Enough as She Is by Rachel Simmons is a must-read for anyone who has a teenager or young woman in their life. I thoroughly loved it and applaud Rachel on her thoughtful research and obvious passion for supporting women to truly thrive in this world.
In this book, we learn that although young women have never looked more successful from the outside, they have never struggled more. Girls are twice as likely than boys to struggle with depression and anxiety in their adolescent years, and once at university, 1 in 4 girls will meet criteria for Disordered Eating. You may not have realized this, but many young women are moving through life with a deep feeling of “I am not good enough” and an extreme fear of failure – the collateral damage of a “Girl Power” culture that tells girls they can do it all. It simply isn’t possible to be the best at everything without a cost.
Rachel Simmons warns that many girls today appear to be very competent, out-pacing boys on GPA and university enrollment, but this does not reflect in their true confidence. On the inside, young women are more anxious, self-critical, and overwhelmed than ever before. Adding to this disparity, girls use social media differently than boys (preferring social media platforms over video games) which leads to a negative impact on self-esteem. Teen girls, more so than their male counterparts, are spending countless hours trying to create and maintain the perception that they have the “perfect life,” conjuring up the image of effortless perfection on Instagram, trading the inner experience of living in the moment for having a photo journal chronologically recording a sugar-coated past.
Rachel talks about the need to deliberately teach girls about healthy coping skills to navigate this new landscape. I couldn’t agree with her more. She is a co-founder of a non-profit, Girls Leadership, that exists to teach girls to be collaborative, real, and supportive to others. She promotes engaging in simple exercises and attitudes to promote healthy coping strategies that will be invaluable across a lifetime, such as practicing self compassion instead of self-criticism, taking healthy risks instead of being paralyzed by the fear of failure, and setting realistic expectations for oneself instead of comparing oneself to others.
The book is intended to highlight serious issues while still giving a message of hope and direction to concerned parents and educators. I appreciate the message Simmons includes for parents around being clear that their daughter’s life is theirs to live. Parents are encouraged to comfort uncertainty in their daughters instead of trying to fix it, and to raise the girl they have, not the one they wish they had. Girls, in addition, are encouraged to embrace the fact that their early adulthood development is not going to be linear, no matter how planned-out their career might look on paper at graduation. We should be thinking back to our own career progression and openly acknowledge all the ups and downs to the young people in our lives. Rarely do things turn out the way we initially thought they would – and that’s OK. No one is supposed to know what their life’s calling is at 18 years old; it’s an unusual young person who does!
The only place where the book took a wrong turn for me was in Chapter Nine, entitled We Can’t Give Our Kids What We Don’t Have. Rachel paints the oh-so-familiar scene of a teenage meltdown, where the pressures of navigating the stress of high school and adolescence just become too much: “you don’t know how much pressure is on me, you don’t understand all the demands on a teenager in this era, I don’t have enough time to get all my work done and if I get a bad mark it is totally going to bring down my GPA!” On page 199, Rachel writes, “Like a tantrum in toddlerhood, you must not indulge it. When you attempt to negotiate with a girl in that state you are tactically rewarding the behaviour… A tantrum is a tantrum, no matter what the age. The best advice for dealing with it is to give a person her space until she is able to communicate with civility and self-control… Your daughter needs to work through something painful mostly on her own, but with you close by to offer support when needed.” Rachel likens a teen tantrum to a toddler tantrum, which I agree with, but it is her suggested parental response to the outpour that I completely disagree with. I would suggest validation as the first step: we need someone to acknowledge our emotion and label it so we know we are seen and heard in the moment. If I am an angry teen, I need to know that I am just as worthy and valuable when I am overwhelmed with fear and anger as I am when I am at the top of the honour roll. No matter what, I am worthy and what I feel is okay and not something for which love is taken away or too big for my parents to handle.
I like what my mentor Lois Sapsford said to me about letting the emotion be neutral first: “I always go back to the brain, and explain that by seeing the intensity of the emotion in front of you and labeling it as BIG, you are actually beginning to neutralize it. It needs to be seen and honoured for what it is. They feel out of control with it, and by engaging and naming it, you are letting them know they are not alone and you will stay with them in this overwhelming state. By doing so, you are strengthening the neural connection in the brain that teaches us that our emotions are an important and honoured part of each of us. By waiting until your child is in a softer and more neutral state of emotion, we are accidentally teaching their brains “If you emote, I will leave” and it abandons them in a very scary emotional state. Stay with them, engage it, see it, and although it will get bigger for a very brief period of time, it will actually subside quicker the longer you stay.”
I sort of live and breathe the research that Rachel Simmons talks about in her book – my clinical practice as a psychologist focuses on people who internalize anxiety – but I still had many “Aha!” moments as I read Enough As She Is. For me, the biggest takeaway was her model of vulnerability. I walk a very thin line between striving for excellence and maladaptive perfectionism myself, and what goes with this personality style is beating oneself up when a mistake is made. I am a Mom to 3 adolescent girls, with my oldest off to university in the fall, and I know that I am their biggest role model for how to respond in moments of failure, even more so than anything they might see on social media and experience at school. It is my greatest wish, to raise three young women who feel comfortable in their skin, take healthy risks, and know at their core that they are always enough as they are.