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Donna Rowlison

Inner Work

ARE YOU LIVING OUT A “GOOD GIRL” OR “BAD GIRL” SCRIPT?

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“Good girl” and “Bad Girl” Scripts, and how it affects girls and women.

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 donna@donnarowlisonmft.com.

Partial content of this post is adapted from “The Curse of the Good Girl” by Rachel Simmons.

Inner Work, Managing Emotions, Setting and reaching goals

Journaling: Using Prompts to Get Started

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“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

-Carl Jung

So, you’ve got your journal, you’ve got your favorite pen.  And then you find yourself staring at a blank page.   Or maybe you’ve been recording the factual events of your life, but are thinking that you’d like to use your journal to “get inside” your mind, dig a little deeper, do some self-exploration….but don’t know where to start.

One simple technique for helping you get clarification on your internal reality and educate yourself about the ideas lurking in your unconscious is to use a journal prompt.  These prompts help “kick-start” some personal inventory-taking, and can act as springboards to doing deeper inner work.  Prompts act as departure points for forward movement, a “pushing off” of that emotional boat in which you may be wanting to set sail to explore new places but are afraid to leave that familiar shore.  Simply putting words to whatever it is that is keeping you from casting off is forward movement, a first step.  So, pick up that pen, choose one (or more) prompts that “speak” to you, and get started.  With each prompt you choose to write about, you might also want to journal “why this particular prompt appealed to me right now.”

Some sample journal prompts:

When I hear/see_________, I feel ________, and I need _________.

If I knew I absolutely could not fail, I would _______.

Right now in my life I would like more__________, and less__________.

The relationship I would like to improve is________.

If I wrote my life story, the title would be_________because__________.

An old friend I’ve lost touch with is________.  Why/how did we lose touch?  Would I want to reconnect?  If so, why?  If not, why not?

If I had________in my life, I would be happy.

Something I always wanted to say to (someone no longer in my life) is____________.

Write a letter (sent or unsent) to a former mentor thanking her/him for what she/he contributed to your life.

Something I’ve always been meaning to try is________. What keeps me from trying it is_____.

I feel most freely myself when__________.

I can be freely “me” when I’m with__________.  I can’t be freely “me” when I’m with_______because he/she/they_____________.

What scares me the most at this time of my life is_________.

The thing I really need to stop doing is___________.

What haven’t I forgiven myself for?  What keeps me from doing so now?

I’m writing right now because I feel the urge to do something I know I need to stop doing.  I’m feeling__________.

What am I avoiding?

I regret that I__________.

What chapter of my life is ending or beginning?

My body is teaching me_________.

In which of these areas do I feel out of balance at this time in my life:  relationships/love/family/personal growth/physical health/finances/security/fun/creativity/relaxation/career/community/social life/home/environment/spiritual life/other____________________

What tempted me today that I said no to? yes to? How do I feel about having said no (or yes) to that temptation?  By saying no (or yes) to that, what was I saying yes (or no) to?

Today I am grateful for__________.

(Write your own obituary.)  When I read what I’ve written, I feel__________.

If heaven does exist, my idea of heaven would be________.  What does this say about me?

When I remember first falling in love with my current partner, this is what I remember_______.

A part of myself that I feel I’ve lost, but would like to recapture at this time in my life  is___________.  The first step in recapturing that part of myself is____________.

(For more information about journaling using prompts, please refer to Kathleen Adams’ “Journey to the Self” workbook.)

Managing Emotions, Setting and reaching goals

Journaling

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“The journal is your playground, think tank, padded cell.”  -Ryan Bartlemay

Why keep a journal?

-Promotes self-understanding.  Ensures that the final version of your life story is the one you’d want to tell yourself.

-Clarity.  A journal is a chance for your past self to lend counsel to your present self.  The journal acts as a compass to help you identify any blocks to getting your goals met and discard old ways of being and doing that don’t work for you anymore.

-Stress relief.  In the words of process-journaling expert Kathleen Adams, author of “Journal to the Self,” the journal is “the 79 cent therapist,” a space to express thoughts and feelings free of justification or blame, and unimpeded by the judgments of others or society.  Journaling helps put the brake on endlessly repeating troubling thoughts, and gets us off our “mental treadmill” and on to some constructive resolution.

-It’s a tool for motivation and self-discipline, for achieving success in such areas as weight management, exercise programs, life goals, getting organized, making successful life transitions, improving relationships, working smarter, and improving physical health.  If you have felt frustrated in achieving any of these, or other such goals, journaling can help you get and stay on track.

-Journaling helps improve mindfulness, and a sense of “being here now.”  If you’ve ever felt that “life goes by too fast,” journaling can help you slow down the moments so they can be fully enjoyed and savored.

-Improved physical health.  When we inhibit thoughts and feelings about what’s stressing us, it takes tremendous energy to hold it in, and this serves as a cumulative stressor on the body.  Journaling has been shown to result in strengthening the body’s immune system, reducing blood pressure, improving lung function, and improving mood.

-It’s a tool for healing relationships.  The journal provides a safe forum to vent strong feelings that may not be appropriate for direct expression, which then leaves you calm and sensible for an actual conversation in which you’ll speak more assertively and listen attentively.

-Creativity.  Your journal is a generous canvas for expression of creativity you might have thought to be nonexistent or buried.  Write a poem, draw or paint, make a collage, write a song….express yourself!

This week I will be posting more tools and tips for journaling, so grab your favorite pen and some paper…and stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

 

Couples, Individuals

What’s Most Important to You?

 

 

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Values: What are they and why do you need to know what yours are?

Values are those inner standards from which you receive the motivation to act as you do. They signify what is important and worthwhile to you. Our values help us map out the personal choices we make in order to live the life we want.

When I work with adult clients, I encourage them to do values clarification. Why? Because living a life that is NOT in accordance with their own personal values produces resistance in them, and will eventually cause them stress, anxiety, or depression.

Where people spend their resources (time, energy, and money) is a statement of their values. But sometimes, clients spend their own resources on values that are not in fact their own but are the values of other people or organizations with whom they feel pressure to conform, such as their parents, friends, or partner, their church or political party. When this happens, clients come in with feelings of confusion, resentment, and bitterness. They know they’re not living the life they want, but feel powerless to change their situation.

The healthiest people I see are the ones who have given themselves permission to identify and live out the values that are true for them, not others. And, depending on how much pressure there was on you as a child to conform to the values of others, it may take a lot of courage to declare your own values and live them out.

Do personal values change over time? Yes, they do, depending on circumstances or stages of life.

For example, a life-threatening illness, or the death of a loved one, or entering a new stage of adult life such as menopause, empty nest, or retirement, can all bring about shifts in our values.

 

Need help clarifying your values? Try the following exercise, and do it by yourself, then ask your partner (or other family member) to do it on their own. When you have both completed the exercise, then discuss your answers with one another.

What’s important to me? Check those that apply to you:

_____a physical appearance to be proud of

_____to be educated and have a degree

_____to be in a relationship with a partner with whom I love

spending time and doing things together

_____to have and exercise political power

_____to be known as an authentic person

_____to be in a relationship where I’m loved for who I am right

now, not who I “was” or who I “could be”

_____to be creative in the “palette” of my choice, be it painting,

gardening, decorating, fashion, textiles, cooking, or

any other form of creative expression

_____to enjoy nature and/or being outdoors

_____to help people make changes that they want

_____to have employment that I enjoy and that has meaning for me

_____helping the sick and disadvantaged

_____traveling

_____being actively involved in the lives of my children or

grandchildren

_____having a beautiful home in the setting of my choice

_____eating fine foods

_____experiencing cultural activities

_____having a close circle of friends with whom I share interests

_____a meaningful and fulfilling spiritual life

_____being different; not following “the herd”

_____fitting in with my social group

_____to have time to spend every day on something just for me

_____to be a recognized expert in my field

_____to have a financially comfortable life

_____financial security for my retirement

_____to be sexy

_____to feel physically safe and secure in the world

_____to live a really long life

_____to be completely myself without feeling judged by others

_____to have high social status in my culture

_____to be free from physical pain

_____to have prized possessions surrounding me

_____to be admired

_____fighting injustice

_____living ethically

_____being taken care of

_____being independent

_____being in control

_____having stimulation and no boredom

_____having self-acceptance at every age of my life

_____being well-organized

_____freedom to do as I please

_____learning and knowing a lot

_____family life

_____preserving my family’s roots

_____living fully in the moment

_____having high quality material possessions

_____having lots of time to be by myself, doing what I want

_____not being tied down by material things

_____other

My personal values: (List your top ten.)

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Now rank each value in priority order, then, for each value you listed, answer this question:

I will know this value has been met when________________________

_______________________________________________________________________

Or,

This value is currently being met by ____________________________ _______________________________________________________________________

A few questions to consider when discussing values:

 

  1. If my partner’s top values differ from my own, do we (and if so, how do we) allow for, and honor, one another’s differing values within our couple relationship?

 

  1. If my adult children’s top values differ from my own, do I (and if so, how do I) allow for, and honor, the values they have which differ from my own?

 

  1. What values of mine differ from my parents’/family of origin? How do members of my family of origin allow for, and honor, my values that differ from theirs?

 

  1. Are there ever times when you feel in a position to have to defend your values to someone else? If so, have you ever felt uncomfortable or unsafe having to do so?

 

  1. Are there ever times when you feel unable to stand up for your values and/or are silenced in the face of opposition to, criticism of, or minimization of your own values? If so, what would support you at times when you feel unable to stand up for your values?

 

Communication

Got a Problem to Solve?

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Got a Problem?

Families and couples often come in with many problems to solve, stuff that’s built up over time, and they want to solve it all in the first session. Reality check: We’re going to start with the most pressing problem first, and solve one problem at a time. That’s ONE at a time.

HOW TO DO IT?

First, (and this is important, folks), problem-solving is NOT the same thing as venting. They are two separate things, and should be done separately. Problem-solving when you are angry is a sure-fire way to fail at it. So, vent feelings first. Once you vent and feel heard by the other(s), and are in an emotionally calm space, only then can you move to problem-solving.

WHAT YOU NEED:

A pen, some paper, and an open mind.

STEP 1:

Ask the other person(s) involved if this is a good time for them to do problem-solving. If it is NOT a good time, make an appointment with them, and choose a time that is more likely to be less stressful (i.e., not the minute they get home from a long day at work). Problem-solving should be done when all parties are sober.

STEP 2:

Name the problem, and be specific. Choose only ONE problem to solve. (This is one of the hardest things to do during this process…stick to only ONE problem. Try to stay focused on just the one problem first introduced.)

STEP 3:

Make a list of every single option you can think of which might be a solution to the problem. In this step, DON’T EVALUATE or judge the options or give an opinion about whether you think they will work or not. JUST list them, as many as you and the others can think of, no matter how unrealistic they may seem at first.

STEP 4:

Once you have exhausted all the possible options, go back and write the pros and cons of EACH option. Each person involved is allowed to say what, to them, are the pros and cons of each option.

STEP 5:

Come to an agreement on which option looks the best at this time, and choose it. Reality check: There is seldom “THE IDEAL” option; there is only the best option available for this time and this place and whatever other limitations exist right now.

STEP 6:

After choosing an option, decide how you and the other(s) will implement it. Decide who will do what/when/etc., and write it down. Decide on a trial time. In other words, how long will you try this option? A week? A month? Until it no longer works?

STEP 7:

Put the option you chose into effect. After the agreed time, meet again and evaluate how well it’s working. If it is working, great…keep it up. If it is not working, STOP doing it. Go back to step three, and re-evaluate the other options or come up with more options. Also consider whether your chosen option just needs to be slightly tweaked in order to be effective, and make those small corrections, and see how that works.

BUT WHAT IF……?

When problem-solving fails, THIS is usually why:

 

  1. We try to do it when we are tired, angry, discouraged, or rushed.
  2. We confuse problem-solving with venting feelings.
  3. We don’t stick to ONE problem during the problem-solving process. We keep bringing up new problems during the process, which bogs the process down and derails it.
  4. We criticize options that are suggested during step 3, and the other people involved feel discouraged or hurt by this.
  5. We don’t let everyone (who is a party to this problem) participate in the process.
  6. We let people who are NOT a party to the problem get involved. Boundary setting is important here.
  7. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Sometimes decisions are made without every participant being “on board” (agreeing to it). Excluded participants may try to sabotage the plan once it is put into place if they did not feel like they were a legitimate part of the process.
  8. If the first option tried doesn’t work, we give up and throw out the whole process, saying problem-solving “doesn’t work.”

If your continued efforts at problem-solving are not working, try to identify which of the above you are doing and make a commitment to stop doing it.