You may not have heard the term “good-girl brainwashed” before, but you can probably decipher what it means — and you may even relate to the concept.
Wang defines good-girl brainwashing as “a set of subconscious messages that are perpetuated by society and media that train women to stay silent, small and subordinate.” These messages encourage certain traits and behaviors and discourage others.
“Good-girl habits are things that may have served us early on as girls … obedience, politeness, self-effacing modesty, perfectionism,” Wang told HuffPost. People-pleasing and weak boundaries are also on this list.
For Wang, these good-girl habits led to straight A’s, a spot in Yale’s class of 2012 and the title of USA Hall of Fame Gymnast. For others, these things likely resulted in awards, proud family members, parents telling you you’re a “good girl” and praise from teachers.
Such outcomes can have their upsides ― but following good-girl habits doesn’t always allow you to be your true self. What’s more, Wang said, these behaviors do not serve women as they grow up.
“When you go from a young girl to a woman, especially a woman in business … who’s ambitious and has a career and trying to do bigger things, these good-girl behaviors actually become severely detrimental to us as women,” Wang said. “Those behaviors then become things like not speaking up, not asking for help, not advocating for our worth, not asserting boundaries, not sharing needs, not negotiating pay, and ultimately just settling for way less than we deserve on every aspect of our lives.”
These behaviors are learned and encouraged from a young age, making them hard to separate from your own personality and even harder to break in adulthood.
“I do think it is definitely something that is ingrained … It’s forced down women’s throats, I think, from a very young age,” said Aparna Sagaram, a licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of Space to Reflect in Philadelphia. “People automatically think that it’s easier to raise girls than it is to raise boys. Then there’s this assumption that girls are just naturally more emotional, and they’re more in tune with other people.”
Sagaram believes these ideas are simply part of a widely accepted social construct that keeps women in line and second-guessing themselves, and prevents them from showing up authentically.
Here’s what to know about the traits and habits that make up good-girl brainwashing, how to spot it in yourself, and how to stop it from continuing.
Good-girl behaviors are the ones that made you a nice, agreeable child ― and now a nice, agreeable adult.
There are certain habits and behaviors that Wang categorizes as good-girl behavior, including:
- Trouble with setting boundaries
- Downplaying your strengths
- Permission-seeking behaviors
Often, women are taught to be modest, to listen to rules and to put other people’s needs before their own.
“What it teaches us is that in order to be accepted by the status quo, we have to shrink ourselves for the sake of others,” Wang said. “We have to ask permission before taking up space. We have to seek validation before taking action.”
“It is challenging because they don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable,” Sagaram said. “They are used to listening and being [easygoing] and not ruffling feathers, so setting boundaries would mean speaking up and taking up space, and that is a daunting task for ‘good girls.’”
If you’re not sure whether this applies to you, Sagaram said one way to tell if you have people-pleasing and perfectionist tendencies is to think about how you make decisions. If you waffle back and forth and struggle to be decisive, it could be a sign that you are a people pleaser and/or a perfectionist, she said.
“Generally, people that are people pleasers [or] perfectionists … really struggle with making decisions, because they either don’t want to disappoint,” or because they don’t actually know what they want, Sagaram explained.
One difference between people pleasers and perfectionists? “In my experience, oftentimes people pleasers do know what they want, but they’re afraid to say it,” Sagaram said. “So they just say, ‘Oh, I don’t care, whatever you want.’”
People who have trouble setting boundaries may allow family members to talk about topics that make them uncomfortable, or might let their friends stop by at all hours of the night, even when it isn’t convenient. And people who practice self-effacing modesty may constantly give credit to those around them when really they’re the one deserving of recognition.
These behaviors can lead to imposter syndrome.
Society puts a lot on women. Whether it’s the sense that you need to be a certain size, act a certain way or play a specific role in a family, there are lots of pressures to navigate, and many of them start in childhood.
Just think of all the messaging you’ve seen that encourages women to be skinnier, prettier and overall “better.”
“That sort of messaging becomes so deeply rooted, where what we learn to do is to try to prove ourselves and work harder,” Wang said.
This can create insecurity and deep-seated imposter syndrome, Wang said. And unfortunately, a natural response to imposter syndrome is to double down on those good-girl behaviors.
“Every time I felt like I wasn’t good enough, I did what good girls always do, which is that I put my head down and worked harder to try and prove myself,” Wang said.
People who demonstrate these behaviors often don’t know who they truly are.
“A lot of people that come in wanting to work on people-pleasing, they really struggle with just knowing who they are,” Sagaram said. “So the authenticity piece is something that we take a lot of time to help them understand.”
This means looking at things like your likes, dislikes, values and true personality. “Oftentimes, people pleasers, they start off as parent pleasers. And so then they don’t really ever take the time to learn who they are,” Sagaram noted.
This can be a real struggle in adulthood when you want to date (but you don’t know what you want in a partner), or when it’s time to pursue a career (but you’re in a certain job just to make your parents happy).
In these situations, it’s important to figure out what you actually want as the first step to authentically being you.
“Something that’s really helpful to think about is really just writing down a list of your values. That’s a really good place to start,” Sagaram said. From there, you can decide where these values came from, and if they’re truly yours or if they’ve been forced on you by your parents or society.
This isn’t an experience that’s exclusive to women. Sagaram said an inability to decipher your own values and wants is also common in children of immigrants, and in cultures where the family is valued over the individual.
To combat these behaviors, you’re going to have to do some hard and deep work.
The first step in healing from these behaviors is recognizing them, Sagaram said. “That self-awareness is so important, because while you may not be able to change the behavior immediately, you’re at least catching yourself.”
From there, you can eventually work to change your behavior.
“I think where I really want to focus on is, there needs to be a complete energetic shift of how women relate to themselves, and how then how women relate to money and wealth and power,” Wang said. “That has to start with you being able to recognize that you don’t need to apologize for taking up space. You don’t need to apologize for prioritizing yourself.”
These are not selfish behaviors ― they’re the opposite, Wang said. “It’s actually probably the most selfless thing that women should be doing, which is saying, ‘My wants, needs, desires, dreams matter.’”
And if you don’t prioritize your own emotions and wants, Sagaram said, you run the risk of not being true to yourself.
“The consequence really is you live an inauthentic life … You may not realize it in your 30s, you may not realize it in your 40s, but there’s people that are in their 50s and 60s where they are now realizing that they’ve lived their entire life for someone else,” Sagaram said. “That can feel really painful as you get older.”
She also pointed out that sometimes it’s necessary to strike a balance, particularly for people in certain communities (like children of immigrants). But a healthy balance, in which you’re living an authentic life, is still possible.
“I think the sooner you start to think about these hard questions, and really start to challenge yourself to think differently,” Sagaram said, “that’ll at least hopefully help you start to see what are the parts of your life that you do feel like you’re living authentically, and the parts of your life that you feel like maybe you’re living for other people.”