When I work with adolescent girls, I ask them to describe how society expects a “Good girl” to look and act. Here are some of the most common descriptions I get:
Perfect, doesn’t show skin, polite, modest, generous, kind, listens, always busy, follows the rules, doesn’t get mad, people pleaser, her façade never cracks, she doesn’t cause trouble.
And here are their descriptions of the “Bad girl”:
Rule breaker, loud, doesn’t care what others think, fights, tough attitude, dresses over-dramatically, speaks her mind, shows skin, rebel, talks back, bad reputation, center of attention, proud.
In the eyes of the good girls, the bad girl is the picture of female failure, a rejection of femininity, everything a girl is told not to be. Being “bad” is social suicide.
In the eyes of the bad girls, the good girl is a phony, a follower, and a slave to the demands and desires of others. Being “good” is self-suicide.
What’s the payoff and what’s the price for being a good girl? Being a good girl is richly rewarded in our culture. What’s the payoff? Approval. From parents, teachers, the church, friends, society.
And the price?
Pressure from others to be who she is not. Repression of her true self. Denial of certain feelings and needs. A fear of taking risks. Lack of true intimacy in relationships. Feeling emotionally-constricted. Not living up to her potential. The good girl’s worst fear is being judged.
What’s the payoff for being a bad girl? Getting to behave in ways that our culture traditionally grants to boys, not girls.
And the price?
Estrangement from who she really is. A reduced sense of self. Lack of true intimacy in relationships. Inability to see her own strengths. Disapproval and rejection, from parents, teachers, the church, friends, and society. The bad girl’s worst fear is being controlled.
The price that ALL of these women pay? Wholeness. A whole self that is able to acknowledge, express, and receive both negative and positive feelings in ways that are assertive, and a self that fully integrates all of the parts of her.
In truth, adopting an all-good persona or all-bad persona is a child’s way of coping with conflict, taken to one extreme or the other, when there is very poor modeling by her parents of how to resolve conflict. What influences a young girl to adopt a “good” or “bad” persona? In my experience working with clients, it has to do with whatever payoff they, as children, perceive would come from adopting the conflict resolution style of either parent. If a parent’s way of dealing with conflict is passive: for example, to deny it, minimize it, avoid it, or continually bow to the wishes of others, and the child identifies with that parent because she observes some payoff for behaving that way, she is more likely to adopt that way of dealing with conflict too. If a parent’s way of dealing with conflict is aggressive: for example, to explode, blame, control, manipulate, blackmail, or threaten, and the child identifies with that parent, and perceives there is more of a payoff behaving that way than like the other parent, she is more likely to adopt that way of dealing with conflict too. In such homes, parents employ extreme passive or aggressive behaviors to deal with negative feelings because they do not know healthy ways to deal with them. In this way, they communicate to their children that negative feelings are “bad,” “scary,” “something-to-be-avoided,” or “something-to-be-defensive-about.”
In these families, girls who develop “bad girl” personas often cope by rejecting the “good girl” standards of behavior imposed by our culture, because in their experience of either being or observing a female in their family, it doesn’t pay to be female. The price is too high. So they adopt normative behaviors that our culture typically grants to boys and men: toughness, riskiness, the satisfaction of erotic desires, escape, power, invulnerability, freedom.
In either situation, neither girl has learned healthy ways of coping with conflict. And in both situations, both girls are on their way to developing a style of dealing with negative feelings that will compromise their authenticity and their needs being met in adulthood.
By the time these girls become adults, and come in for therapy, their either passive or aggressive ways of coping with negative feelings are causing them pain, both personally and in relationships. From the women who have adopted “bad girl” ways of coping with conflict, generally I am presented with any number of the following:
Lack of intimacy in relationships, employment problems, frequent short-term relationships that end badly, estrangement from family members, identity confusion, inability to maintain lasting friendships with women, financial instability. Often these women are in recovery from long-term substance abuse. They often have regrets about the past, and want to make better choices, but don’t know how. They often have deep, unresolved anger about specific losses experienced in childhood. They have serious control issues.
From the women who have adopted “good girl” ways of coping with conflict, generally I am presented with any number of the following:
Burnout, exhaustion, self-harm behaviors such as anorexia or bulimia, addiction to substances (both legal and illegal), dissatisfaction in their marriages, affairs, overspending, overeating, identity confusion, codependence, depression, disillusionment with life, and a high level of stress-related physical illnesses. They are often resentful of the people who are closest to them, and feel tremendous guilt over this. They, too, have serious control issues.
Whether they are living out a bad girl script or a good girl script, they have all internalized the habits of mind and speech, learned from their families, that form their very own psychological glass ceiling, and they are in pain, because their door is only half-open to the full range of feelings that contribute to a sense of wholeness.
All of these women feel like there’s a level of intimacy missing in their relationships. And there is. Why? Because we cannot be truly intimate with someone who is presented with our false self!
So. What’s the solution?
The solution lies in embracing the concept, not of the “Good girl” or the “Bad girl,” but of the “Whole girl,” the “Real Girl.”
My job is to help her stop doing what she learned as a child about dealing with negative feelings, and teach a framework that allows for a full range of emotions expressed, not passively or aggressively, but assertively and in ways that are constructive (not destructive) to her and her relationships with others.
First, I create a safe place for her to speak her truth, to say the “unsayable.” No judgments, just full acceptance of her innermost reality, feelings and needs. Good girls have been trained to suppress negative feelings. Bad girls have lived with rejection and judgment for expressing not just their own truth, but often some unspeakable truths about what really went on in their home growing up, in the in-your-face adolescent ways that they chose. Both of them need safe places to be heard, validated, and believed.
Second, I teach her how to identify and verbalize her inside feelings, the feelings underneath the anger, frustration, and irritation…..feelings such as hurt, embarrassment, shame, fear, rejection, loneliness, sadness, disappointment, etc. These are the feelings that reveal one’s inner truth. These are the feelings under her mask. These are the feelings that scare her because either they’ve been suppressed for so long, or, when expressed as an adolescent, went ignored, punished, or invalidated.
Third, I teach her how to verbalize inside feelings and needs in very specific and assertive ways, ways that are respectful to both her and the other person, ways that are not manipulative or coercive or passive or aggressive.
Fourth, I teach the difference between assuming and knowing. When a woman sequesters her inside feelings, unanswered questions proliferate: “Is he mad at me? Did she mean that?” In the absence of knowing, she begins assuming “this is what he or she must think, feel, and mean.” Assumptions are the passive good girl maneuvers that give her a way around the tough questions that could lead to conflict, enabling her to conduct her relationships in her own head. This gets her nowhere. Bad girls have a childhood history of being negatively judged and disparaged by adults. They present with these deep parental wounds unhealed. They are often overcome with anxiety when meeting the parents or other family members of new partners, the new partners of grown siblings and/or parents, or running into former high school classmates from the hometown. As adults trying to embrace wholeness, they struggle with a residual dread of having to “prove themselves safe” in order to overcome their adolescent reputation as someone to be feared, judged or disapproved of, because they assume that “those people will always disapprove of me.”
Knowing involves directly asking someone to clarify his or her feelings. The belief that a “true” friend or partner should be able to read her mind is deeply ingrained in the good girl expectations of relationships. The tendency to drop hints and then become angry at someone unable to guess her internal state allows her to avoid owning her most difficult feelings. I teach her to own up and verbalize her feelings.
Fifth, I help her identify and turn off negative self-evaluation, and replace negative thoughts with positive ones. If you beat your leg with a bat every day, or you let someone else beat your leg with a bat every day, soon you would be crippled. A ridiculous thing to do, right?
But that’s exactly what women do to their self-esteem and confidence when they put themselves down or let others put them down or label them. This continual self-inflicted battering cripples a woman’s ability to feel good, take healthy risks that help her grow, and fully embrace her own glorious path in life.
Sixth, I teach her the importance of not just telling the truth, but hearing the truth. This is so hard for good girls, who have been conditioned to put pressure on themselves to be so perfectly nice. When you expect yourself to be that flawless, you tend to freak out when you do mess up. Likewise the more comfortable you are with accepting your own imperfections, the less they will shatter you. Hearing the truth is also difficult for bad girls, who, after spending their formative years with an overabundance of negativity thrown at them, have emerged as adults learning to dismiss what “the masses” thought of them, not because they wanted to, but because it was the only way to survive. They have learned to answer only to themselves, but this extreme stance leaves them deprived of true intimacy in the world of adult relationships, and, if they are going to succeed as leaders in their chosen fields, they must learn to be socialized into the etiquette of professional relationships. Merely “surviving” is not good enough for these ferociously fearless women. Moreover, because of their history of taking risks, they have the potential to become the entrepreneurs and innovators of their generation, but in order for them to stop merely surviving and really thrive, they must learn how to face constructive criticism with clear heads.
Hearing the truth about oneself involves curbing the impulse to overreact, either with anger or with tears. Overreaction sends the message, “Don’t criticize me, because I can’t take it.” Or, “you’re better off not saying anything at all.” Women’s overreactions are driven by two destructive beliefs: (1) “criticism means that someone is upset with me personally” (not some thing I did), and (2) “the mistake defines me as an individual.” Overreactions allow a single problem to call one’s entire self-worth into question, undermining a woman’s ability to resolve interpersonal problems. By teaching women to recognize and correct these distorted thoughts, I help them to reinterpret “failure.”
Also, I teach women that phrases like “just kidding” and “no offense” are troubling staples of the good girl vocabulary, and women use these phrases to avoid responsibility for uncomfortable remarks. This is indirect aggression, and it stunts a woman’s development of straightforward communication
Lastly, I teach them how to take healthy risks: good girls, who are expected to follow rules, are taught to make little room for risk, and playing it safe becomes a self-reinforcing habit: the more comfortable they become with taking the easy road, the more terrifying failure will become, and the more they will want to play it safe. The essence of risk is the unknown: you try something without knowing if you’ll get it right. I help women identify a goal that involves taking risk, and then identify 3 zones: her comfort zone, her risk zone, and her danger zone. This helps her differentiate between the truly scary and the “maybe I could give it a try.”
I also help her assess the rewards of risk-taking. Risk is the possibility of being wrong, but it’s also the chance you may be right. Play it safe, and you lose opportunities. Making the connection between risk and reward offsets anxiety and provides concrete incentives to try new things.
Good girls, who worried that strong opinions, classroom debate, or being wrong had relational consequences, began to lie low in high school classes. Their learning potential was shrinking as they sought out the “safe” options. I help her to understand how risk, mistakes, and disappointment can push her forward, so that she stops selling herself short, and lets her gifts and talents shine.
Bad girls, who spent their formative years taking risks to extremes, have often paid a great social and personal price for doing so. (By the same token, history is replete with “bad girls” who stepped out of expected modes of behavior for women, broke social and professional barriers and created paths of inspiring achievement which have advanced the arts, sciences, politics, and business.) With this client, the goal is that she can apply her courage to risks that are an authentic expression of her passion, that are constructive to her growth, that further her joy, and most of all, that restore to her a sense of wholeness.
For further reading on overcoming childhood scripts, I recommend these two books: “The Curse of the Good Girl” by Rachel Simmons (this is also an excellent reference book for mothers who want concrete suggestions on how to raise their daughters as “Whole Girls”) and “You Are A Badass” by Jen Sincero. For comments on this post, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Partial content of this post is adapted from “The Curse of the Good Girl” by Rachel Simmons.