How Idealizing The 'Good Girl' Image Teaches Women To Put Themselves Last

For as long as I can remember, I self-identified – internally, of course – as a “good girl.” Because of this, my middle and high school years were pretty much smooth sailing. They were not without a couple of small bumps on the road, but overall, they were pleasant and fruitful. I found that great things happened if I followed the straight and narrow of doing as I was told.

If I fit myself into the “good girl,” cookie-cutter mold, I was ensured love, attention and conventional success. Sure, this persona was often restricting, but the payoff felt worth it.

Many of my female peers expressed this same view. With time, it became more than just a mold. Being a “good girl” became an all-encompassing identity, one we did not want to lose.

I came to know all too well the kind of vigilance that such a constant fear of losing the “good girl” image requires. Messing up, even just once, ceases to feel like a viable option. Room for error evaporates.

The thought of hearing someone say he or she was disappointed in me became one of the worst possible things I could imagine. It didn't matter whether it was from a coach, a teacher or – heaven forbid – my parents. I started going to extremes in order to avoid all forms of conflict.

The psychological cost of causing someone to be irritated with me just seemed too great. If I developed any negative feelings or resentment, it had to be internalized. If my emotions didn't go toward earning my “good girl” image, they weren't allowed to exist. I had to be always happy, always thankful and always smiling. I could never be angry or bitter.

This code of conduct became a real problem during the times I needed to stand up for myself and my beliefs. My fear of the slightest criticism didn't exactly result in a sturdy front. If I felt like what I had to say was going to be unpopular, I would subconsciously counteract any attempts at assertiveness with dismissive, fluttery hand motions, insecure body posture and upspeak (which means saying a declarative sentence as if it ends with a question mark).

These undermining behaviors were designed to make me seem less threatening, so that people wouldn't criticize or attack me. I simply wasn't equipped to deal with that. I didn't have the kind of internal self-esteem that could hold up to that.

My self-esteem came from other people's opinions. It came from pleasing them by being the “good girl.”

Peggy McIntosh, the associate director of the Wellesley Center for Women, provides evidence as to why this drive to be “good” is such a gendered phenomenon. She notes that young girls' brains develop at an earlier age. This leads them to pick up on the emotional cues encouraging them toward compliance sooner than young boys' brains tend to.

Girls start to fall in line and behave “favorably.” First, we do it because we can. Then, we do it because we're rewarded for it. It doesn't take long for us to start believing we are at our most valuable and lovable when we're following the “good girl” rules.

We start craving more and more of that approval. We gather all our eggs in one basket in order to receive it.

Our self-esteem takes another hit as we grow older. Further gender-based socialization teaches us that it's a major gender role violation for women to be too obvious with their expressions of self-esteem. We are told that “good girl” law prohibits it.

Thus, expressions associated with low self-esteem are often presented to us as expressions of female altruism. We are socialized to feel more comfortable underselling ourselves than boasting about ourselves to a third party. We downplay our achievements in order to get the gold star of self-deprecation parading as humility. We would rather be likable as “good girls” than risk criticism as anything else, even if that means being overlooked and underappreciated.

So, while young men are trained to present themselves as confident and self-assured – regardless of the circumstances – young women are trained to be timid and self-effacing (“Who me? Oh, I'm nothing special.”)

But guess what? This behavior sticks. Every time we actively downplay our accomplishments and feign self-doubt in the presence of others, we form bad habits that will stick around, even when we're in the presence of nobody but ourselves.

It's only a matter of time before our brains instinctively second-guess all our decisions. But, we can't help it because it's one of the main prerequisites for being considered “good girls.” "Good girls" are all we know how to be.

Allow me to fast-forward and show you how this story ends. It ends with the “good girl” spreading herself out far too thin by trying to be everything to everyone. The thing about being everything to everyone is you forget to be something to yourself. In her acclaimed piece, “Being Perfect,” Anna Quindlen sums this up brilliantly:

Someday, sometime, you will be sitting somewhere. A berm overlooking a pond in Vermont. The lip of the Grand Canyon at sunset. A seat on the subway. And something bad will have happened: You will have lost someone you loved or failed at something at which you badly wanted to succeed. And sitting there, you will fall into the center of yourself. You will look for some core to sustain you. If you've been perfect all your life and managed to meet all the expectations of your family, your friends, your community, your society, the chances are excellent that there will be a black hole where that core ought to be. I don't want anyone I know to take that terrible chance.

Certainly, the fate Quindlen captures in her piece can't be worth the flimsy status of “good girl.” Right?

The only way to avoid this outcome is to “listen to that small voice inside of you that tells you to make mischief, to have fun, to be contrarian.” Regardless of how long the “good girl” mentality has been a driving factor in your life, know that it's never too late to go your own way. It's never to late too late to be your own person.

Make your own rules. Stop living in someone else's world, and start creating your own.