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Perfection’s price: Rory Gilmore and a psychologist’s take on the burdens of being an overachiever

Patty Bufi

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Perfection’s price: Rory Gilmore and a psychologist’s take on the burdens of being an overachiever
Looking back on this beloved TV heroine’s downfall, we talk with a psychologist to unpack the pressures of academic excellence and the myth of flawlessness

Tucked away in the comforting and nostalgic town of Stars Hollow, Rory Gilmore serves as a beacon of good virtue and perfection for herself and those around her. With stellar grades, a financially stable foundation, and effortlessly flawless skin, how could she not? Born and bred for an Ivy education, she was never given the idea that she couldn’t do whatever she set her sights on. That is, until, the harsh realities of everyday living became too much to bear.

From making hasty and self-destructive romantic decisions to ultimately dropping out of Yale (cue Jess Mariano’s speech), the doe-eyed good girl who could never do wrong eventually finds that her life is falling apart. 

Pity her, scorn her, or even resonate with her, Rory’s character arc is a complex but unsurprisingly common archetype. Often labeled as the “academic overachiever”, “burnt-out gifted kid”, or what have you, her relentless pursuit of excellence turned to dust is one that many can take notes from. 

During a conversation with psychologist Van Sela from MindNation, Rappler delved into the thought processes and consequences that typically afflict the minds of this high-powered group.

‘Who cares if I’m pretty if I fail my finals?’

In case you’ve never watched the ultimate comfort show of the early 2000s, Gilmore Girls follows Rory (Alexis Bledel) and her all-supportive mother Lorelai’s (Lauren Graham) journey as they navigate the everyday struggles of life and love, set in a dreamy, rustic town in the heart of Connecticut, USA.

The show kicks off with Rory’s quintessential small-town life as a high-achieving student in her local public high school. Primed to receive only the best future and education by her family, she then transfers to the very exclusive and prestigious Chilton Preparatory School. Her academic pursuits seem to be smooth-sailing until she unexpectedly receives a grade of ‘D’ on her English paper. 

Taking great pride in her written abilities, our aspiring journalist was sent into a spiral of disbelief and was unsurprisingly unable to take her instructor’s criticism as requested. She returns home and claims to have secured an ‘A’ to her mother, but as the story normally pans out, her lie was revealed through a parent-teacher conference.

But what does this say about Rory? One thing’s for sure: in this show’s first season, we already begin to see the weight of high expectations take a toll on her adolescent mind.

“When a child is labeled [as gifted], they can be given a special focus, especially if their parents and educators are able to give them proper educational intervention,” Sela told Rappler. He recognizes the positive outcome of these “gifted” children being able to realize their potential because their parents are able to provide them with related opportunities.

Though such circumstances can sometimes be beneficial for the child, it seems that their emotional development takes a hit, seeing as they can breed in them an irrational fear of failure. “Because when they find out that they are [labeled] perfect, gifted, or genius, they think that they cannot make mistakes.” 

That said, this first of many academic-related meltdowns may be annoying for some viewers, but it’s important to remember that these individuals were conditioned to think that they are incapable of wrongdoings, leading to certain unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Perfection’s price: Rory Gilmore and a psychologist’s take on the burdens of being an overachiever

For instance, a pivotal moment in the show depicts junior year-bound Rory in Yale ultimately dropping out of university after a series of failures, including being told by a renowned journalist that she wasn’t cut out for the job. In between the two events, she uncharacteristically tells her then-boyfriend to steal a yacht and take her out to sea, winding her in prison and in need of bail. In a blink of an eye, Rory turns her picture-perfect life around a full 180 degrees. But why?

“If the child is under pressure academically, it will create a particular environment for them that is typically stressful,” Sela said, when asked how pressure to meet certain expectations leads to destructive decisions and overall behavior.

“When they experience burnout, their motivation and their potential for growth or to succeed will decrease. Aside from that, it can also cause validation-seeking behavior because they were labeled as a genius, as perfect. They will usually tie their self-worth and their self-esteem to when they are accepted by their colleagues, their peers, and especially their parents and their teachers,” Sela added. 

Since Rory’s whole adolescent and adult life is centered on achievements and the praise she receives from them, it’s no wonder that it felt as though her life was ripped to shreds when these were no longer as prominent. 

Sela also referenced a popularized term among overachievers, which is the wrath of the imposter syndrome. He explained further, saying: “The child may feel that somehow their attitude, their performance, or their achievements are actually nothing compared to what was expected of him because the expectations are too high.” Since they feel that their extraordinary feats are just regular tasks, there is a tendency for them to devalue their achievements.

So what should we do?

If all a parent or educator highlights is a child’s perfection, they begin to overly internalize these well-meaning words and eventually struggle to accept any imperfection. This is why Sela emphasized that it’s important for these individuals to realize that from time to time, mistakes are okay. 

He also advised against comparison among students, seeing as this only cultivates toxic competition and a distortion of one’s self worth. He added that in situations like these, “we have to accept that even if the child is actually gifted, there will be limitations [to] what they can do.” 

With this, he invited parents to reconsider their family values, encouraging them to reassess their words and reflect if they are genuinely after their child’s development or simply using them for their own benefit. They are also urged to be mindful of their conversations at home even when not speaking directly to their child, seeing as these can easily mold a child’s thinking and assume that same pressure. 

Speaking of toxicity, the show’s viewers were probably relieved to finally see their protagonist agreeing to a much-needed therapy session in season six, but were disappointed with her blatant irritation and vagueness. Fellow overachievers may empathize with her repeated assurance of “I’m fine,” although it’s unsure if the person they wish to convince is their conversation partner, or themselves. This could point towards her desire to maintain a certain image, which contributes to emotional suppression and avoidance of vulnerability.

Perfection’s price: Rory Gilmore and a psychologist’s take on the burdens of being an overachiever

Sela weighed in, stating that “there’s a tendency for the person to somehow suppress what they feel, their emotions, [because] they see these as a weakness.” He points out that such people want to “maintain the mindset that they’re perfect, that they’re always right, or that they’re better than others [so that] they can hide their true feelings even if they’re already tired and stressed.” This is why he stressed the importance of embracing our emotions and accepting that we all can be vulnerable sometimes.

Is embracing imperfection the key to success?

To end our conversation on a more positive note, Rappler asked Sela how embracing imperfection can do good for one’s well-being and personal development. As a part-time instructor in Thailand, he shared his personal experience of instilling compassion in his teaching methods.

“It’s really important that even though I provide opportunities for growth for the students, and even somehow encourage them to reach their potential by providing pressure from time to time, it’s also important that they embrace or accept their limitations as students,” he shared.

On a more psychological note, he said that adopting this mindset of simply encouraging a child without adding pressure can help reduce their stress and anxiety. They learn that effort is truly what counts, and that they can use setbacks as lessons and opportunities for reflection rather than mere failure. 

So if you find that you’re self-critical like Rory and encounter a poor grade, a job rejection, or another misstep in life, remember to be kind to yourself. The cost of perfection is simply too steep a price to pay, especially when success and self-acceptance as a package is a much better bargain. – Rappler.com

Patty Bufi is a Rappler intern.

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