The Good Girl Contract ~ Lisa Stryker
I was taught not to share certain things outside the four walls of my childhood home.
Illness. Unexpected pregnancies. Legal issues. Relationship conflicts.
Pretty much anything that might suggest we were actually a human family and not some painted-on-canvas depiction of suburban bliss was considered “dirty laundry.”
Not to be aired out in public.
I didn’t question this family pact as a young child. Most of the dirty laundry was adult stuff anyway.
As I got older the secrets started to weigh on me though.
When I was in high school, I overheard my parents talking about a family member’s newly discovered diagnosis. When they noticed me standing there, Mom said, “Let’s just keep this in the family.”
I tried to manage it alone, but one day, consumed with fear, I confided in a friend.
“I feel so guilty for telling you,” I told her. “I’m not supposed to talk about it.”
When I explained that, despite real hesitation, I’d promised to keep it a secret I expected her to simply nod in understanding. Instead, she said, “Why did you agree to that? You’re worried, you need to talk about it.”
It hadn’t even occurred to me that I could say no. I could honor my need for a friend’s support.
Years later I heard someone in a similar situation say, “Oh, I tore up my good girl contract years ago.”
The idea stuck with me ever since. The thought that somewhere along the line so many of us unconsciously sign a contract to never disappoint, disagree or cause discomfort.
It’s an airtight agreement with no clauses that consider our own disappointment, disagreement and discomfort.
When Did I Sign a Good Girl Contract?
It’s wonderful to care for and consider others’ wants and needs. It becomes an issue when we continually disregard our own.
According to Tara Mohr, author of Playing Big, people-pleasing is especially prevalent in women, who are socialized to focus on relationships and have a heightened awareness of other people’s reactions. It’s part of our primal programming, left over from the days when our very survival relied on others’ approval.
Family dysfunction strengthens this codependency, creating a lopsided relationship where one person is giving much more than the other.
In many cases, children’s strong negative emotions are ignored, minimized or ridiculed. Children are ill-equipped to deal with unbalanced relationships and many respond in the only way t
hat makes sense to them: They sign a good girl contract that says they’ll try their darndest to keep everyone happy.
They’re taught not to trust their own feelings or honor their needs, to avoid upsetting or disappointing anyone.
The theme is “Be a good girl and don’t make a fuss.”
So, we dutifully sign a good girl contract, which requires us to become people-pleasers.
Merriam-Webster defines a people-pleaser as “a person who has an emotional need to please others, often at the expense of his or her own needs or desires.”
Many of us carry these behavior patterns into adulthood.
The trouble is this is an unsustainable plan.
For one thing, it’s impossible to keep everyone happy all the time. If you feel like that’s your job, you’ll always feel inadequate and judge yourself as failing.
For another thing, it takes a terrible emotional toll. When you continually put others’ needs ahead of your own you become depleted, stressed and resentful.
Breaking the Good Girl Contract
Once you realize you signed a good girl contract it’s time to step fully into adulthood and tear it up.
There are three keys to letting go of people-pleasing for good.
Recognize you have a choice
The first step to any change is developing awareness. When you say yes though you want to say no. When you disregard your own needs to avoid conflict. When you hesitate to share an idea or opinion for fear of disapproval. In the beginning, you may only notice it upon reflection.
Recognize the cost of people-pleasing
People-pleasers often feel resentful. You’re angry for not being treated fairly or with respect. You’re overworked because you can’t say no or ask for help. You may feel stressed and overwhelmed. Resentment blocks connections and erodes relationships. If you get really honest, you’ll find you’re angry at yourself too. Let the anger do its job: be the fuel for change.
Learn to have your own back
Once you start to recognize the behavior and feel motivated to make a change, it’s time to have your own back. Decide on your values and priorities, what’s most important to you. Then practice asking for what you want. Set boundaries on your time. Express yourself more often. This will all take courage, especially in the beginning. You will feel unsure and falter. Treat yourself well as you learn new ways of doing things. Encourage yourself and get support from a trusted friend.
As you break your good girl contract, practice releasing guilt. It’s impossible to live a full, healthy life and always put others’ needs before our own.
Recognize the positive effects of being more aware of and honoring your wants and needs. Notice how empowering it feels and how it strengthens your confidence and self-respect.
It’s common to worry about others’ response to your new way of being, but you may be surprised to see how people respond to you over time. Many will have newfound respect, and some will even cheer you on as they see you brighten up when you break your good girl contract.