When I look back on my own upbringing, and when I talk to other women, I see what I call the ‘good girl syndrome’.
I never liked getting in trouble. I hated making mistakes, my face would go bright purple when I was told off. My first memory of school was (accidentally) breaking my ruler in Form 2 and being told to stand on my chair for the rest of the class. You can imagine the effect that had on me, given that I remember it 30 years later.
When I went through my old exercise books a couple of years ago, I was struck by the message that was coming through from my teachers. Innocent enough perhaps but with lasting effects that don’t necessarily serve you well in a world where risk taking, entrepreneurship, and creativity can take you further than keeping your head down and working sensibly.
Here are the five messages that were coming through loud and clear to me through the teacher’s notes, and the underlying beliefs that I’ve been working on challenging and stripping away lately.
What about you, do you recognise these symptoms of the good girl syndrome?
1. You have to be a good girl, Anna
The desire, or even need, to be a “good girl”, to please other people and to get that external validation – this is a really powerful feeling inside me and one that has been difficult to overcome. That’s not to say that I’ve never been naughty (shh!) but I’ve always had that deep fear of getting caught. Fundamentally, I still seek approval. I want that gold star, confirmation that I’ve done the right thing, the “good girl, Anna”.
Life can be pretty stressful when you’re constantly looking for outside approval and relying on others to build your self-esteem. At some point, you need to have the confidence to say: I’m happy with this, I’ve done my best, I’ve done a good job.
2. Be sensible, dear
Another strong force is one that tries to keep me on the conventional path. Staying quiet and not standing out, being reasonable in my demands and playing within the existing parameters. To achieve that “good girl” stamp of approval, you must always be sensible. Follow the instructions, do as you’re told, don’t be too creative. You mustn’t be unrealistic or question the norms. Do what everyone else is doing and don’t do anything unexpected.
But sometimes it’s good to be a bit silly. A bit far-fetched. Here’s to the crazy ones and all that…
3. Get it right the first time
I tend to put a lot of pressure on myself to get things right from day one. I compare myself to people who have been at it for many years when I’m just starting out, I tell myself that I should be able to figure it all out, and I give myself a hard time when I don’t get it 100% right. You mustn’t cross out! No mistakes! Think before you write!
But of course you won’t get it right the first time. When you try something new, you need to try and try again. It takes time. It’s hard work. Remember that quote about Edison finding 10,000 ways that won’t work? Mistakes can be good, as long as we learn from them.
4. Keep it tidy
It doesn’t just have to be right, it needs to be perfect. No typos or scribbles, no changing your mind or taking a few detours. You must be neat. Underline only once. Use the right pen. Use a ruler to cross out…
Ai ai ai. If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign? There must be space for creativity, for drawing outside the lines, for adding a bit of colour. What’s life if not a little messy?
5. You must live up to our expectations
Perhaps this is the most damaging of them all. While it may be flattering that people expect good things from you, it can be a pretty unbalanced equation. If you succeed, well, that’s to be expected. “Of course Anna did well in the exam, she’s so smart.” And if you fail, well you obviously didn’t put in enough effort, “haha, I’m better than you”. All you can do is keep chasing those expectations and you can only ever disappoint yourself and others.
Setting your expectations high can be inspiring, pushing you to achieve more than you ever thought was possible. “Shoot for the stars and at least you’ll land in the treetops!” But shooting for the stars is one thing and expecting it is another. I think the secret to being satisfied is to set your sights high but keep your expectations low.
Do any of these ring a bell for you? How do you think the teacher’s treatment of you and your work affects you still today? Are you held back by the Good Girl Syndrome? I’d love to hear about your own experiences.
Do also check up my updated and more in-depth exploration of the good girl syndrome, and how you can learn to let go.