After 15 years of working alongside girls of all ages and having countless conversations ranging from stressful friendship triangles to the mounting pressures girls face to be "perfect" and pretty, I have come to accept two fundamental truths about girls: they are harsh adjudicators of themselves and others, and, at the same time, they fear judgment.
Whether she's complaining that she is "just not good enough," exclaiming, "Did you see what she was wearing!" or whether she's the one who opts out of the talent show auditions because she's worried her performance will be unfavourably evaluated by her peers, judgment is both pervasive and inevitable.
The root causes of judgment can often be fear, envy, insecurity and uncertainty. Judgment, therefore, becomes an easy weapon — to judge others before being judged — or used as a shield of sorts — serving as protection from being hurt, or truly known.
In her book The Universe Has You Back, Gabrielle Bernstein says, "We use judgment to avoid the feeling of our own inadequacy, insecurities and lack of self-worth... we look at the perceived shortcomings of others so we don't have to face our own pain."
Often, girls have no idea of their ongoing evaluations of themselves, friends, peers and even strangers.
I have learned that the lower the self-esteem a girl has during these particularly vulnerable growth years, the more likely she will use her weapon or shield. In our competitive and cutthroat society of judgment, which is only exacerbated by the social media-obsessed world we now live in, girls learn quickly to judge before being judged, to shrink themselves to avoid judgment and to use judgment to protect themselves from feelings of discomfort or pain.
While girls are socialized, mostly by their social media feeds such as Instagram and Snapchat, to think that judgment is a societal norm and is completely acceptable, even expected; what they may not know is that by using this weapon, or by hiding from potential hurt, they are also blocking themselves from their own awareness, power and potential.
What's a parent to do with a daughter who is armoured by or fighting with judgment? You start with a secret weapon of your own: TRUTH.
Raise her awareness
Often, girls have no idea of their ongoing evaluations of themselves, friends, peers and even strangers. Without awareness of what they are doing, we can't expect them to change. So, our first job is to help her pay more attention to her own indignation. We do this by being kind and empathetic and refraining from the all-too-easy judgment of our own.
When she says, "I am terrible at meeting new people," you can respond by saying, "That sounds like self-judgment, can you try that phrase again with a little more self-kindness and compassion?" Here, the goal is to reflect back what we hear her say, and to help her rephrase judgments about clothing style, performance, social status or her own body.
One way to track these types of teachable moments is by using a glass jar — with each judgment, hers or ours — add a candy or marble to the jar. Seeing the jar "fill up" over time can really help her grasp how judgmental she is being and this is a surefire way to promote awareness and prompt change.
Help her replace comparative language
Girls have a natural tendency to use "better than, worse than" language, which is essentially judgment. They are searching for ways to categorize others and evaluate where they stand by comparison. It sounds like this: "She is so much prettier than I am" or "I am so much smarter than she is at math and science." Although this need to sort and label can be instinctual — survival of the fittest — it is also hurtful. While one girl is "better than," another girl is "worse than."
We can teach her to be less divisive and more inclusive, starting with her word choice. You hear her use words such as: "prettier," "faster," "smarter," "better" and "more than" — come up with alternatives together such as "pretty too," "faster also" and "smart in different ways." "She's prettier than I am" can become an opportunity to acknowledge the beauty in another girls while also acknowledging the beauty inside of her: "She has such a beautiful smile and I am so proud of how tall and confident I stand."
This kind of connection can easily become a habit of appreciation instead of separation, and can teach girls to see both the positive in others and in themselves, without any need to compare or compete. Words are incredibly powerful; let's empower her. After all, her semantics shape how she sees herself and others, so if we can help her to choose her words appropriately and wisely, girls can begin to perceive that they are are stronger together.
Help her choose acceptance over fear
Girls can miss out on so many growth opportunities because they fear the judgment of others. In their mind, when choosing to take a risk — such as trying out for an elite volleyball team or entering a speech competition — they instantly imagine all their peers mocking and criticizing them. They'll create worst-case scenarios that can feel so real to them that they opt out of trying altogether. In fear mode, they are much less likely to be brave and courageous.
So, how do we help them find their way out of a fearful mindset? We help them to choose acceptance instead. When girls focus on loving and accepting themselves for their willingness to try, for embracing a challenge and for taking a chance, fear diminishes. When she can love herself through her fears and despite her worries, and when she can be there for herself, she will care less about what others think of her — if she even notices at all.
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Acceptance-focused effort is the first step to overriding fear and boldly stepping up to accomplish. People may judge her, the world may judge her, but her concern needs only to be on her own daring, development and unlimited potential.
Judgment can be a girl's secret weapon against others and her secret shield from others. Yet, with our help, founded on the truth, she can also learn to embrace judgment as the chance to become more self-aware, more powerful and more likely to understand her own potential.
Lindsay Sealey is the author of Growing Strong Girls: Practical Tools to Cultivate Connection in the Preteen Years, now available on Amazon. She is also the founder and CEO of Bold New Girls and lives in Vancouver.
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