I’ve always been one of life’s ‘good girls’. A people pleaser. A perfectionist. Not very exciting – but reliable at least. Not for me the heady temptations of boys or alcohol – I like authority and rules. Neat lines and boundaries, everything in its right place.
Everyone knows someone like this. The ‘perfect’ child, the earnest student. Stalwart of the Bible study, always ready with the ‘right’ answers. A little intense. But never any trouble – and nothing to worry about either.
That’s how it seems – but the reality can be very different.
Good girls like me are terrified of rejection – yet we long for relationship. We believe that to have any value, we must meet certain standards. We must be ‘good’. This means that negative emotions such as anger or sadness are seen as ‘bad’ and unacceptable. Many people deal with these by talking with others. But the good girl believes that if she opens up she’ll be exposed and rejected. Instead she retreats inwards. She copes by repressing her feelings and redoubling her efforts to gain approval. Yet, despite her striving, ‘good’ is never ‘good enough’.
For me, perfectionism culminated with anorexia: a desire to make my body as clean and shiny as I wanted my soul. But there are other costs too. If being ‘good’ is the foundation of my identity, then I’m in big trouble. ‘Goodness’ is just as much of an idol as a six-foot golden calf, – but it’s a lot harder to spot.
Writing in last week’s Telegraph, Lauren Henderson reaches the same conclusion:
‘As a little girl, I spent a lot of time saying sorry … I remember apologising for things that weren’t my fault to keep the peace at home, trying to comply with rules that were arbitrary and illogical, and the increasing resentment that caused me: it made my parents’ lives easier, but set a dangerous pattern for my future. Because if a Good Girl grows up without learning to speak up for herself, apologising automatically even if she doesn’t need to, it’s hard to overstate how damaging the effects may be long term: on her relationships, her career, her emotional wellbeing.
In the article, child development expert Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer adds:
“The problem is that this results in the girls turning themselves into a mirror of what other people want, whether it’s a parent or a teacher. They’re not encouraged to work out who they really are and to take care of their own needs.”
I agree with some of these points: but not all. I’m not convinced that the drive to be good comes primarily from outside influences, (parents/school etc). In my experience, the drives came from within: I was never good enough for me. Of course other people’s expectations can be a big factor; but they’re not the only one. As well as scapegoating families, it neatly sidesteps the impact of a culture and media that is based on comparisons.
Secondly, I don’t think this is just an issue for girls. Boys, (especially in church cultures) are also under enormous pressure to conform. Think of the number of conferences and talks based for example, on self-control. These are a part of discipleship, but sometimes it seems like instead of presenting a positive model of manhood, we’re handing out a list of (cultural) don’ts. As Simon commented on a recent blog:
“My observation of working in English context with young men is that it is different to the American context. America has the strong narrative of you gotta make ‘the team’ and throw a ball around in the back yard with your Dad. The church has pushed a much stronger male image of being a man. In this country, on the other hand, we have a heavily feminised church and culture. The boys are told through media that a mature and in touch personality is one that is more feminine and hence the approachable friendly guys are the ones like Will from Will and Grace (or hundreds of other examples along those lines)”.
Seems to me that ‘good’ guys have just as hard a time as ‘good’ girls in working out who and what they should be.
In the article, the author talks about letting go of her need to be good by learning to be more assertive, apologising less and recognising that the opposite of ‘good’ is not necessarily ‘bad’. These are helpful suggestions, but in my experience, the tyranny of an identity built on performance and morality, can only be broken by something much stronger: acceptance and grace.
Churches have a life-saving role to play in communicating this grace: but they can be places where we learn the very opposite. If we preach law without gospel it reinforces morality instead of faith, self-reliance instead of dependence upon Christ, and fear of men instead of fear of God. It’s only as I realise that I am a forgiven sinner and loved, independent of my behaviour, that I’m freed to want what is really good: and not for my own self-esteem.