What a good girl!

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Yesterday I came home after my husband had spent a few hours with our five month old daughter. “How was she?” I asked. “Oh, she was really good. She ate. She slept. She played. She was really such a good girl.” His comment was ordinary enough. The baby was good. She didn’t cry, or make Daddy walk her around. Basically, she was cooperative, pleasant, and not much trouble. She didn’t burn the house down, torture the dog, or write on the walls when I was gone. But this got me thinking….if at five months, we already are judging her fundamental goodness based on whether or not she was easy to deal with, what are we setting her up for? If she were to have cried, to have fought her nap, and to have refused her food, she wouldn’t be a bad baby. Just a baby. The same innocent, sweet baby that she is when she’s easy, and we’d love her just as much.

Tonight, I posed the question to the women in my group therapy session. What makes us good? And what are we if we are not good? Overwhelmingly, group members seemed to equate goodness with behavior. We all seemed to have been socialized to believe that we’re good when we don’t inconvenience anyone, when we are reliable, dependable, and mannerly. We are good when we are helpful, supportive, and kind. We are good when we are faithful, slow to anger, attractive, and thin. And, thus it stands to reason, if we are overwhelmed, grumpy, disinterested, emotional, drained, overweight, or disorganized, we are “bad.” Moreover, the women agreed that when they see themselves as bad, they feel less worthy of love, less deserving of happiness, and less inclined toward success. We began to discuss the idea that for many, our very sense of self-worth fluctuates with our performance and our actions. Perhaps this is why we can be so mercilessly hard on ourselves. When Joanie’s marriage started to fail, she saw herself as a failure. When Amy slacks off at work, she begins to feel that she is undeserving of her life’s luxuries, and when Carolyn ate the whole bar of chocolate, she told herself that she was pathetic.

It is so important that we begin to separate our fundamental worthiness and goodness as people from our less-than-perfect behaviors. We need to treat ourselves with gentle loving-kindness, reminding ourselves that we are good and worthy even when we are too tired to cook, too busy to chaperone the class trip, or too nervous to remember our lines. We must also make these distinctions when we deal with our children and our students, starting at a very early age. Next time my eight year old follows my direction, I will not say, “What a good girl!”, I’ll say, “you did a good job following directions.” Perhaps more importantly, if she says, “I was bad today Mommy, I forgot to bring my library book back,” I will remind her that she is not bad, she simply made a mistake.

This is not to suggest that everything goes. There are rights and wrongs in a civilized society. Some choices are good ones, and other decisions are not so great. It is important to strive for our own personal best as often as we can. You will, however, miss the mark, sometimes over and over again, and when you do, it will not mean you are a bad person. It will simply mean that you are human.

By Dr. Marla Cohen 01/17/2007 05:53 PM

Recent Comments

  1. Samba wrote on 04/19/2007 08:58 PM

    Will be successful with it. Good luck!

  2. Lamo wrote on 04/29/2007 05:28 PM

    Good site!

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