Confidence-Building for Girls*
*The word "girls" is intended to include all gender-expansive youth including trans girls, non-binary youth, gender non-conforming youth, genderqueer youth and all girl-identified youth.
By Elizabeth Perlman, Founder & Executive Director of The Intuitive Writing Project
Michelle Obama once said, “Your success will be determined by your confidence.” The trick, of course, is how to build confidence—what I call intrinsic confidence—especially in girls.
To quickly define my terms, the word intrinsic refers to our essential nature. The word extrinsic refers to that which is externally influenced. We often hear these words in terms of "intrinsic or extrinsic motivation," or in science, to compare constant qualities to changeable ones. For our purposes, I’m going to use these words to talk about confidence-building.
By my own definition, extrinsic confidence is based on external approval, the sense of success girls feel when they meet external standards of achievement, whether it’s in academics, athletics, or social status, including their status on social media. For example, girls feel great when they ace their test or win their soccer match, as well they should! These are indeed things to be proud of. And yet, like all external achievements, they are subject to change.
Extrinsic confidence is good but unstable, unreliable and not an ideal foundation for long-term happiness. Because girls are conditioned to please, they deeply absorb the cultural message that their inner value is determined by external circumstances, by all the outside things they are constantly being evaluated for, including their grades, test scores, athleticism, clothing, makeup, hair, body weight and, of course, the number of “likes” they get on social media. This leaves them feeling chronically inadequate, discouraged and “never enough.”
Instead of focusing on the outside and hoping it will trickle in, I believe in building girls up from the inside, to focus, first, on what I call intrinsic confidence.
Intrinsic confidence comes from self-awareness and self-acceptance—which starts with self-reflective writing. As girls write and speak their truth, they access something deeper inside themselves. This leads them to discover who they really are, on the inside, their innate strengths, interests, passions and values, which also includes the immeasurable and indestructible power of their heart, mind and soul. As girls connect to their inner wisdom and inner strength, they learn to love and believe in themselves. This fosters emotional-resilience and the foundation of life-long self-esteem. And this is what we offer at The Intuitive Writing Project.
Girls usually show up to their first class feeling anxious or insecure. They assume they’re going to be judged and criticized, just as they are at school. Instead, they find a safe and supportive sisterhood where they can write whatever they please and express whatever needs expressing, secure in knowing we are here to listen and hold space for all of it.
The first time girls read their writing out loud—and then listen to all their peers tell them how much they loved it!—it feels like watching the lights come back on. Fear and shame are replaced with joy and relief. After just one class, I can already see the change in our writers, can see them sitting taller and looking more at ease. And of course, the more girls write with us (most girls write with us for many years), the more confident they become. This confidence ripples outward in as many ways as there are girls. But while all our writers go on to their first-choice, top-tier college, I think the most important effect is their grounded sense of who they are. Life will always challenge us, but when you know your value, you can't be knocked down for long.
Through the transformative power of writing, girls figure out who they are, who they want to become, and how to design lives of meaning and substance, to choose the college, the major, the career and the relationships that will fill them up and bring them peace.
It is my experience that teenage girls are the most intuitive, deep-feeling, deep-thinking, ferociously powerful people on earth. (They are also my favorite people!) As I have seen again and again, anytime girls don’t get the chance to express their power, it gets buried, burning them from the inside out. But when they have the time and space they need to express their power and have it validated, girls learn to value and empower themselves.
When the inner, intrinsic self is strong, then external, extrinsic success will always follow. Like plants, we naturally bloom and grow in the light. Sometimes the light is within us. The more girls are free to shine, the more confident they become.