Do You Have “Good Girl” Fatigue?

african woman standing among butterflies in meadow
Do You Have "Good Girl" Fatigue?Jon Feingersh Photography Inc - Getty Images

This is a recurring theme in my group of friends: When we’re getting together for dinner and deciding where to eat, someone will say, “I can go out, but I’m also fine ordering in.” Someone else will respond, “Yeah, I’m good to stay in, but if anyone wants to go out, that’s okay, too.” We can do this for quite a while, out-accommodating each other, until finally someone calls it: “Let’s stay in sweats and order in.” Or maybe go out? It’s become a running joke.

We are nice, polite women, all too eager to put others’ desires before our own. In the above example, the stakes are low—we really don’t care where we dine. But when your default is to try to please everyone else, it can hold you back at work, cause friction in friendships, keep family relationships from evolving—and generally leave you feeling exhausted and bitter. It’s been coined “good girl syndrome” because being agreeable, pleasant, and considerate are the qualities that girls—and women—are still praised for. If you think that sounds as dated as a marriage dowry, consider this: A 2017 study by the Pew Research Center revealed that people believe society deems being kind and nurturing the second-most desired traits for women (with physical attractiveness taking top spot!). This is compared to honesty, morality, and financial success for men.

There’s nothing wrong with kindness, of course, but when outsize value is placed on qualities that are stereotypically “feminine,” girls and women internalize the message that other people’s needs are more important than their own. Being a “good girl” can look like being afraid to disappoint others, say no, voice a strong opinion, or advocate for yourself.

“I see that quite a bit,” says Lynn Saladino, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in New York City. “A lot of females who have had the task growing up of smoothing things over in their family go into situations saying, How do I make sure that I blend in and that everybody's all right?Charmain F. Jackman, PhD, licensed psychologist and founder of Boston-based InnoPsych, which helps pair people of color with therapists of color, agrees. What ends up happening, she says, is that “people can become resentful because they’re living a life that’s actually about someone else’s demands.”

To stop being “good” and start being strong—in your immediate circles and the rest of the goddamn world—here are some steps to take.

Dial into your wants and needs

It may sound strange, but you might not even be sure what they are. When you’re so accustomed to anticipating the needs of others, you can have a hard time hearing and trusting yourself. “If your whole life has been looking out for other people, we may start with something as simple as, Do you like green or blue?” says Saladino of her patients who fit this profile.

She suggests beginning in your own head. Be more mindful during everyday interactions. Take a beat to pause and acknowledge when you have a strong opinion about something and how you handle it: Do you keep it to yourself, waffle and apologize as you voice what you think, or are you forthright?

You may find it’s hardest to speak up to friends, family, or colleagues. It may not be universal. Checking in with yourself will help you figure out what matters—because you don’t have to assert yourself in every situation. To really not care about something (like my friends with the dinner plans), “is actually a strong opinion,” says Saladino. “We can own that.”

Know your no

“Good girls” often struggle with saying no. If you’re someone who feels obliged to agree to every request—and then feels resentful that you’re overbooked and taken advantage of—practice having an all-purpose response at the ready. So when the PTA president asks you for more volunteer time or you’re invited to your niece’s piano recital, just say: “Let me think about that/check my calendar and get back to you,” suggests Jackman. If you’re feeling maxed out, email your no—and keep it simple: “Thanks for asking me to join you, but I can’t make it.” And remember: You don’t owe an explanation of why you can’t do something. Your no is your no.

State your case

“In this culture of politeness, tough or courageous conversations are really difficult,” says Jackman. Start small, at the lower end of your stress spectrum. You might tell your partner that you don’t want to see a scary movie instead of going along and sitting in the theater with your eyes closed. Or if you’re the always willing worker, try letting your boss know that you can’t take on a new project without additional support (you don’t have to go from zero to asking for a raise!).
If you’re known for being the friend who goes along with everything, or the dutiful daughter who drops everything when something happens to Mom or Dad, a more assertive you might come as a surprise to others. Jackman says a conversation with those closest to you might help you ease the way. Consider saying something like, “I’ve been putting other people’s needs ahead of my own. I’m being really intentional now about listening to my own voice. This might be new for you, but I ask you to walk with me and support me on this journey.”

Yes, this may feel stilted, or even scary. “You might want to practice a few times in the mirror,” acknowledges Jackman.

Change, after all, isn’t easy. But it’s worth it. Once you start speaking up and standing up for yourself (and worrying less how people react), check in with yourself again. See how rewarding it can be to take care of you.

Be a role model

If you have daughters, shelving your inner good girl is one of the best things you can do for them. Kids often develop “pleasing” types of behavior because they don’t want to disappoint their parents, says Saladino: “Children need to know that even if they do something that disappoints, parents can handle their own emotional states.” Modeling positive behavior is an impactful way to empower girls, and so is fostering communication and individuality. “Voice and choice are really important,” says Jackman. “Encourage disagreement. Invite your daughters to think differently and to expand.” The payoff is that they won’t be just good; they’ll be great.

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