Challenging the "Good Girl Voice"
Girls need the confidence to recognize that all of their feelings are important, and that they will still be valued in relationship for having them. Rachel Simmons, author of The Curse of the Good Girl, tells us about Dana, who began to recognize and talk back to the "good girl voice" within, the one that told her to keep her feelings to herself.
Dana, freckled and big-eyed, was wearing thrift shop corduroys in July. She lowered the magazine she was reading on her bed at the Girls Leadership Institute. When asked to describe herself, she said, “Weird in a good way."
It was hard to argue. At 16, she had managed to become neither "queen bee" nor "odd girl out" at a high school infested with brutal cliques. She was an unabashed member of the school’s gay-straight alliance and had never worn makeup.
To look at Dana, you would swear Ophelia passed her by like the Bible’s Angel of Death sparing lucky homes. Something about her unwavering eye contact and quiet carriage suggested she didn’t care what you thought of her. In fact, when she arrived at camp, her mother made sure to inform me she was the “child who never gave me a day of trouble.” Maybe, I wondered, I really had nothing to teach her.
One day, Dana told me about Leo, a close friend from another school. Dana was upset because Leo didn’t call her as often as she called him. As we talked, she said, “I’m probably making too big a deal out of it.”
When she said this for the second time in a few minutes, I asked, “Why do you think so? Aren’t you upset? Aren’t these your feelings?”
“I guess,” she said. But her voice seemed blank, reminding me of times in foreign countries I have pretended to understand a native’s question.
Where Dana’s feelings should have triggered her to speak up, like an itch spiking across her ankle, they didn’t. Like many girls, Dana feared the consequences of telling Leo the truth because conflict might end their friendship. But Dana’s real struggle was with something else—the emotions underlying the problem. As we spent more time talking, I heard Dana continuously trivialize and condemn her feelings.
Dana told me another story. On a Sunday afternoon, she sat in the backseat of the family car, smooshed between siblings, en route to a wedding. When her stepfather made a biting remark about an ethnic group, Dana bristled quietly.
“So how did you feel?” I asked her.
“Angry,” she said. But she remained silent in the car.
“In my head,” she explained, “I was trying to be like, ‘Just get over it, it’s not a big deal.’ Stop thinking about it, you know, and trying to tell myself that I shouldn’t be angry, that I didn’t have a right to be angry. I should try to stop feeling that way because it would make things worse.”
Dana told me her mother and father had advised her not to hate her stepfather. “[They said] I shouldn’t hate him, and that I shouldn’t feel this way, that I should just try to be nice…[so] I say to myself, ‘Dana, stop being so negative, stop acting like you hate him, be nicer.’”
“But it doesn’t work that way,” she told me. “Instead, I just stop talking.”
As Dana grew quieter, a voice inside her head became louder. “You’re making too much out of this, you’re just being a drama queen,” it said. The voice was a symptom of what psychologist Aaron Beck called “self-monitoring” and “self-instruction,” internal voices that tell us how we should feel and act. In excess, monitoring and instruction lead to intense self-consciousness and inhibition. People who are invested in a particular goal are most vulnerable to the behavior. In Dana’s case, she wanted desperately not to feel angry.
To do this, Dana had to approach her feelings as pathogens invading her body. She had to contain, if not destroy, her “bad” feelings. She knew she was angry, but she refused to feel that way. On some level, Dana believed that if she didn’t have to own her feelings, perhaps she didn’t have to have them at all.
Dana listened to the voice inside her head. She began dissociating from her feelings, using physical language to describe the process. She said she felt “broken” and “carved out,” that “something was really wrong with me.”
“I'll narrate whatever is happening in my head as if it is already in the past. Instead of thinking about what is actively happening around me, I'll think about it as if I am telling it to someone or writing it down in a journal....It leads me to disconnect with my surroundings in that I act like I am already past whatever is happening.”
Describing her behavior around others when she was upset, she said, “I guess I feel…empty kind of—like there’s almost no emotion there. Or that—aw man—or, like, I stop talking a lot—and—I feel like I act really fake. That’s a really big thing. I feel like I’m just acting normal and I’m really not at all. Everything’s totally off in my head. In my head there’s this whole negative downward spiral, but when I speak I pretend that nothing’s wrong. It’s amazing to me that no one picks up on that. I guess I’m good at it.
Unable to direct her feelings outward, to say, “I need this from you, I am upset, I need this to change,” her thoughts grew more frenzied. “I feel like, I just keep saying, this is horrible, or like, um, I really don’t want to do this,” she told me. “I feel so horrible and I feel, like, so wrong.” Notice how Dana went from saying “this is horrible” to “I feel so horrible.” She had begun to internalize her stress and blame herself.
Feelings fertilize our thoughts and actions. By denouncing her emotions, Dana lost confidence in her agency in the world. She grew passive, thinking about current events in the past tense. A hallmark of a girl’s “hardiness,” or firm stance under stress, is a “relationship to change in which one feels challenged and mobilized rather than defeated.”[i] Dana had become little more than a vessel while her life unfolded around her.
As Dana denied her feelings, her true self began to fade. She became silent or fake, in her words, “empty.” One day, when Dana and I were walking to lunch, she said, “I’m afraid that by talking about how I’m feeling that someone won’t want to take care of me.” She quoted a song about not wanting to be a mess someone else would have to clean. “I worry someone will think I’m too much to deal with,” she said.
Perceiving a choice between her feelings and her relationships, Dana chose to be liked by others. But the self she displayed was a mask of the person she thought others wanted her to be. The curse of the "good girl" obscured and shamed the most important parts of who she was. By challenging her right to feel a full range of emotions, Dana had indeed learned to make herself smaller and neater; she would be no mess. But she was disappearing.
All this she did for her relationships; that they also suffered is a sad irony, and no coincidence. Dana began to resent Leo for not seeing through her cheerful façade to her real feelings of abandonment and hurt. Eventually she punished him, acting withdrawn and ignoring his calls. Dana believed he had disrespected her feelings when he failed to read her mind. In fact, it was Dana’s disrespect for her own feelings that kept her from telling Leo the truth. She displaced her feelings onto Leo, a behavior frequently observed in people with lower emotional intelligence. Disconnected from her own experience, Dana was unable to empathize with his. In the process, she created a confusing rift in their friendship.
At the Girls Leadership Institute, Dana learned to identify the voice in her head urging her to dissociate from her feelings. It helped her to see the voice as a “good girl voice,” telling her what she should feel. She has learned to interpret the voice as a signal to pay attention to her internal experience.
But awareness of her “good girl voice” will matter little if Dana lacks the ability to talk back to it. Helping a girl like Dana express herself is not unlike teaching a person to play soccer or basketball. It’s easy to shoot the ball when no one is around, much harder when someone tries to block your shot. We can teach Dana to know and say how she feels, but the trick will be learning to do it when the chips are down. Dana will need the confidence to recognize that all of her feelings are important, and that she will still be valued in relationship for having them.