Being a woman in the modern world is many things, but it’s never easy. You’re supposed to be cute but not infantile, sexy but not sleazy, conventionally attractive but never basic. Be smart, but don’t show off. Be ambitious, but always put family first. Be quiet. Be obedient. Be virtuous. Be perfect.
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And, hey: Would it kill you to smile?
The cultural scripts that women are expected to follow are as unattainable as they are contradictory. For many of us who identify as female, trying to meet those expectations day in and day out can take a toll on our mental health.
We talked to psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD, about this so-called “Good Girl Syndrome” — what it is, how to spot it and what to do if you’ve got it.
What is Good Girl Syndrome?
The concept of Good Girl Syndrome didn’t originate in medicine: It’s a product of popular culture — a phrase you’re most likely to stumble across in your social media feed. But Dr. Albers says that it can still be a useful way to think about behavioral patterns.
She describes Good Girl Syndrome as “the manifestation of traits that are valued or praised in girls. It has a lot to do with how caregivers (including people outside the family, like teachers) interact with girls and how those interactions shape and mold their behavior.”
Think about the term “good girl” itself: It conjures images of quiet, compliant, pretty girls who take care of others and don’t cause trouble.
“It’s rooted in societies’ stereotyped expectations of how women should be and the role they should play,” Dr. Albers explains. When people with Good Girl Syndrome deviate from typical “good girl” behavior, they feel guilty — or fear being judged.
Signs you may have Good Girl Syndrome
Good Girl Syndrome isn’t a diagnosable mental health condition. It’s more like a collection of traits that cause harm when taken to extremes. Dr. Albers says that most women will see themselves in one or more of the six characteristics she lists. What matters most is how severely you exhibit those traits and if they cause you to act in a way that isn’t authentic to you
If the need to be a “good girl” is impacting your mental health — or your ability to be happy in your day-to-day life and relationships — then, it may be time to make an appointment with a therapist.
There are the six traits Dr. Albers associates with Good Girl Syndrome. Let’s dive into them.
Being all things to all people is impossible, but that doesn’t stop many of us from trying!
Perfectionism isn’t all bad, of course. Having high expectations for yourself can give you a strong sense of self-direction and discipline. The problems come when you base your sense of self-worth on what you accomplish — or, if you’re dealing with good girl syndrome, on how other people perceive you. Being perfect can be a way of insulating yourself from criticism or judgement of others.
“Women with Good Girl Syndrome are sensitive to the feedback of other people,” Dr. Albers explains. “It can become a vicious cycle: Good Girl Syndrome creates mental health issues, and mental health issues exacerbate Good Girl Syndrome.”
People-pleasing is another common manifestation of Good Girl Syndrome. According to Dr. Albers, people-pleasers are good at anticipating what other people need and get a sense of safety and worth when they meet those needs. The result is that you don’t speak up even if you’re mistreated or want something different. Instead, you feel forced to conform.
It’s never a good thing to feel like you’re only valuable if you’re useful to others, but it’s especially negative for people with Good Girl Syndrome. They fixate on filling needs that are big and unattainable, like being the ideal partner, the perfect parent and the best friend — and never inconveniencing anybody else with needs of their own.
3. Putting other people first
Have you ever heard of the term “self-abnegation”? It means sacrificing or denying who you are for another person.
If you’re struggling with Good Girl Syndrome, you’ve probably got it down to an art.
Maybe you gave up a job you loved to raise your children because your significant other wasn’t willing to compromise. Maybe you always agree to go to your co-worker’s favorite (mediocre) lunch spot, even though you’d love to try the bistro next door. Maybe you let your friends give you a makeover you didn’t want — and still wear all the clothes you secretly hate. Maybe you drive three hours round-trip to check in on your parents every weekend, even though your sister still lives in their neighborhood.
In one way or another, people with Good Girl Syndrome put the needs of others above their own and struggle to assert themselves in the face of conflict.
4. Issues with body image
“Girls and women often feel that they need to appear a certain way to please other people,” Dr. Albers further explains. That’s why eating disorders and Good Girl Syndrome often go hand in hand.
People with Good Girl Syndrome might do other self-destructive things in the name of beauty, too. You might pursue plastic surgery to look like somebody else, spend lots of money you don’t have on a stylish wardrobe, or misuse substances or medications in an attempt to alter your appearance.
5. Sexual difficulties
Sexual difficulties are another hallmark of Good Girl Syndrome. As Dr. Albers puts it, “These ‘good girls’ are often seen as innocent and pure, which causes a dilemma when they do become sexual.” If you’re struggling with Good Girl Syndrome, you could experience any (or a combination) of the following:
- Fear or guilt about having (or wanting) sex, especially if the people or sex acts you desire don’t fit the conventional image of female sexuality.
- Difficulty understanding your own sexual needs and desires because you’re always focused on your partner’s pleasure.
- Self-consciousness (about your body or anything else) that prevents you from fully engaging with a sexual partner.
- Internal pressure to say “yes” to sex or sex acts that makes them uncomfortable.
- Difficulty recognizing or responding to relationship red flags. That struggle may extend to situations involving sexual abuse or, more broadly, intimate partner violence.
6. A history of trauma
Dr. Albers says that people who struggle with extreme forms of Good Girl Syndrome often experienced trauma in childhood. Sometimes, the behaviors associated with Good Girl Syndrome — like people-pleasing and perfectionism — can be a form of hypervigilance.
Hypervigilance is a state of chronic alertness and sense of danger that’s associated with mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety. Think about it as a biological adaptation: Your nervous system becomes hypervigilant because it wants to keep you safe from the kind of harm you’ve already experienced. It’s a reasonable way for your brain to respond to trauma, but being on alert 24/7 places tremendous stress on your body and brain.
So, why is hypervigilance common in people with Good Girl Syndrome? Let’s use the example of a person raised in a physically abusive household: They may be quiet, submissive and self-abnegating because being invisible kept them safe growing up. They may try to make everything (including themselves) look “perfect” to avoid conflict. They may be trained to make excuses for abusers and hide their emotions. In other words, the same behaviors that helped them survive an abusive situation can also make identity formation and interpersonal relationships more difficult.
How to overcome Good Girl Syndrome
If you see yourself — or somebody you care about — in this list, what are you supposed to do about it? Gender roles are deeply entrenched, after all.
According to Dr. Albers getting counseling is a great first step.
“In therapy or in counseling, we work on exposure therapy,” she says. “We start in small ways, learning to voice what you’re feeling and also confronting other people.”
Sound scary? It can be, but it’s a process.
“We don’t dive off the deep end,” Dr. Albers reassures. “We put the toe in the water and try it out.”
For example, you and your counselor might practice telling a friend that they hurt your feelings and explore how it feels to be genuine about your feelings. But as you might expect, this isn’t a situation with a quick fix.
“We have to give it time,” Dr. Albers continues. “The roots are really complex and deep. Undoing them may take a while because it’s such an ingrained behavior that often people don’t even see it.”
Identifying and validating feelings
When you have Good Girl Syndrome, one of the key things you’ll work on in therapy is identifying — and validating — your feelings.
“People who have Good Girl Syndrome often appear happy at all times, when deep down, they may feel anger, rage and resentment, all of these negative feelings that women are taught to suppress or not to have,” Dr. Albers clarifies. “But the feelings are there. And they’re very real. Acknowledging them and knowing that they’re OK is important.”
Learning to set boundaries
From there, a counselor helps you act on those feelings and practice setting boundaries. For example, they may help you learn to say “no” to people without feeling like you’re doing something wrong — even if standing up for yourself sometimes causes the people around you react negatively. Ask yourself, “Am I meeting my own needs in this situation, too?”
“They may try and push you back into that box, and it may take some strength and courage to not step back in,” Dr. Albers understands. But having a therapist to help you through that transition period can make things much easier.
Don’t pass it on
If you’re the parent, you may be feeling a bit nervous after learning that upbringing is a key piece of Good Girl Syndrome. But there’s good news: There’s plenty you can do right now to prevent your child from developing these tendencies — or to start unlearning them, if they’re already there.
Avoid using ‘good’ and ‘bad’
Dr. Albers suggests avoiding terms like “good girl,” “good boy” and “good child” altogether.
“Be mindful of your language when interacting with your children,” she encourages. “Instead, comment on specific behaviors, saying things like, ‘You put in a lot of effort.’”
She continues: “Acknowledge (and then let go of) the voice in your head that’s telling you something is good or bad — that it’s a dichotomy. As people, we don’t fit into two different boxes. There’s a lot of gray area in there.”
And this dynamic doesn’t just apply to girls. Telling any child, regardless of their gender, that they’re “good” when they’re being compliant, quiet and constantly meeting other people’s needs can have long-term consequences.
Listen to your gut
The other thing Dr. Albers suggests parents do? Teach kids to listen to their gut.
“When you don’t listen to your gut, it leaves you vulnerable to being taken advantage of, or put in some very dangerous positions,” Dr. Albers warns. If you’re afraid of being rude, you may not listen to your gut and move away from someone who is toxic or potentially harmful. In fact, you may find yourself trying to “fix” them or win their affection.
“With kids, when you teach them to be ‘good girls’ or ‘good children,’ they become vulnerable to predators,” she continues. Predators seek out children they believe aren’t going to speak up for themselves and are compliant. Children who fear being judged as “bad” by their parents are more likely to keep secrets.
Teaching kids to assert themselves will give them the confidence they need to trust their instincts and ask for help when they need it.
Goodbye, good girl!
Good Girl Syndrome happens when girls and women internalize cultural messages about how they “should” behave that are stereotypic in nature. Taken to extremes, those behaviors can harm your body, mental health and personal relationships.
“It’s a universal truth that we can’t please everyone,” Dr. Albers states, “and that’s really hard for people-pleasers. They feel like that if someone doesn’t like them, that their worth or their value declines. But we can’t please everyone. And once you really wrap your head around that, you can make some big steps forward.”
While it’s not a diagnosable medical condition, Good Girl Syndrome can be just as harmful — and often requires the help of a therapist or counselor to overcome. Unlearning a lifetime of “good” behaviors isn’t easy, but it’s worth the effort, especially if you’re raising children of your own.