When I was sorting through some old boxes at my family home some years ago, I came across my old school exercise books. As I flicked through the pages, I was immediately struck by the consistent messaging coming through from my teachers. Be a good girl; meet our expectations; no mistakes allowed. I collected these together in a blog post with a later update on what I now call ‘good girl syndrome’ that still consistently ranks as one of my top posts. And I feel it’s long overdue to revisit this topic and explore it more deeply. So what is it, why is it holding you back, and how can you start letting go of good girl syndrome?
How does good girl syndrome manifest?
If you’re anything like many of my clients, you’ll immediately understand and resonate with this idea of being the ‘good girl’. (And I use ‘girl’ here as it’s my own personal experience.)
A good girl is socialised to please other people. Whether she knows it or not, her worthiness and likeability is defined by who she can be to others. She constantly looks outwards to obtain the validation and praise that will make her feel secure.
She is usually overambitious in what she tries to achieve. She feels she has to be good at everything and brings the same drive to every endeavour. And, in working towards these goals, she will exhibit perfectionist tendencies in what she expects of herself (and others).
As for how she goes about things, she’s keen to find, and follow, the rule book. She’s always looking for the right answer to get that tick, the gold star, the ‘good girl’ confirmation.
Where does good girl syndrome come from?
My mum, now in her seventies, has recently fulfilled her lifelong ambition to study Latin at university. An endeavour that is purely for her own enjoyment and fulfilment. And yet, each term, she has put herself under immense pressure to complete every homework assignment to the highest level. The exams and final essay became a dark cloud looming over her for weeks despite our well-meaning reminders that it was all meant to be fun and completely voluntary.
Her mum, my maternal grandmother, studied at university and had an impressive professional career alongside her young family, unusually for her generation. In the final years, when we would visit, she’d always be running around the house, apologising for the mess and frantically mopping up dust from the floor with a piece of kitchen towel. She never admitted to not being interested in housework and kept up this charade into her nineties (when it would be fully justifiable to let a messy living room go…!).
My own personal experience unsurprisingly repeats these patterns. I did well academically at school and thrived on my teachers’ “good girl, Anna”. (All the while trying to suppress this as well to avoid the stigma of my classmates labelling me a swot.) I can rarely just sit down and do nothing as, subconsciously at least, I’ll worry that someone will see me and judge me. And I struggle to set boundaries in my personal life and express what I want or need, as my ‘go-to’ is to respond in terms I believe will be acceptable to the person I’m speaking to.
Why is good girl syndrome not helpful (anymore)?
I desperately want to break this pattern with my daughter. I cringe every time someone praises her with the ubiquitous “good girl”. I consciously try to focus on her creativity and inventiveness, the effort that she puts in rather than the outcome, and experiencing the things that bring her joy. All this knowing that school and society as a whole will continue to flood her with the same ‘good girl’ messaging that I heard as a child.
Why is this so important?
First, your internal worth cannot, and should not, fluctuate based on external factors. Your job is not to please others at the expense of your own needs and desires. In fact, it’s by being true to yourself that you can be at your best and as such make the best contribution to friends, family and society as a whole.
Second, perfectionism is an impossible and unconstructive goal to aspire to. We are all beautifully flawed and imperfect, whether at work, as parents, or in our platonic or romantic relationships.
And, third, there is no rulebook! In the real world, there is no right answer, and no one to give you that gold star, the “good girl, Anna”. Plus, even if they did give it to you – if they shower you with praise and tell you how clever and capable and successful you are – so what??
Letting go of good girl syndrome
Letting go of the reliance on other people’s validation has to start with self-reflection. You have to understand yourself, your values, and your views on what’s truly important. The more inner conviction you have about what really matters to you, the easier it will be to disregard the judgement of others. Do things because you want to do them. Or just because. Don’t do them because you think it’s what you should do, or what others want you to do, or because you’re hoping for that dopamine kick that comes with the external validation.
Instead of working yourself into the ground as you try to live up to everyone’s expectations (including your own), you need to start gatekeeping your wellbeing. Be clear and honest about your needs and what you expect of others as well. If you don’t set and enforce your boundaries, then how will other people ever respect them? Even more uncomfortably, you need to learn how to say “no”, even when it may mean disappointing others.
Of course, in order to be able to communicate your wants and needs, you have to first figure out what they are. It sounds easy but after years of ignoring your own desires and putting others first, it can take a great deal of self-reflection and unlearning to uncover what you actually want.
Recognise that you’ll never have all the answers; you’ll never have ‘complete information’ as we call it in economics. Work on making a decision, trusting your intuition, and understanding that you are the one that needs to validate your own choices, and no one else.
Finally, dare to admit to yourself, and to the world, that you are not perfect – and that’s okay!
Is this ‘good girl syndrome’ familiar to you? What are your memories of your childhood and school years, and the messages you internalised? Where do you think you could do with more self-reflection, setting better boundaries, or just admitting that you don’t know?
I look forward to your comments.