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The “Good Girl” Syndrome

If you've ever felt compelled to please others in spite of many promises to yourself you wouldn't do that or when wanting to apply changes in your life you found yourself intensely concerned about "what people would say" you're probably suffering to some degree from the good girl syndrome. This is a very common aspect of the mother wound and knowing what it is, is the first step to breaking from from it and healing the other wound.

Photo by Raamin ka on Unsplash

I was surprised to see the good girl syndrome in myself after years of therapy

“You don’t have to always be a good girl” my therapist told me.

At first, it didn’t compute at all! ‘Who? Me?????’, I thought. Nevertheless, some of this message landed and I had some space to not only reject her words but also to give them some consideration.

All throughout my life I was the rebellious one—did the unexpected, spoke when everyone kept silent, stood up for what others were willing to brush off… The 'good girl’ image didn’t really fit with the impression of my profile.

And yet… here it was, a part of me, and I could see why she had said that.

A sign of a good therapist is when they help you see the stuff of the unconscious while making sure you’re feeling safe enough to get curious about the (maybe shocking) new discovery

In the last Hakomi training, the grief over my childhood trauma reopened. Suddenly, I was drowning in sorrow and regrets, terribly missing my grandparents—my protectors—and feeling very very alone.

I was in so much pain that I even took a morning off and went to simply sit in the kind, autumnal Spanish sun and then followed up with a visit to the bar to comfort myself with a big, delicious toasted bread with local ham and a cup of creamy coffee. All food that’s comforting to my emotional body, but intolerable to my physical body.

When I returned after the lunch break, it was announced that the lead trainer, also my mentor, would be offering a demo session, and they were looking for a volunteer. No one raised their hand to offer themselves to be the client.

After a few moments of silence, I did.

My thinking was “well, I have a pressing pain which could definitely benefit from Trudy’s loving, skilled attention. Why not?!

So, with Trudy as therapist and me as client, we sat at the centre of the room and the other twenty participants gathered around us in a circle. Yes, twenty!

uhhg, I’m not sure I could have exposed myself like that”, you might be thinking now. And you’d be right.

The good girl obeys external standards of what’s considered good but she’s mainly following inner cues of ‘good’

As much as it is beneficial to be a client in a demo session, it is also very naked. And if anything beneficial is to come out of it, you can’t really decide “well, I’ll share ‘this’ bit of my experience but not ‘that’ bit”.

A lot of healing and insights came through that session. And yet, after that, I felt quite exposed, in a way that was not familiar to me.

The rebel or the strong one in me feels very easy with being outgoing and expressive. But recently I’ve been introduced to other parts in me—parts that are more shy, hesitant and guarded.

Could there be other possibilities to get support from Trudy which didn’t include exposing myself like that? — I couldn’t see them at that moment.

It never occurred to me that, perhaps, being so quick to raise my hand to volunteer myself was a strategy of the ‘good girl’ who doesn’t always know when to guard herself.

The good girl is a strategy for hiding vulnerabilities

When we’re triggered, the deeply seated strategies of feeling safe will kick in and run the show.

They dictate what we say and do, which possibilities/solutions we see and which we stay blind to.

I don’t have an active memory of being a good girl as a child, but I can well imagine that outside of my messy home and disturbing relationship with my mother I saw no other way of getting the support I so badly needed, so I employed the strategy of being a ‘good girl’. This created a passive memory of the good girl.

Passive memory, or implicit memory as it’s called in psychology, is when you remember something without knowing that you remember it.

It’s not a conscious memory that is readily available to you, like when someone asks you ‘what did you eat for breakfast?’ and you can supply the answer. It’s a memory that’s stored in the body and functions through our nervous system and our emotional body.

When we feel unsafe, this body memory injects itself into our bloodstream, our heart rate, our digestion, and our facial gestures and with this injection all the hidden images and abstract feelings that inform us about the next move float up.

Even well-informed or accomplished women can suddenly transform into the little, good girl

As women, we have been culturally subjected to the imprinting of the passive memory of being a good girl.

Just look at the nearest advertisement and the way women are objectified. Consider how much of that you’ve ingested throughout the decades of your life.

In my work with women I see the good girl show up in different ways:

One client, who is a therapist, told me: “I’m sorry for making your life so difficult but I’m so bad at being the client”. Her apology was the ‘good girl’s’ message saying: ‘If I’m difficult you might not like me or help me."

Another client often feels let down in friendships. When she shares her feelings of being hurt she finds herself repeating something along the lines of “I’m not upset, but…”. The good girl dilutes the message of her needs lest she’ll be rejected.

A client told me recently that, after many decades of life, already a grandmother herself, perhaps it was about time she invested in her own well-being. In spite of the enthusiasm and the energy that came with that decision, she was unable to follow up because every possible expense that comes up in the big family summons the good girl in her that makes her feel like it’s very justifiable to put herself, yet again, on hold.

All these examples come from women who, like me, have had their fair share of “working on themselves”.

So how could it be that in spite of two decades of being in therapy, I didn’t see how the good girl still, sometimes, takes the reins?

The ‘good girl’ syndrome is a multilayered psychological construct

More than just a matter of boundaries, the ‘good girl’ syndrome comes into being in many layers, the main ones being relational and neurological, and it’s bonded with shame and guilt.

No woman is born with a good girl in her. She learns how to become one in a relationship.

The kind of relationship you had with your mother gives rise to the good girl strategies that you’ll embrace and cultivate later on in life. Which is why it’s inevitable that the good girl syndrome needs to be deactivated within therapeutic, guiding and informed relationships.

Then, neurologically, the good girl will make sure you feel safe, which is not up to your consciousness or intelligence. It’s an unconscious choice, motivated by beliefs about yourself, others and the world, developed in the relationship with your mother.

But perhaps the most potent layer of this syndrome is shame!

The good girl is the messenger of buried shame

Experiencing shame leads to what psychologist Patricia A. DeYoung defines as a “fragmented self”.

In moments when our mother is not regulated and is unable to help us regulate, our sense of self is fragmented.

Imagine a mother coming home from a tough day's work, where she was humiliated by her (probably male) boss. You rush at her to tell her all about your new ideas, and she says “you have no wings to carry your plans with”.

These episodes happen to everyone and if followed by a repair the child learns that within relationships it’s normal to have a break and repair. But if it’s not followed by an immediate ‘repair,’ shame is imprinted on the sense of who we are.

Asking ourselves to see the ‘good girl’ syndrome in action all by ourselves when it’s blended like that in the sense of who we are is like asking ourselves to see into the galaxy without a telescope.

The good girl is not the bad girl

At the end of my session with my therapist a thought came up—I could have asked my mentor to support me in private while the others were in practice groups. “Duh!!!” you might be thinking, as did I - after the event!

But when our attention is locked in pain we can’t see new or alternative possibilities.

New possibilities arise when we’re not too alarmed, when we have someone trusted to guide us through our blind spots, and when there’s enough curiosity to look into these psychological syndromes that can easily shut us down because of shame.

The ‘good girl’ helped me get so far in life, with a lot of support from so many people. So I thank her for all that she’s done, and so could you.

But in no way do I want to keep staying blind to moments where she leads me to feel too exposed or take away my freedom to choose how to respond to my vulnerabilities.

And you?

Could you recognise the ‘good girl’ in you and how she operates?

Did you get a sense that this might be part of the reason why you’re not seen or reciprocated as you wished to be in relationships or even in your career?

If you’d like to, I’d be happy to help. As you can see, I’m not asking my clients to do/experience what I’m not willing to myself. So I have plenty of informed experience to offer just as I have done with dozens of women from around the world so far.


Healing the mother wound

Shelly’s helping women who want to go beyond the drag of a troubling 'mum story' to find deeper levels of healing so they could feel loved, seen and appreciated personally or professionally

Learn more about healing the mother wound


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