Avoid the ‘effortless perfection’ trap, Duke Alum advises college women

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It’s a feeling she first noticed when she was a college student: the intense pressure to accomplish everything, yet it seemed as if it required no effort. And it’s a sentiment that Caralena Peterson ’15 wants other female students to put aside.

During his time at Duke, Peterson learned of a term that captured his sentiment: “effortless perfection,” a phrase used by Duke students that gained national attention after it was quoted in the 2003 Duke Women’s Initiative Report.

The report, commissioned by former Duke President Nannerl O. Keohane, aimed to understand and improve the campus culture for women. The findings pointed to a social environment with unreasonable expectations for women: “that one would be smart, successful, fit, beautiful, and popular, and that all of this would happen without visible effort.”

“Effortless perfection is definitely not just a Duke thing; affects college students in any high-intensity/high-expectations environment,” Peterson writes in his book, The myth of effortless perfection,” Published in September 20 by Spark Ingram.

The resulting effect on young women is not just skin deep, Peterson argues. Through her research and peer interviews for the book, she demonstrates how the idea of Effortless perfection lowers self-esteem, leads to eating disorders and mental illness, and distorts relationships with others.

“I really wanteducate write the book I wish I had in college,” says Peterson. “I think there are a lot of people who say, if someone had told me X or Y before I took my first step on campus, I would have been a lot more prepared.”

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Caralena (centre, in cap and gown) poses with her family on graduation day in front of the Duke's Chapel.

In his book, with advice that comes from his experiences but is valid for contemporary times with examples from social networks and Today’s expectations: Peterson outlines tactics to help other women break the myth. Here are some of the tips she offers:

Identify counter narratives

“The first step in rejecting the dominant narrative of effortless perfection on college campuses is to identify counter narratives,” Peterson writes.

Counter narratives show honesty over pretense. In his book, Peterson discusses the #halfthestory campaign on Instagramstarted by Vanderbilt student Larissa May, where people share experiences beyond what is considered the curated norm on social media.

Authentic stories, says Peterson, can help others realize they are not alone in their struggles and more easily recognize unreasonable standards (see Peterson’s chapter, “Is There a Right Way for a Woman to Be Assertive?” ).

“It is the thought of, I am the broken one that really scares you,” says Peterson. “And it’s the isolation and alienation when you’re fighting that makes it so much worse than it should be.”

Learn positive ways to motivate yourself

Failure hurts, but avoiding it doesn’t have to be all-consuming. Let yourself be driven by your passions and not by fear or anxiety, advises Peterson.

“I think what’s really important for college students and people who struggle with these kinds of pressures is to ask, ‘Where do my motivations come from?’” says Peterson.

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White table top view.  Coffee cup in the lower left.  pink laptop with a women's empowerment symbol decal in the center, hands holding a manuscript, and a pen making updates, bottom right.

During his interviews for the book, Peterson asked when his peers first they felt as if they had really failed. He discovered that for many of them, it wasn’t until college.

“When they had that experience, it was totally debilitating,” Peterson says. “It’s i felt like a moment where they Dyed theyou his identity as a successful type A student, without perfect effort.”

Don’t build your sense of identity on never failing, says Peterson. “I understand, because I’ve done itbut it is not healthy in the long run.” She advises a more gradual exposure to failure, starting with small risks.

Find a place to be honest

For Peterson, finding other students she could be herself with made all the difference. such as the Duke Authenticity Project Y me too monologues and other groups that encourage honest discussions.

Students can also take advantage of access to mental health professionals.

“There are resources available to you on the Duke campus,” says Peterson. “When I had my first anxiety attack, I walked to LIDS.”

It’s important to spend some time acknowledging how you feel, says Peterson.

“Daily, meditate and have your person register, Peterson says. “Because it’s so easy to run away from these feelings and emotions.”

Learn more about “The myth of effortless perfection.”

Fall 2022 Wellness and Resilience Series Presented by Duke Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS)

Duke Gender Violence Intervention Services

For confidential therapy services and clinical case management needed due to violence, students can walk in or call *CAPS MT 9-6 and WF 9-4. Students may also contact the coordinator directly, [email protected] or 984-569-0592

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Students seeking after-hours services have three support options:

  1. Confidential Support: Leave a voicemail with the GVI Coordinator (984-569-0592) or email [email protected] Students will be contacted within 24 hours or sooner if necessary.
  2. Reports and non-confidential support through Dean On-Call 984-287-0300 or DUPD 919-684-2444. (Seeking support from a non-confidential resource will result in disclosure from Duke University.)

  3. Students can also access local resources through Durham Crisis Response Center. Students can also use the help line at 919-403-6562.