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Real Girls, Real Leaders
by Rachel Simmons and the Girls Leadership Institute

What Price Success? Girls, Stress and Being Your Own Worst Enemy
By Rachel Simmons

Back in January, sixteen year old Mirai Nagasu took second place at the United States Figure Skating Championship. But the real headline was the New York Times’ quietly heartbreaking story about Nagasu’s anemic self-esteem.

Nagasu is apparently in a constant struggle with a ruthless alter ego she calls “evil Mirai.”  Evil Mirai tells Nagasu that she is worthless. She spews vitriol about her talent and potential. Despite Nagasu’s extraordinary success, she is her own worst enemy.

Evan Lysacek, the reigning world champion who trains with Nagasu – who is also, go figure, a guy – doesn’t get it. “She’s so weird,” he told the Times. “I tell her how great she is, that she is more special than anyone else in this country, and she just keeps saying that she’s terrible. She has that ‘it’ factor. She just has to believe it, too.”

She doesn’t. Nagasu is suffering from the Curse of the Good Girl, the relentless pressure to be perfect at any cost. Known for her meltdowns whether she succeeds or fails, Nagasu’s self-esteem rises and falls based on accomplishments that will never be good enough. In this revealing comment, Nagasu implies her worth lives in her talent: “There are always moments when I think about leaving skating, but when I think about that I’m not very smart and I’m not very pretty and there’s nothing else that stands out about me besides my skating,” she said.

Nagasu is one of countless high achieving girls who are as fragile as they are driven. Research is confirming that girls suffer disproportionately from stress, despite their stellar achievements. The pressure to be perfect is taking its toll on girls, from depression and anxiety to paper thin skin.

In her book, Stressed Out Girls, psychologist Roni Cohen-Sandler observed a spike in stress levels and psychological crises among girls who, she writes, are “prone to becoming estranged from their inner lives….[they] are so busy living up to others’ expectations that they either don’t develop or eventually relinquish their own goals. They are so focused on achieving external emblems of success that they don’t get the chance to figure out what really excites them and gives them pleasure. They barely know who they are or who they want to become.”

The Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls is now focusing its research exclusively on stress and wellness. In a recent newsletter, they shared findings indicating that “studies of affluent adolescents (those with family incomes above $100K/year) find that in comparison to national norms, affluent girls were three times more likely to report significant levels of depression.

“Further, research on affluent girls finds that, in comparison to low-income groups, affluent girls had very strong links between physical attractiveness and peer popularity.” There were two causes:  “high achievement pressures and literal and emotional isolation from adults due to demanding parental careers and multiple after-school activities.”

Stress is hardly a malady of the wealthy. This is obviously a particular kind of pressure which can result from having too many resources, choices and expectations.

Nagasu’s all-or-nothing approach to achievement is likely the work of what psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset,” an approach to life in which you believe your traits are set in stone, and failure means you’re not talented or smart. For these individuals, “one test – or one evaluation – can measure you forever.” People with a fixed mindset are terrible at estimating their abilities because for them, they are either amazing or terrible – all-or nothing.

The healthier, more reasonable approach to life’s challenges is what Dweck calls the “growth mindset.” People with this mentality believe their abilities can be developed. They are works in progress. They do not believe potential is fixed. They understand that effort develops ability over time. They’re more in it for themselves and the experience of growth than how they appear.

One key intervention to help girls cope with stress is to teach them skills to adopt a growth mindset. When girls can take the long view on their own development, events like exams, recitals and championships become less loaded.

Basic balance and self-care are also vital. Overachieving can become an addiction, a rush that replaces the more important  — if less dramatic – sources of comfort: relationships, self-awareness, hobbies, spirituality, and so on. Girls need to check in with themselves about where their good feelings are coming from. If proportions are out of whack, it’s time to take stock and rethink your weekly schedule.

Not surprisingly, the only growth mindset among the top skaters seemed to reside in a 25 year old woman, Sasha Cohen, a comeback skater who was back in the game after four years off the ice. A crowd favorite, she fell during her program and just missed her dream. “I still really appreciate the challenge that I embraced,” she told the Times. “It was just so special to be back after four years.”

Nagasu took second place at Nationals and is headed for the Olympics. The Times reported that her “beauty and grace were dazzling.” How sad that she may not soon take in those words, or revel in the accomplishments an entire world can see.

By Rachel Simmons

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About Rachel Simmons and the Girls Leadership Institute
Rachel Simmons is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls , and The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence. As an educator and coach, Rachel works internationally to develop strategies to address bullying and empower girls.

Rachel Simmons founded the Girls Leadership Institute, a non-profit that runs camps and workshops to give girls and women the skills, courage, and confidence to live authentic, engaged and more fun lives. The Real Girls, Real Leaders bloggers include Rachel Simmons and the alumnae, teachers, and parents of the Girls Leadership Institute.

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