Here’s some characteristics that I’ve seen showing up in myself, my friends and clients when we are trapped by Good Girl Syndrome:
You are overly responsible.
You are overly positive and cheerful in order to keep everyone else happy and uplifted.
You are always saying yes to things you do not really want to do.
You give too much time, energy and money to others.
Your own needs are constantly not being met.
You try to look perfect and your best at all times.
You stay quiet so you don’t rock the boat.
You go with what others want all the time.
You go above and beyond even when it’s not necessary.
You strive to prove your worth to the point of exhaustion.
You rarely challenge the status quo.
You care more about pleasing other than yourself.
You worry too much about what others think of you.
You try to stick to a hardcore routine and disciplined life and if you don’t you feel guilt or shame.
But, Good Girl Syndrome follows us everywhere in our day through everyone of our choices and decisions and it can show up in the strangest of moments in our lives.
What your wear and how your wear it.
What you do with your food waste and where you will send donations.
How you spend your money — and on what.
What you do for a living — or not.
How you mother and parent with high expectations for your children.
How you show up as a partner or friends.
How what you do and don’t do for others or to serve others lives in your mind.
Just how good of a person you are if you do or do not support a cause or attend an event.
Taking care of the earth and being stewards of the environment.
Being a good human being is noble. We love givers when we benefit from them. But if you are sacrificing your own wellness, health or dreams it may be time to run your choices through the Human Giver Syndrome filter.
Is Being a Good Girl a Part of Human Giver Syndrome?
Good Girls do Good.
Good girls give generously.
Good girls serve others without complaint.
Good Girls sacrifice their dreams for their children or their partners’ dreams.
In the book, “Down Girl: the Logic of Misogyny by moral philosopher Kate Manne” defines a world where there are two types of humans — those who have a moral obligation to be their full humanity where they are free to be as competitive, entitled, and motivated as they wish to be in order to be their best selves — and then there are the human givers, which are those who have a moral obligation to GIVE their full humanity, meaning they feel they must give away all of their time, their attention, their energy, their love, their needs, their hopes and their dreams to others for the good of others.
After reading about Human Giver Syndrome, I realized it’s very much connected to Good Girl Syndrome.
In their podcast, Feminist Survival Project 2020, The Nagoskis talked about these women who are extreme givers.
Amelia Nogoski said specifically that “it’s not just women who are the category of giver. It’s all people of color, people with disabilities, immigrants, people who don’t speak English as their first language, (in the ) United States), trans people, poor people, gay and queer people, anyone with disadvantaged or marginalized identities expected to behave themselves to perform to conform with a roll of service to the people with advantage to make sure nobody ever feels uncomfortable and nobody has that person’s needs imposed on them. Because it’s a moral duty. If a human Giver falls short of their obligation or if they dare to ask to have a need met, they deserve to be punished. Which is where human giver syndrome starts to get really dark.”
“They’ll be punished by human beings and givers who do not conform to the expectation to be givers will be punished by other givers, because how dare they how, dare they when all the other givers have to do this,” Amelia said. If one giver says, “Nope” and goes ahead and has a need of her own, she’ll be punished by other givers and if there is no one else around to punish her she’ll go ahead and punish herself if she’s internalized this moral obligation.
And, as with Good Girl Syndrome, human givers are expected to deny their own needs so that you are giving more than you can rest, more than you can complete your own stress cycle, and giving so much that there is absolutely never any time for ou to pursue your own passions or purpose in life.
“Just give, give, give,” Emily Nagoski said on the show.
So if we know we should put on our own mask first but encounter guilt over doing so, that is absolutely the Good Girl Syndrome taking over — and that means FEAR is taking over as well.
The Fear Factor behind Good Girl Syndrome
Every day, we put on masks.
Good Girl masks.
The mask hides everything that is inside of us that is messy, chaotic, imperfect and exhausted.
On Being Whole-Heartedly You — Even and Especially when It Seems Selfish
“One of the most painfully inauthentic ways we show up in our lives sometimes is saying “yes” when we mean “no,” and saying “no” when we mean “hell yes.” I’m the oldest of four, a people-pleaser – that’s the good girl straitjacket that I wear sometimes. I spent a lot of my life saying yes all the time and then being pissed off and resentful.”
— Brené Brown
When we good all of the time and give all of ourselves — our time, our energy, our resources, our love, our gifts — and leave nothing left for ourselves to chase our own dreams and tend to our own inner longings, a few things happen.
First stress and burnout take over. Giving endlessly and always being the good girl is not a sustainable way to live.
Next, you enter the Land of Bitter and Sour.
And then the fallout really begins.
This is when you feel a sense of languishing, of emptiness, of feeling lost and scattered.
When our your needs or inner longings are ignored or pushed aside for others, and you lose your sense of Self.
And yet doing what feels good for you is a part of being resilient and strong in mind, body and spirit.
Sometimes when we speak up, use our voice, ask for our needs to be met we will encounter resistance and friction from others.
We may even be disliked.
And that’s OK.
That’s how change happens.
How to Liberate Yourself from Good Girl Syndrome — And should you?
“I love saying ‘yes’ and I love saying ‘please.’ Saying ‘yes’ doesn’t mean I don’t know how to say no, and saying ‘please’ doesn’t mean I am waiting for permission. ‘Yes please’ sounds powerful and concise. It’s a response and a request. It is not about being a good girl; it is about being a real woman.”
— Amy Poehler
I would call myself a very good girl who is just done with being good for the sake of being good.
There comes a time in our lives when we give and conform to the point of exhaustion and resentment and we finally just emotionally burst and explode and all of our fragile parts scatter and the process of picking up the pieces is just too hard. So we start giving less.
Most of us will never shed our Good Girl Image entirely.
If you are giving all of yourself to others it’s hard to give yourself the time and space to find out what you love and what brings you alive and healing all at once.
And so here are some questions to ask yourself if you think you might be caught up in Good Girl Syndrome:
How can I make this more playful and fun for me?
What will I sacrifice by saying yes — and is it worth it?
What boundary do I need to set here?
What do I need?
What do I want?
What am I trying to avoid?
Is this worth losing someone or something over?
What would really happen if I drop this ball?
How can I be kinder to myself?
In my Brave Yes Living Tips, I offer a few more radical ways to live for yourself and chase after your dreams for this one lifetime you are experiencing.
There is no time like right now to start living for yourself.
And those who stick with you as you disrupt and challenge the status quo will be your people.
Offering a Liberating Future for Our Girls — and Boys — and Ourselves.
“Teach her to reject likeability. Her job is not to make herself likeable, her job is to be her full self, a self that is honest and aware of the equal humanity of other people.”
― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
As a mother of teenage daughters, I have struggled with the Good Girl Syndrome very much.
Just like every parent, we have taught them to be nice. But I find myself telling them often not to be too nice.
I want them to be compassionate and kind to ALL people AND I want them to have boundaries AND to not be assholes to others and I find this to be tricky, tricky ground to walk on.
Because I also know that when you have too many boundaries in place, you can inadvertently put up too many barriers between you and others, creating a sense of loneliness and isolation. Sometimes we have to let our boundaries drop to let others in.
We can begin to form a more liberating future for our girls — and boys — by not shaming them into being good by our own standards but rather helping them decide what Being a Good Human is for themselves.
A good girl is not to sit quiet and look pretty — unless SHE decides that’s what it is for herself.
A good boy is not one that is tough and manly — unless he decides that is what he wants for himself.
When we stop defining perfect as good we will be liberated.
When we start to see our mistakes and imperfections as good enough, we will be liberated.
When we start playing with feeling alive and chasing our dreams and not feeling guilty for it, we will be liberated.
When we start accepting and embracing everyone’s imperfect humanity, we will be liberated.
What stops you from writing or creating with wild abandon?
What holds you back from going for it as a brave leader?
What prevents you from going after your most wild inner longings?
Likely, your answer is fear.
Fear of failure. Fear of rejection. Fear of making a mistake.
And I would clarify that behind that fear is something else: Perfectionism.
Every single one of my private coaching clients who are trying to uplevel in their life, business or career has struggled with some form of perfectionism.
And this is one obstacle I know that prevents so many creatives, entrepreneurs and changemakers from living and leading more boldly so that we can show up more visibly and confidently in this world and make a difference.
I would absolutely call myself, at this point, a healing perfectionist. I am not yet in full recovery as I still struggle to lay down my perfectionistic tendencies in some parts of my life. But I am absolutely on track to care less about just about everything very soon. And, I’m learning to live a Brave Yes Life despite of my own perfectionism.
But, first, let’s talk about what perfectionism is — and isn’t.
Last week, I talked about the politics of overworking and overdoing as part of my series called The Politics of Languishing, a multi-article look into the reason women have been languishing between survival mode and thriving for years.
Now, I want to talk about overworking’s very close cousin — perfectionism.
Nearly every woman I talk to says, proudly, she’s a perfectionist.
That’s not surprising. Calling ourselves perfectionists has become a bit of a self-indulgent way to describe one’s self.
However, being a perfectionist can be dangerous and unhealthy.
But first, let’s dive into how we became so obsessed with perfectionism.
My own love-hate with the Internet and social media began in 2016 because of the pressure of perfectionism.
Prior to 2016, I loved social media and the beautiful connections it brought into my life. I used Facebook and Instagram avidly.
Until I no longer felt like I could keep up with the image of it all — or just refused to keep up with it all.
To this day, I adore my computer friends — coaches, business owners, writers, creatives, makers, changemakers around the world who I connect with and feel on the same page with even if we’ll never — or rarely — ever meet in person.
But at some point over the last decade, though, real life got snatched up by perfect idealism and what we see online now is a level of perfectionism that is nearly impossible to attain, and yet attractive enough to keep women striving for it all.
And this leaves you feeling as if you are not enough.
When algorithms began rewarding beautiful lifestyle influencer culture and that took over and began to flood the airwaves, one thing was clear: I would not be able to keep up with the gorgeous-at-all-times aesthetic and elegant behind-the-scenes of the online world.
I just wasn’t into that sort of thing. And so I haven’t put much energy into social media as a result — until recently when I re-joined Instagram with a whole new intention.
I care about people — especially empowering women and girls. I don’t care what your rooms look like. I care what your inner landscape FEELS like.
And I can tell you that from my own understanding of human beings, from my own research and awareness, I can, without a doubt, declare that most women feel exhausted from all the striving they are doing to keep up.
And so today’s installment of The Politics of Languishing is diving into the power and influence that perfectionism has over us and how it’s truly exhausting us, possibly more than all that hard work we’ve been doing to keep up.
Not only are women working longer and longer hours — either in the home, at work or in their business — to keep up, but they are also striving endlessly to live a life of perfection.
If it’s true that women have been languishing for years, and overworking and overdoing is contributing to that feeling of emptiness, then it’s also important that we recognize and become fully aware of the pressure that perfectionism is adding into our everyday lives.
What is Perfectionism and Why Does it Haunt Us So?
We can argue that striving for perfection is not a new struggle for women. Just think back to June Cleaver in Leave it to Beaver. Women wanted to be June, the archetypical suburban white mom that was held up as the ideal woman.
And so the idea of perfectionism isn’t new but it has evolved and even gotten more and more out of hand.
“Setting high standards and aiming for excellence can be positive traits, but perfectionism is dysfunctional because it’s underscored by a person’s sense of themselves as permanently flawed or defective.” PAUL HEWITT
“One way they try to correct that is by being perfect,” Hewitt said.
“We are constantly bombarded with images of what perfect looks like — even if it is mostly completely unattainable — and we internalize it from a young age,” she wrote in her post on overcoming imposter complex.
Perfectionism and the Patriarchy: The Root Cause of Perfectionism in Our Society
Perfectionism is deeply rooted in both the patriarchal — a system that favors men — and white supremacy culture — the system that favors white people.
Sociologist and gender (in)equality researcher Sylvia Walby defines patriarchy as “a system of social structures and practices in which men dominate, oppress, and exploit women”
And so how does perfectionism and patriarchal systems connect?
Women are constantly trying to strive to keep up. We do this through all behaviors that result in being perfect … showing up on time, how we dress and look, going above and beyond to stand out and make an impression, people pleasing and being extra kind so we’re taken more seriously.
All this efforting we’re doing day in and day out in order to be perfect is actualy intended to keep us feeling safe and comfortable. We don’t want to be rejected. We don’t want to be outcasts. We don’t want to miss out. We don’t want to look like imposters.
And so we strive all day and all night to keep up the appearance that have our act together and nothing is wrong.
And all that striving to look good and look joyful and look smart and look like our homes are ideal and our families are happy is absolutely exhausting.
Ah, but that’s not all.
There’s another power system at play in our perfectionistic standards as well — one that I believe is a huge problem we must address — and that’s how perfectionism and racism are tied together.
little appreciation expressed among people for the work that others are doing; appreciation that is expressed usually directed to those who get most of the credit anyway
more common is to point out either how the person or work is inadequate
or even more common, to talk to others about the inadequacies of a person or their work without ever talking directly to them
mistakes are seen as personal, i.e. they reflect badly on the person making them as opposed to being seen for what they are — mistakes
making a mistake is confused with being a mistake, doing wrong with being wrong
little time, energy, or money put into reflection or identifying lessons learned that can improve practice, in other words little or no learning from mistakes
tendency to identify what ís wrong; little ability to identify, name, and appreciate what ís right
The Destruction of Perfectionism and the Negative Impact its Doing to Your Mind, Body and Spirit
First, let me say that this article and this perspective is written by me and from my own research and experience as a white woman. It is rooted in my white privilege. It is rooted in my experience as a woman who grew up in a rural community and worked hard to live a very stereotypical life.
And, it’s also rooted in the work I do as a coach for creatives, entrepreneurs and changemakers who struggle with shedding perfectionism so they can live a more purpose-driven, impactful life of ease and joy.
We know that perfectionism is causing extreme exhaustion and a feeling of not enough. All we have to do is ask any working parents we see how they are doing right now.
It’s also possible that perfectionism is creating an enormous amount of stress and displeasure in our lives because we can’t possibly ever actually achieve the level of perfect we are striving for but we keep trying anyway.
And it could possibly be killing us, as well.
“The rise in perfectionism is especially troubling because it has been linked to an array of mental health issues — a meta-analysis of 284 studies found that high levels of perfectionism were correlated with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, deliberate self-harm and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The constant stress of striving to be perfect can also leave people fatigued, stressed and suffering from headaches and insomnia,” according to a well-researched article on Vox connecting mental health and perfectionism.
And, sadly, perfectionism is on the rise.
In that same article, the authors talked about a study on the prevalence of perfectionism that found an increase in the number of people struggling with perfectionism. In 1989, about nine percent of respondents posted high scores in socially prescribed perfectionism, but by the end of the study, that had doubled to about 18 percent.
“On average, young people are more perfectionistic than they used to be,” Andrew Hill of the University of Bath said in the Vox article, and “the belief that other people expect you to be perfect has increased the most.”
All of that destruction that perfectionism is doing is a concern because it’s been found that high levels of perfectionism can be linked to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, deliberate self-harm and obsessive, compulsive disorder.
It can also contribute to exhaustion, stress, headaches and insomnia.
Proving Ourselves in a Growing List of Perfect Life Domains
When June Cleaver was all that we aspired to be, we simply needed to have a nice home, nice clothing and a perfect family.
If June was still our role model, she would also also be volunteering as the PTO president, working a second or possibly a third job and putting up aesthetic pictures of her life on Instagram to prove her worth and her joy and trying to construct the perfect photo gallery wall of her perfect family life.
The truth is that there is much more rubble of perfectionism to climb out of as modern women.
Our domains to strive in and be perfect in have expanded immensely. It’s no longer about just how we look and our family life.
Here are just some of the perfect life domains I see my friends and colleagues struggling with as well as new clients of mine when they first come to work with me:
The Perfect Body
The Perfect Home
The Perfect Self-Care
The Perfect Family
The Perfect Career
The Perfect Vacation
The Perfect Workspace
The Perfect Image
The Perfect Activist
The Perfect Cook
The Perfect Social Media Account
The Perfect Reading Stack
The Perfect Planner Pages
The Perfect Bullet Journal Page
The Perfect Meal
The Perfect Plant Wall
The Perfect Child
What happens when we see only visual images of perfection day in and day out, we don’t realize how those images seep into our brain and replace whatever enough was for us. And it begins a vicious cycle of not enough. In fact, all of this constant striving for perfectionism is so exhausting that even influencers are burning out.
All this proving ourselves is causing more harm than good. The women who come to me for coaching tell me they are burned out, they are exhausted, they want to make a difference but the truth is they can barely find the energy to shower and do their work.
And I wonder if all that proving themselves is what’s more of their issue than they know.
Until we get under the hood of what is driving your perfectionism, it’s hard to tell.
A client of mine who has trouble relaxing recently told me about a quote she read that resonated with her and encouraged her to stop trying to hard to do everything so perfectly.
“If you have something to prove, you are still a prisoner,” by Edith Eger Edith who survived imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp. Her parents were murdered her first day there.
What’s Healthy Perfectionism and What’s Unhealthy?
Not all perfectionism is destructive.
But when it is we need to pay attention.
Just this week, I let myself off the hook to publish this piece on a Tuesday rather than a Monday, since Monday was a holiday here in the United States.
My brain was yelling at me and telling me that I am supposed to publish on a Monday. I must publish on a Monday. To do so, though, would have required taking time away from family and working on the weekend.
The voices in my head kept shouting: You can’t fail. They will reject you. You can’t let people down. You can’t possibly do something that isn’t what you said.
Well, I published on Tuesday, not Monday. And everyone survived.
And, quite frankly, no one cared, either.
Part of my identity is wrapped up in doing — and doing exceedingly well. In fact, one of my top strengths is having an appreciation of beauty and excellence.
I always strive for excellence but sometimes that can mean I stumble through and get stopped by perfectionism.
And so, as part of my own healing from this awful pressure that we put ourselves through, I’m learning to strive for excellence without expecting perfect, which means I focus on giving perfect effort not perfect results.
It means I am finishing things even if they aren’t how I envisioned them finished.
It means I’m choosing Radical Rest even when I know I could be perfecting something a little bit more — like this blog post.
When we strive for excellence, we are striving to do OUR best, which may not be perfect, but we can let go of what others are going to think of us in the process.
Like Toxic Productivity, which I discussed in the first piece in this series, toxic perfectionism shows up when we lean too far into the extremes and operate in an all-or-nothing mindset. Toxic perfectionism operates under the mindset that if it can’t be done perfectly it should not get done. Toxic perfectionism can also result in a diminished sense of self-worth if you tie perfectionistic outcomes to your inner worth.
The truth is that my own perfectionism runs toxic in only one area of my life — and that’s my creative output and my work.
My house is far from perfect. Same for my fashion sense. Even my hair, I’d argue, is never perfect. I am OK with imperfect children, though they would argue otherwise, and I’m OK with imperfect social media accounts.
But my creative work and coaching … that’s another situation entirely. In the past, if I didn’t think a project would turn out perfect, I would quit. Or, I’d easily let a mistake ruin my day or cause a dip into my own enoughness. And when something doesn’t turn out well, I beat myself up about it relentlessly.
This is my growth area.
Healthy perfectionism — which I prefer to say striving toward excellence rather than perfection — can be a very good thing for our lives.
Healthy perfectionism shows up in characteristics such as:
Setting meaningful, powerful goals and sticking to them
Trying new things and being OK if you fail
Using curiosity to solve problems
Being OK with trial and error
Feeling satisfied with your efforts
Finishing things even if they aren’t how you envisioned them
A Simple Yet Powerful Way to Start to Heal Your Perfectionism
My clients are high achievers. As creatives, entrepreneurs and changemakers they want to do big things. Epic things. Everyday #BraveYes things that make an impact and a difference in their families and communities.
And they want ease and to enjoy this one life.
And, almost always, they hire me to help them because they are afraid.
Afraid of failing, of not getting it right, of messing up and much more. They are afraid of change. Afraid of doing it all alone. Afraid of not following through.
This is why I work with my clients on unearthing their best selves from the rubble of perfectionism, overworking and many other invisible obstacles so they can carve out new stories around what it means to have unshakeable resilience — so that when you do big, scary, life-changing things you don’t quit too early or give u entirely.
Part of that work we do is on creating a new story around making mistakes.
In their book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Code, Emily and Amelia Nagoski wrote about the Mad Woman in the Attic, a reference to the book Jane Eyre.
I resonated with this metaphor very much as a Jane Eyre fan. In the book Jane Eyre, there is a wife in the attic who is not mentally well.
The authors of Burnout use this metaphor to talk about the inner critic that is hiding within all of us and they ask us to name it and visualize it so it’s not just some vague powerful bully hanging over us.
This is a similar exercise I use with my clients who are trapped under the rubble of extreme perfectionism. We work to identify your inner taskmaster that is influencing you to overwork, overdo and over-perfect everything so you can actually finish things, rest and take it easy on yourself. The goal is to make an impact with your art, work or leadership and stop getting in your own way.
And, honestly, it’s helpful for all of us because we all have an inner critic that is controlling us and it’s vital to know who she — or he — is so that we can address her fears and worries to bring a sense of comfort.
Sometimes we have multiple inner critics and it takes time to unearth them all. It’s important to keep getting to know this part of you to experience wholeness.
Without my chaos and my overwhelmed brain and my empath ways, I am not me.
Just like without my intense spiritual gifts and strategic visioning skills, I am not me.
At dinner the other night, my husband and I were talking about the most free people we can think of in this lifetime.
I told him I think Jim Carrey is a free man. He can say what he wants. Do what he wants. He has no worries about what others think of him.
I idolize people like Jim Carrey, Pink, Madonna, and others who have no filter, that are willing to take life and career risks that pull no punches.
But not all of us are going to be the loud, dancing when everyone is looking kind of person.
Some of us are about quiet power.
Some of us are doing brave things without notice.
As an introvert, I believe in everyday Brave Yeses that aren’t going to make a big splash but will make a big impact.
And I continue to strive to be fully free like that though I have a long way to go.
So for this interest on this article, I researched it, and sure enough Jim Carrey is actually a perfectionist — as most of us are.
But that’s the thing. He’s risen above his perfectionism not for himself — but for others.
“My father used to brag that I wasn’t a ham — I was the whole pig. And he treated my talent as if it was his second chance. When I was about 28, after a decade as a professional comedian, I realized one night in LA that the purpose of my life had always been to free people from concern, like my dad. When I realized this, I dubbed my new devotion, “The Church of Freedom From Concern” — “The Church of FFC”— and I dedicated myself to that ministry,” he said in his commencement speech at Maharishi University of Management, May 24th, 2014.
We must trust each other to try and fail at things.
We must be willing to admit that we attempted the new or the impossible and it didn’t go as we had hoped and that’s OK.
We must be willing to let imperfect be perfectly OK.
We must be OK with yards with dandelions in the grass. Those weeds turn into seeds that spread wishes and dreams.