Death of a Good Girl

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This is a story about dying.

But not a death of the normal variety. 

This is a story about the “good girls” (or boys) of the world (hands up… you know who you are), how we develop those personas. And how to finally shed them.

The “good girl/boy” is a way of coping with the world. It is the “perfect child complex.” It is the child who always pleases, is a high achiever/performer, hard on herself or himself. It is the child who unconsciously equates safety, security, love, or worthiness with being or behaving a certain way, a way that is a product of programming from our families, our communities, and our culture. It is the child who suppresses his or her voice, or anger.

This is the tale of my own good girl.

Interestingly, it doesn’t begin with me. When my therapist quickly pegged this quality in me, she also reminded me that it often has deep roots, particularly in the lineage of women in a family. And so my good girl was passed down from my mother, and her mother, and perhaps before that. All women with a deep need to never displease, even sometimes at the cost of their own needs and authentic identity. 

My good girl always did well in school. She was extra sensitive of others’ feelings, and hated for people to be upset with her. She really earned her Girl Scout badge after my parents divorced. I remember seeing a home movie of myself playing with a friend at age 10, mere days after my mother moved out. I am smiling, calm, happy. The thing is, I wasn’t smiling, calm, or happy on the inside. I remember. It was awful.

“Put on an ok face” was how I dealt with my parents’ divorce. In some ways, I would have benefitted from acting out my sadness and anger more. I remember only one night of it — I was up nearly the whole night crying, staining my periwinkle sheets with tears, unable to sleep, crying out how much I hated my new stepparent for splitting up my family. But by morning my tears had to dry and I was shipped off to school in the carpool. 

My good girl grew even stronger (dangerously so) when faced with a stepparent who bullied me badly. There was a tremendous amount of derision directed at me, and I was often spoken about in the third person while I was in earshot. My good girl earned medals for performance in those moments, where I listened to myself be belittled — and said nothing. And my parent said nothing. I felt frozen, paralyzed. Clearly I had a right to be angry, to tell her off, to get angry. But my good girl took over and swallowed the trauma. 

In high school, I was a straight A student and star musician in my orchestra. And I was praised for it. Truth be told, my good girl was in such full force by that point that I was terrified of getting anything other than an A. Terrified of making mistakes, of feeling vulnerable, being seen as imperfect. I have quite a goofy side, but she was hidden by now, behind good girl’s impenetrable fortress. I didn’t let that side out at all at school, and rarely with friends. I never acted out, never rebelled, never needed a curfew. 

A couple decades out, I can see clearly what was at work. I had grown up with a mother who was far from living her true, authentic self, who had done the “right” thing culturally in her young life — get good grades, get married, keep a good house, don’t speak up or cause conflict. This was of course modeled by her mother. And my own good girl was fueled by the attachment trauma of my parents’ divorce, my bully stepparent, not being protected by my own parent, and then eventually my mother’s absence. An only child, I bonded hard to my dad, the only reason I was ok in the world. I always strove to please lest people become angry with me - or worse, leave me - as a method of self-protection.

But our armor of protection eventually becomes a curse. The good girl phenomenon means we swallow our pain. It still lives in our bodies. Imagine my wide-eyed response to learn that often autoimmune conditions correlate with the suppressed anger of the good-girl phenomenon. I have two, one that manifested a year or two after the above trauma, and the other several years later.

The armor often means we are out of touch with our true selves, our unique personalities, preferences, or passions that often are not what the programming around us tells us is the right or acceptable way to be. We end up living pretty far from who we came here to be. We are all weird, unique, magical beings with our own gifts and very different ways of showing up in the world. But the good girl tells us there is one “right” way to be.

And most damaging of all, we learn to live by defining our worth outside of ourselves — what a good wife we are, a good daughter we are, good parent we are. How good we are at our jobs, how successful or altruistic we are, how much of a giver - or martyr - we are for others. How accepted or liked we are. How desired we are by lovers, on dating apps, on social media. How impressive we are in our communities. When the truth is — none of it has anything to do with our worth. Our worthiness is innate, comes from inside, exists simply because we exist, and includes all of our flaws, our failures, and the things that the world judges us for.

And so we have to find a way to let the good girl go. Perhaps not kill her dramatically, but see her, without judgement, and release her. We have to shed the need for approval from parents or peers. We have to fully feel all the feelings of suppressed anger or hurt. We have to acknowledge what we really want and need, and who we authentically are, sans programming from those around us. 

My own journey to leave my good girl behind has been many years in the making. In my 20s, I finally learned a little how to “mess up,” how to fail or be imperfect and not care so much. But I still carried a lot of programming about how many of the things I am innately good at and drawn to are not safe, practical, or financially viable as a career. I have continued to live with a feeling that I can’t show up as my truest self because “no one sees or values me, no one wants me, no one chooses me.” Truthfully, those blocks have been so deep — the trauma has lived somatically and deeply in my subconscious — that I am now pursuing EMDR treatments to dislodge them.

I think the core of shedding our good girls is self-love, and I mean that far beyond the bubble bath variety. This kind of self-love requires wrestling with our demons, mining the shadow parts of the ourselves and bringing them out into the light, and the radically honesty of where our blocks are and where they come from. It means dealing head-first with the cycles of trauma, each and every time they arise in our life. It means learning to be complete and happy by ourselves, not relying on any relationship or circumstance or thing outside ourselves to be ok. It means reparenting our inner child to give her what she needed. It involves a revolutionary look at our authentic core essence, the things we are and love innately, before society laced its script of correct homogeny into our drinking water. It means wrestling with worthiness.

For on the other side, once we break through that constrictive veil of how to be, lies a radical self-acceptance of ALL of ourself, and the courage to be that fully in the world.

The death of a good girl is a rebirth.

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