How I stopped being a “good girl” so I could be authentic

Photo by Akira Hojo on Unsplash

grew up in a household that prayed before meals and attended church on Sundays. These 2 acts were the height of our Christian-hood, with the other days of the week spent walking on egg shells as the parents anxiously made sure ends met at the end of the day.

My dad strived to provide the quintessential suburban experience — the working father, stay-at-home mother, children in private school, and home-cooked meals three times a day. Through a respectable work ethic, he went from delivering FedEx packages making minimum wage and going to night school when I was a baby, to having tenure as a network engineer when I was in high school.

My stepmom’s role was to care for the 3 children while he worked.

My parents lived in a world that told them: Show up, work hard, don’t make a fuss, and you will be provided for.

hey loved the checking the box of the appearance.

We’d sit in silence at the dinner table, sensing Dad had a bad day at work and instinctively knowing not to bring up anything more charged than “the potatoes taste good.” Often, we didn’t have much to say to each other, so we sat in silence. I turned in signed papers late often, waiting for a window of a good mood to ask for something. When Sunday morning came, he’d rush us out the door so he could be a deacon and smile at strangers and appear relaxed, a different person than I had seen the other 6 days of the week. My stepmom would send me back to my room to dress and re-dress until my clothing was modest and appropriate enough to enter the church, less because it was God’s house and more because what would people think if I showed up “like that.” I’d watch her raise her hands during a hymn with her eyes closed, a clone of the other 5,000 people in the sanctuary, knowing she didn’t give a shit about the words she sang.

It made my adolescent stomach churn.

“If you trade in your authenticity for being liked, you may experience the following: anxiety, depression, addiction, rage…”

he message repeated every Sunday was: be good.

Vote Republican, don’t watch R-rated movies, listen to the local Christian radio station, tithe 10% of your salary, and women use Proverbs 31 as a handbook. Sunday School was separated by sex: girls in one classroom, boys in another classroom. Girls were given lessons on putting others before yourself, “saving themselves” through abstinence, and meekness.

One day, a supposedly-enlightening presentation from one of the boys warned the group of girls that “men are like microwaves; they can turn on in 5 seconds.” As such, dress modestly so that we don’t lead our brethren astray. It would be 100% our fault, and we need to take ownership of our actions. I was 15.

The rules only cared about what you appeared like, not what actually happened.

My parents’ world promoted the appearance of goodness, and the rubric was from the Southern Baptist church. Being “good” meant following the rules. An astonishingly large gap in their curriculum missed the sustenance of a healthy relationship: reciprocity, honesty, communication, and respect. Self-love was non-existent; it was “You will feel good if you love Jesus correctly.”

Showing up to church was good, and I wanted to be extra good. So, I went to church more than my parents. I’d beg them to drive me Wednesday nights for mid-week fellowship and choir practice, and back to church Sunday night for additional classes.

The people in youth group who went on mission trips were revered, so I raised money to go every year. The more heartfelt your testimonial, the more you got to share it in front of others. I made sure mine was a golden-spun story.

The more souls you saved, you got a shout-out at the end of the day. So, I brazenly knocked on doors to Spread the Word.

Not upsetting my parents was good, so I but my tongue every time I wanted to talk back.

Listening to Christian music was good, so I turned off the pop radio when I was in friends’ cars.

My walls were littered with posters of Bible verses, not boy bands that could inspire lust.

The downside of being a child is: your parents’ world is your world. You’re old enough to think for yourself, too young to have any differing experiences. So you’re stuck in a cycle with no way out.

worked: I was praised by every authority figure — my teachers, parents, and church leaders — for being good.

They never specified good at anything. Just “good.” Because I was easy — never caused a fuss, was pleasant to be around. I had a great balance of humor and listening to others. I talked about the books I read and had a track record of helping in the community. I got accepted to my first youth leadership group at age 17.

I made peoples’ lives easier by doing what they wanted me to.

he cost of not being good was conditional love.

I was uninvited from a family vacation for “having an attitude.” I was ignored by my parents for months because “The only time I called was to ask for something.” I was denied being driven to work because I didn’t complete my chores to their specifications.

As I neared 18, I was ready to be successful in the bigger world; to go out on my own and breathe. Though I had no interest in being “bad,” I was more than ready to forge my own path outside of my parents’ world.

I saved money, worked 2 jobs, and studied hard so that the adult world would see me as worthy. I applied to a competitive college, joined clubs, and got into the sorority that I wanted. My church attendance plummeted to 0, but I kept the radar strong for what the new authority figures in my life desired.

Just like in church, my career counselors, professors, and bosses wanted easy. I showed up on time, did what I was told, and followed the same checklist my parents did. Being a “good girl” was the carrot, and being one decision away from being a “bad girl” was the threat. My authenticity knew where the line was, and didn’t dare cross it.

So, I often censored myself when what I thought or wanted to say was “too extreme” or “disrupted the status quo.”

What I realize now is: the “good” I was measured by so carefully was really “submission.”

I am now 32. It has been 14 years since I moved out of my parents’ house. The authority figures I mentioned (my parents, church leaders, my bosses, teachers and professors) benefitted from me submitting to their rules because it meant their power could remain in tact. They weren’t prepared for anyone to question their position, which I see now as a tell-tale sign of a weakly-held power structure.

My questions in the church were met with “have faith,” my questions at home were met with “because I said so,” and my questions at work were met with “we’ll talk about it later.”

Power was taught to me as being greedy… by the very people who had power over me. Either the person or the role had a foundation fractured by insecurity.

I believe that if your position relies on the people below you being submissive, then it is an inauthentic power.

know that I am good. I do not have to earn it every day, with every decision.

I respect others, I have an intense desire to make others’ lives more fulfilling, and I speak up if a decision adversely affects anyone else. I learned how to be vulnerable and to unconditionally love the people in my life. Most beautifully is that when I make a decision that turns out not-so-great, I have the resources and awareness to clean it up; I no longer believe it it automatically puts me in the “bad” column.

Black text on a white background. It says, “Your playing small does not serve the world.”

Strengthening my inner power is the best way I know how to fight the submissive programming I was taught.

At work, I speak up more in meetings, and share my own original ideas. For that, I am told the company and my department are better for it. I now receive awards for the ideas I bring, versus following rules. I surround myself with people who love to think, have non-combative discussions, and change their minds when presented with new information. My world is beautiful and filled with respect.

When I based my value on being “good” and submissive, I didn’t have anything to be afraid of; the agreement they depend on is “follow my rules and you will be taken care of.” When I left that world, I welcomed uncertainty. As my ideas to change the world around me get bigger, so does my fear.

On an intellectual level, I know that my fear is trying to protect me. It is survival instinct to fall in line, and that never fully leaves our bodies. On the good days, I persevere; often, I give in. As a result, I have hundreds of unfinished blog posts and unstated projects. I am still learning, friends.

I still don’t want to disappoint anyone, and my subconscious still believes that there’s a “bad column” just waiting to add my name at the first sign of failure.

Like I’m doing with writing this essay, please just take the next best step.

Living a life of authenticity and reclaiming your inner power is a process. You will build momentum, and your strength will build.

You are already good! You do not have to earn your space with other peoples’ permission!

Today, you can grasp your inner power and worthiness in this world.

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Lauren Warren

Balancing mindfulness with a corporate career. Sharing my tips, what hasn’t worked, and more.