One of the main stories we have as women hinges around being "good" - normally in relation to a role that we have in service of others. We are conditioned to be "good" daughters, students, mothers, girlfriends, wives, colleagues, employees, neighbours, citizens, friends....
The list is never ending. And so are the chains that bind us up, limiting our freedom to pursue our own hopes and aspirations, endlessly looking to others for validation.
These stories are caught up with guilt and other forms of self-criticism when we fall short of the high bar we have set ourselves – if we’re not good, we’re bad.
Here’s a few of mine….
To be a good friend I must always reply to Whatsapp messages within a couple of days. I’m a bad friend because I still haven’t replied to someone who contacted me in July.
To be a good friend I must listen attentively if someone is talking at me for ages, even if I’m getting overwhelmed.
To be a good friend I must resolve conflict as soon as possible, even if I don’t feel ready for it. I’m a bad friend because I just need more space at the moment.
To be a good daughter and granddaughter I must remember birthdays and send a card, at the very least call in the morning. I’m a bad daughter and granddaughter because quite frankly I barely ever remember.
To be a good colleague I must respond to other people’s emails as soon as I get them, prioritising them above other things I need to do. I’m a bad colleague because I often let them accumulate trying to get other stuff done.
To be a good girlfriend I must remember our anniversary date. I don’t.
To be a good Order Member within my Buddhist community I must be deeply connected into others on a weekly basis. I’m a bad Order Member because I don’t have space for that right now.
To be a good Buddhist and Order Member within my community I must meditate every day. I’m a bad Buddhist and Order member because I don’t and have always struggled with this.
Would we want this for anyone else? That they be so tied by perceived duties to us that they never live their own lives? That they waste so much energy trying to be good, not bad, that they don’t crack on with what’s more deeply important to them?
Now, let’s not pretend that we won’t have to work with other people’s very real expectations of us when changing our habitual stories and behaviour around this area. I’ve definitely had and have people in my life who, as much as we love each other, do put pressure on me to be a particular way. They might not be conscious of it and when it’s pointed out might deny it, but actions speak louder than words sometimes. The way we try to control each other can be very subtle. And I sure as hell do it too – let’s not pretend we’re just a victim here.
But before we can move on to working skilfully on our boundaries and communication – and respecting others doing the same with us – we need to at least be aware of how we are holding ourselves back under the guise of being “good”, looking for approval in that role and avoiding blame and criticism.
Exercise: Developing awareness of how you’re being “good” not free
We're going to try a period of writing for 10 minutes. Think of roles that you have in relation to others - perhaps from the examples I gave above. Fill in the blanks of the following sentence to get clear on the stories you have about being good, and self-criticisms you have because you think you fall short of that standard (like I did with mine).
There’s no being “good” at this exercise! Just see what comes up. Keep going – get as many stories as you can down for a particular role before moving on to another. If you get stuck with one role, move on to the next.
To be a good [insert role] I must…. I am a bad [insert role] because…
After 10 minutes, take a pause for a few minutes. See how your body feels, is there any tension in your belly, throat or chest? Take a deep breath and let your muscles relax. It’s quite normal if doing this brings up difficult emotions – we’ll work through that.
Now have a read through and highlight / underline any that particularly stand out to you. Notice your reactions in your mind and body again. Breathe into your belly and let your face, shoulders and stomach release as you breathe out.
Exercise: Choosing freedom over goodness
So with more awareness we can start listening to what we would do, or not do, if we weren’t caught up in all these stories.
Here’s another sentence for you to complete….
If I wasn’t worried about being a good (insert role) I would…..
Again give this a go for 10 minutes.
Because this is a thought experiment, you can write whatever you want, you don’t have to actually do it. So be as uncensored as you like. For example, if I wasn’t worried about being a good friend and Buddhist, I would probably have told someone to fuck off by now, in all honesty. That doesn’t mean I’m actually going to do that – I’ve taken some ethical precepts about speech as part of my Buddhist Ordination and I’m serious about them. But knowing that’s within me, I can then start looking with more clarity about what’s going on there. That turns into – If I wasn’t worried about being a good friend and Buddhist, I would be more honest about my hurt feelings.
Here’s another few of mine….
If I wasn’t worried about being a good friend, I would let go of the guilt around replying to people quickly, I would stop distracting myself in the day with Whatsapp, and let my energy flow more freely into my writing practice.
If I wasn’t worried about being a good colleague, I would only look at my emails once a day and give my attention fully to the work I need to do.
If I wasn’t worried about being a good Buddhist and Order Member, I would out less pressure on myself to meditate for the wrong reasons (of approval) and would probably then be able to connect with more motivating reasons for doing it! I would also be more honest about what’s actually going on.
There you go. What’s come up in your own writing? Go through and underline any again that stand out.
Could you choose one of these to actually work with this week? You could do this by having 5 minutes to reflect each day on how being good in that role has showed up - increasing your awareness.
If there are some easy changes you could make, you could set this as an intention and create the conditions to support it. For example, if you want to try just checking emails from colleagues once or twice a day from colleagues, you could let people know you’d like to try this in your team meeting and see what people think. You could suggest times that you will do it, so they know, and if need be create a clear method for anyone to contact you in a genuine emergency (defined and agreed by you all).
Get in touch!
I’d love to hear how you’ve found these exercises and if you’ve got any questions. Ping them over to email@example.com.