymore.”
Not only does the comment break my heart but it captures the emotional cost of being a high flyer and the burn out or “hollowing out” that can result. More haunting than her words, is the memory of the vacant and disconnected look that replaced the once curious twinkling bright eyes from years past.
This alone might make for a good write, but this year my observations moved from moderately concerned teacher to highly concerned parent, as I watched my 16-year-old daughter begin to hollow out.
I did not realize (or admit) what I was watching, until I read Scott McLeod’s post, My Son is a Maker, which hit me like a ton of bricks right in the gut. Part of the reason I avoided examining my feelings is I teach at the same school as my daughter and I felt conflicted. After months of reflection, I understand this issue is not school specific but rather a symptom of the system as a whole. I now feel comfortable discussing it openly; I do not specifically blame our school or staff and accept that I am part of the problem too (more conflict).
Down the proverbial garden path my mind has wandered over several months. Watchful for clues, of my daughter, of the children I work with. I began to wonder if other aspects of school culture are related to perfectionism.
Brené Brown describes perfectionists as: “raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people pleasing, appearance, sports)”. This description makes me think of our school environments, especially in senior years when 90% of what we do with our students is focused on their grades (quizzes, tests, GPA, college/university entrance, scholarships, honour roll, career choices etc.).
Senior years in high school academics are like the training grounds of thoroughbreds for the Kentucky Derby: how you get there does not matter as long as you bring home a ribbon. The drive to hyper-prepare students pointedly for post-secondary education comes at a cost I am not sure we have yet honestly accessed.
As Marc Prensky points out: It’s not that we did education wrong in the past; it’s that our past education no longer works in today’s context. What we did in the past is no longer working.
We can do better.
We need to do better.
We need to do so NOW.
As Brené Brown makes clear: “perfectionism hampers success. In fact it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction and life paralysis”. The irony is in our drive make our children “successful” we drive them away from it. Studies such as Women do better on math tests when they fake their names suggest that girls who feel they will be judged are negatively impacted.
Are challenges we face in our schools consequences of this perfectionist culture found in both schools and society at large?
1. Fear of sharing and openness – To share is to be vulnerable. To share is to open oneself up to potential criticism. The risk is great. To share risks that the world will potentially know that: I am not perfect and therefore not lovable. Brown states: “Belonging is in our DNA, most likely connected to our most primitive survival instinct. Given how difficult it is to cultivate self-acceptance in our perfectionist society and how our need for belonging is hardwired, it’s no wonder that we spend our lives trying to fit in and gain approval.”
Simon Sinek explains it as “Our need to belong is not rational, but it is a constant that exist across all peoples, in all cultures…When we feel like we belong we feel connected and we feel safe. As humans we crave the feeling and we seek it out.”
2. Lack of a unified consistent identity: Dr Alec Couros talks about the importance of a unified online identity. I wonder where and how do children develop a unified identity? Can they decide who they should be if they feel they first must know who WE want them to be?
What happens to identity when they expend a large portion of their energy trying to anticipate what identity will help them fit in, help them be perfect, help them be lovable? I see many young females you are hyper socialized; they are nice (as compared to kind), aware of their image and scripted in public.
3. Product over process: When results matter more than learning it does not matter HOW you get the “right” answer, it just matters that you get it. Academic integrity goes out the window, cheating, and copying are quickly justified.
4. External rewards over internal ones: Only what others see matter: report cards, honour roll, awards, student of the year.
5. Competition over collaboration: Work with others opens students up to the risk that the work will be less than perfect. From the student’s perspective when they work alone they control the work and it WILL be perfect.
In societies where competition is encouraged, children associated competition with greater self-esteem. However, in societies where cooperation was encouraged, children tended to associate cooperation with greater self-esteem. In either case, it was not some inherent quality of the child, but rather the culture itself that most influenced self-esteem.
6. Increased absenteeism: As students hollow out, they increasingly game the system. They feel lack of control over the meaningless of what they are doing and so in reaction they try to take control by maximizing their energies and only attending when “it counts”.
7. Fear of connection: Connection requires honesty and with a perfectionist mindset the thought that the real me might never be liked, instead I will show you what I think you will like.
We could simply “flip” the above statements around, and say let’s work towards that! I have only just begun to collect clues in earnest and to make sense of the translation into actions and processes would look like in our schools.
How might we:
1. Develop self-regulation and mindfulness.
2. Cultivate creativity: Let go of comparison, ranking and embrace uncertainty. Could we admit we don’t know what the future will hold but admit that what we are doing is not it?
4. Focus on questions instead of answers.
5. Process vs. end point: Give value to getting there, the effort and the skills used in the learning journey, that is continuous and ongoing.
6. Value understanding over knowledge: Move away from that which is Googlable.
7. Celebrate Openness.
I know I can’t turn this ship around for my daughter. But I am so up for helping to turn it around for yours, your sister, your cousin, your wife to be, your granddaughter, your girlfriend.
In closing, I offer this beautifully simple video by Ron Berger on feedback (make if kind, make it specific, and make it useful):
” . . . and if you can’t see anything beautiful about yourself, get a better mirror, look a little closer, stare a little longer, because there’s something inside you that made you keep trying despite everyone who told you to quit.”
The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown
*My observations pertain to girls not because I believe girls to be the only victims of perfectionism but primarily because as a mother of a girl I spend more time observing trends that relate to her development. Most students I have become close to over the years have stayed in touch with, got to know their families, are also mainly female.