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Author Caralena Peterson Speaks to the Perils of Effortless Perfection in Talks with DA Students, Faculty and Families
By Dylan Howlett
The Effortless Perfection Myth: Success is an experience not an identity Caralena Peterson

 

It is toward the end of America Ferrera’s monologue — that incisive, indelible monologue in Barbie about the flummoxing contradictions foisted upon women — when an uncomfortable truth springs forth. To be accepted, and to be loved, requires navigating and enduring a host of double standards. But it also demands an exacting degree of flawlessness: to “never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line.” It is, in essence, a societal edict to be perfect, and to do so without so much as a glimpse of an outward struggle that may perturb anyone else. Ferrera’s voice soon stains against the unbearable weight of it all. “It’s too hard!” she cries.

Nearly 10 months to the day before Barbie was released, Caralena Peterson shared her own story with the world. She had already felt, and lived, the monologue. Her burden arrived sometime during her sophomore year at Duke University. She was, by most objective measures, a successful and happy undergraduate after four years as a successful and happy high school student. Her grades had always been exceptional, her social life full. But by her sophomore year, Peterson had developed an eating disorder. By her junior year, she had suffered anxiety attacks. And by her senior year, she had experienced a major depressive episode. She didn’t tell anyone that she was struggling. She made every conceivable effort to never fall down, never fail, never show fear. 

But Peterson looked at her peers — many of whom had similar tendencies at a high-performing, high-pressure institution — and saw a throughline. It wasn’t just that they all deigned to achieve some elusive ideal of perfection. Peterson and her classmates were coping, and they were shielding themselves. If they worked just a little harder, burned themselves out just a little more, then maybe they could quash any nascent feelings of anxiety, any painful reminders of trauma, any excruciating doubts that they were disappointing their loved ones. “If I can make myself look perfect,” Peterson thought, “then I can expect my life to feel perfect. In a flawless state, things won’t be able to hurt me.” It instead fueled unhealthy behaviors.

Peterson’s 2022 book, The Effortless Perfection Myth, explores the fallacy of “effortless perfection,” a phrase defined in the 2003 Duke Women’s Initiative Report as “the expectation that one would be smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful, and popular, and that all this could happen without visible effort.” The phenomenon has different names on different campuses. Stanford University calls it “duck syndrome,” evoking the image of a placid exterior that hides furious paddling beneath the surface, while students at the University of Pennsylvania have “Penn Face,” their name for the invisible masks they don to get through their days with noticeable aplomb. A raft of undergraduates look at their peers and think — beneath the veil of perfectionism — that everyone else is succeeding without struggle, and any pangs of discomfort or worry are signs that they just can’t keep up. 

In the course of researching her book, Peterson interviewed women from more than 15 universities, ranging from small private institutions like Colgate University to large state schools like the University of Alabama. A startling majority of students felt that by voicing any creeping thoughts of anxiety or inadequacy, they would appear weak, shallow, attention-seeking. The result, Peterson says, has been an acute mental health crisis that has gripped American college campuses. 

In between her work as a professor at Middlebury College and as a mixed-media artist, Peterson has become a tireless advocate for students, parents and educators who are keen on shining a disinfectant light on the scourge of perfectionism. She writes regularly on the topic and visits high schools and colleges to share her experience. That is precisely what Peterson did Wednesday at Durham Academy, where she spoke with Upper School students as part of a Community Day assembly; with Upper School faculty and staff in the afternoon as part of a professional development session; and with DA parents and caregivers at an evening address in Horton Hall as part of the “Family Matters” speaker series. Her message was simple: Recognize the signs of a potentially flawless perfectionist, and know how to intervene with the loving support they deserve. To listen and to be vulnerable, Peterson says, is to let a young person know they can unburden themselves — that it is prudent, and healthy, to tell someone when it all just feels too hard.

Sign #1 of Effortless Perfectionism: “Reassurance Addiction” | Upper School Assembly

As Peterson squinted beneath the glow of the Kenan Auditorium spotlight and cast her gaze toward a sea of Upper Schoolers, she told them that she saw more than a collection of well-intentioned, hard-working and high-achieving students. She saw herself. “Kids really do feel like they have to be the glue for the family,” Peterson said in a conversation later that afternoon. And she was. Peterson made a vow to herself as the eldest of three siblings: I won’t be the problem child. So she became addicted to reassurance.

That’s what happens, Peterson told the crowd of Upper Schoolers, when a child “craves external validation to an unhealthy extent.” It leads to fixations about grades, about weight, about self-worth that they believe can be solved by working to the point of exhaustion. When she was a middle school teacher, Peterson had a student approach her the morning of an important deadline. “I stayed up until 4 a.m. making sure my final project was perfect!” the student said. Peterson smiled. She saw the symptoms. She knew the cause. “I admire your persistence,” she told the student. “But I also care about your sleep. How might you have been more tactical or energy efficient? Were the last two hours really necessary?”

Peterson has crusaded against praise for what she calls “inefficient overwork,” a phenomenon that Upper Schoolers recognized among themselves and their peers. One student said how it wasn’t uncommon for their peers to boast about conspicuous effort: how late they stayed up completing work, or how they managed to churn out an involved assignment the night before it was due. They speak far less, the student said, of instances in which they managed their time, made incremental progress and produced high-quality work without jamming themselves into a veritable meat grinder. Peterson called the antithesis of that methodical approach the “busyness competition Olympics,” in which students engage in a performative display of academic masochism — “I have THREE essays due tomorrow!” “Well, I have two essays, a midterm and a job interview today!” — and make their tireless efforts as visible as possible.

It is an issue not far from the minds of Upper Schoolers. During a Q&A session with Peterson, DA students offered a cascade of insights and thought-provoking queries. Among them:

“How do we move beyond the intellectual-level work to undo this way of thinking?”

Peterson: “I think it helps to have a community to be able to recognize it … There’s an innate power to naming things. It gives language to identifying subconscious feelings.”

“Do you notice similar trends in men as you visit these institutions?”

Peterson: “I think this is an issue that so clearly affects people across the gender spectrum.” Young women tend to see themselves as having to be good at everything, Peterson said, while young men often pick a singular identity — “math genius,” soccer player — and lean into it. Their sense of success, she said, can be much narrower.

“Is there a healthy way to have ambition and a desire to improve without harming yourself?”

Peterson: “Healthy resilience is the opposite of perfection.” She encouraged students to “take full advantage of what Durham Academy has to offer” in service of building confidence that allows them to take bigger, healthier risks.

“What if you strive for perfection as a means for achieving an image of yourself independent of others?”

Peterson: “That’s healthier!” she said. She reminded students that, yes, they are more than allowed to want and seek status. But they should be able to understand and articulate why they’re chasing a particular goal. Reaching for success is great, she said. Stretching yourself is great. Just be mindful that effortless perfection may prevent you from getting there.

Peterson’s book prominently features a quote from Anna Quindlen, an author and Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary in 1992. In her 2005 book Being Perfect, Quindlen wrote that at some point, you’re going to be sitting somewhere after something bad has happened, and you will fall into the center, or the core, of yourself. And if you’ve subscribed to perfection, chances are that there will be a black hole — an abyss — where your core ought to be. During the Q&A session, an Upper Schooler raised his hand. “What should you see within yourself instead of a void?” he asked. The profundity caused a murmur to ripple through the crowd. Several teachers snapped their fingers in appreciation. Your sense of identity, Peterson said, is rooted in the things you know about yourself to be true — who you are, and why you do things. She challenged the assembled students to embark on deliberate self-exploration. Where does my sense of motivation come from? That alone is enough to fill a void.

“I was particularly impressed with how engaged the students were,” Peterson said afterward. “I think there are different kinds of effortless perfection. And for [boys] to engage fully can be difficult. I was really excited to see that they were some of the first people asking questions. They were leading conversations, but not in a way that they were shutting down the conversation.”

Sign #2 of Effortless Perfectionism: “Inflexible All-or-Nothing Thinking” | Upper School Faculty & Staff Professional Development

When Upper School faculty and staff assembled in the heart of the Learning Commons, they found a simple question from Peterson: What did you hear from students when they discussed the assembly within advisory breakout groups? 

What followed was a robust, free-flowing discussion that squared with the observations that Peterson culled for her book. But she balked at an emerging pattern from multiple teachers who said their students believed the issue of perfectionism rested on themselves — that teachers at DA tried to soften or divert perfectionist tendencies, but that students needed to take ownership, even as they may be bombarded with pressures from social media, college applications or parents. 

“I would push back against that intensely,” said Peterson, who served as a middle school and high school educator for five years, of the idea that teachers don’t have a place in ratcheting down perfectionism. “Your parents are supposed to love you, but if my teacher is invested in me, that just means something different. I think teachers change lives. You change what’s possible. You change how people see themselves. You give them a safe space if they don’t have that at home, and I think it’s invaluable work. It’s absolutely one of the most important jobs that there are.”

Teachers are also well-equipped to address inflexible all-or-nothing thinking — the idea that a child has a singular vision of success and a difficult time envisioning any alternatives, detours or pauses. Peterson told Upper School students that it’s not uncommon for a child to raise their hand during one of her presentations and say that, while they perfectly understand perfectionism from an intellectual perspective, it couldn’t possibly be relevant to someone who wants to gain admission to medical school. There is simply no room for foibles. Or is there? 

One of her best friends at Duke failed her organic chemistry class — a foundational course without which a prospective medical student cannot matriculate — and had to retake it. She’s now a surgeon. Peterson took an extra year at Duke to complete her dual degree in women’s studies and public policy. Seven years later, she published her first book. In her class at Middlebury College, Peterson has her students compile “failure résumés.” Counter to the best-foot-forward flavor of job applications and college essays, failure résumés highlight significant setbacks in their lives and document lessons that they collected from each hiccup. Students received “Certificates of Failure”; Peterson said she has seen seniors pin the papers above their desks. She even performed this exercise with the head coach of Middlebury’s field hockey team, which — along with stalwart midfielder and DA alum Katherine Lantzy ’21 — has won three consecutive national championships and 65 of its last 66 games. Everyone, Peterson says, can find occasion to cultivate healthier resilience. Everyone can find their own path.

It resonated with Adam Cluff, an Upper School English teacher and the head coach of DA’s varsity boys basketball team. As a teacher, he has felt the energy of students who think there’s but one path to their goals. As a coach, he’s seen the singular focus of exceptionalism play out on and off the court. His team lost a game Tuesday by 33 points. On Wednesday morning, while sitting in Kenan Auditorium, his ears perked up when Peterson said, “Success is an experience, not an identity.” Cluff told his colleagues that he sees the quote as a means to break inflexible thinking. He planned to share the quote with his players at the start of Wednesday afternoon’s practice with the reassurance that their path may just be different.

“Today,” Cluff said, “is a new experience.”

Sign #3 of Effortless Perfectionism: “Fear-Based Motivation” | “Family Matters” Speaker Series for Parents and Caregivers

“How many of you are here,” Peterson said at the beginning of her presentation, “because your child came home today and said, ‘Hey, I think you should go to this talk’?” At least half of the audience of parents and caregivers in Horton Hall — where a capacity crowd spilled over into extra chairs — raised their hands.

Peterson’s relentless pursuit of stellar grades wasn’t the byproduct of some inimitable motivation or inner-drive. It was anxiety. School often starts out for students as a catalyst for curiosity and a haven for their passions. But the pressure to perform — all in service of gaining acceptance to a top-flight university — invariably leads students to make decisions and choices out of a fear of failure. This manifests itself in avoidant behaviors: Peterson told parents and caregivers that their children may avoid challenges altogether out of fear of blemishing a “perfect record.” The latent terror of these challenges, and the consequences for their future, can often accelerate burnout.

The fix, Peterson said, is simple: Families should reassure their children that “accomplishment is not a cure-all,” nor that their life should take on the feel of a “never-ending boot camp” in which they must perform or deliver or prove something to themselves. The fix, she says, is also empathetic and human. Children are taught and socialized within high-achieving environments to accumulate those most common and widely accepted markers of success: grades, activities and accolades that populate résumés and college applications. It has little to do with their worth as a human being, Peterson says. She beseeches parents and caregivers to remind their students of their remarkable everyday choices that won’t show up on a transcript: their kindness, their gentleness, their humor. Those are the things that “make them most lovable,” not their “proximity to perfection.” And it all starts with communication.

“In order to address it, you have to be an expert in a bunch of little things: body image, athletic hyper-competitiveness, toxic masculinity, assertiveness, gender dynamics,” Peterson said. “You’re not going to be able to be prepared to do it all. The number one thing is to plant the seeds that you’re a safe space to share and unload.”

“They may need a reminder — as my parents once gave me — that being there for them, loving them through whatever they are experiencing, is part of the parenting job description,” Peterson told the assembled crowd at Horton Hall. “They, as the child, don’t get to decide what you, as the parent, are strong enough to handle.” 

That’s where she found herself at Duke, flailing and uncertain where to turn, when she asked her dad to visit. Peterson said she had misjudged the strength of her parents, their willingness to help, their grace. “Why is this happening to me?” she repeatedly asked her father. He looked at her lovingly. “This isn’t supposed to happen to anybody,” he said. “What makes you so special?” 

On a visit to another school to discuss effortless perfection, Peterson met a father who read her book and sent a salient paragraph to his daughter. “You don’t have to respond,” he texted, “but this made me think of you.” They started talking, started finding a way through. Together. One of the final questions during Peterson’s talk in Horton Hall centered around the relentless pollution of perfection that infects students every day — through social media, through peer pressure. “How do we push back against what’s out there?” the mother asked. “And do we have a chance?”

The answer, at least throughout DA, is absolutely. The school’s Strategic Vision calls for preparing students for life — not narrowly focused on college as an endgame — and makes room for failure, creates space for wandering, and empowers parents to tell their children that they have time to find their way, that there are various paths for their journey of choice. 

Peterson’s answer to the mother’s question was elemental: Push back by naming and identifying perfectionism. And keep the conversation alive. It will endure at DA in the coming weeks through a follow-up book club about the Effortless Perfection Myth among interested Preschool and Lower School parents and caregivers. 

The conversation won’t end for Peterson, either. At the end of her discussion with Upper Schoolers, a student approached her with a question that Peterson felt was just beyond her reach. It made her think in ways she hadn’t thought before. She didn’t pretend to have the answer, or that everything was OK, or that she needed to get it together because everyone around her had the answer. She asked the student for her email address so they could continue the discussion.

“I want to keep delving in, too,” Peterson said. It’s just the right amount of hard.