There was a little girl, Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good,
She was very good indeed,
But when she was bad she was horrid.
– Henry Wandsworth
We can become conditioned into ‘being good’ from a very young age. And our experience of ‘goodness’ may often be subjective and gender-specific. One may be called a “good girl” for being ‘sugar, spice and all things nice’ and a “good boy” for being bold and brave. As adults, our understanding of what it means to ‘be good’ is likely to depend on the messages from childhood that we have internalised. And this definition of ‘good’ influences much more than our moral compass: it affects our day-to-day interactions with our co-workers, family and friends and also, with ourselves. So, what does ‘good’ mean? Compliant? Well-behaved? Talented? Successful? Top of class? Kind? Avoiding eating the donuts?! The list goes on….
For some of us, ‘being good’ means being obedient and following the rules (something that is conditioned into us throughout our education.) Yet, in Silicon Valley I’m sure ’being good’ is also much more about ‘disruptive innovation’, thinking out of the box and breaking conventional norms. Which makes me wonder whether our ideas about ‘goodness’ are somewhat archaic and misaligned with the fast-paced and ever-changing landscapes of our lives. One article encouraging parents to embrace the rebel child, asks if childhood obedience is “a cause for concern or celebration?” And another, commending rule breakers in the workplace, goes so far as to say that “What is really dangerous these days is safe thinking.” So, could it be that our rigid, outdated understandings of goodness are holding us back?
In this article we’re looking at how conditioning around ‘being good’ might be limiting us at work, in our relationships and with ourselves and exploring ways we can accept and embrace our own unique inner ‘goodness’. Let’s take charge of our own definitions of goodness, instead of allowing society’s multiple (and often contradictory) definitions to direct our lives. We can be the author of our own life narratives, and whilst being good for some might mean going for an 8-mile run, for me, ‘being good’ this year, is simply about being true to me.
New Year, Same Me
I typically start January with a New Year, New Me resolution, in the hope of being ‘more good’ in a certain area of my life (last year it was to run twice a week.) But like 91% of all New Year’s resolutions- I didn’t even make it to February. And so, I find myself feeling ‘bad’ for failing to stick to my challenge. But, who is defining this idea of ‘goodness’? My colleague Katie spent several years running and ended up having 4 knee operations. So, in this instance running was not so ‘good’ after all. This is why it’s important to take charge of our own understanding of ‘good’, instead of being influenced by everything and everyone around us.
Be Good to Yourself
As with my 2018 resolution, a lot of our ‘being good’ revolves around not being good enough. So, this year, why not focus your ‘goodness’ efforts internally? Instead of trying so hard to live up to someone else’s’ vision of good, why not focus on being good to yourself?
“If I am not good to myself how can I expect anyone else to be good to be?”
Self-compassion has been shown to help promote healthy behaviours and positive thoughts. In one study, an increase in self-compassion correlated with an increase in health-promoting behaviours, such as eating habits, exercise, sleep behaviours, and stress management. Another study, looking at the effect of self-compassion on ‘restrictive and guilty eaters’, showed that self-compassion helped to reduce distress and helped people to adopt healthier eating patterns. So being good to yourself can actually lead you to being ‘good’ in more conventional ways, like diet, exercise and sleep. In fact, scientists are now arguing that “self-compassion attenuates people’s reactions to negative events in ways that are distinct from and, in some cases, more beneficial than self-esteem.” We live in a world obsessed with the idea of being self-confident and having positive self-esteem but perhaps it’s much more important to cultivate self-kindness. Which brings to mind a quote from author and Buddhist practitioner Jack Kornfield: “If your compassion does not include you, it’s incomplete.”
Instead of defining goodness from the outside in, we’re flipping the formula and starting from the inside out. To quote the wise words of the 19th century monk Swami Vivekananda: “You have to grow from the inside out. None can teach you, none can make you spiritual. There is no other teacher but your own soul.” If we don’t define our own values and understandings of what it means to be good then they may become ungrounded, disconnected and vulnerable to negative, outside influences.
“You have to grow from the inside out. None can teach you, none can make you spiritual. There is no other teacher but your own soul”
– Swami Vivekananda
So, using the 4D2C model (see below) let’s take a look at how we can take charge of our own definitions of goodness. First, let’s look at the two contexts in which we live – our culture (people) and environment. As we’ve mentioned above, the world around us can affect our ideas of goodness in numerous ways and this starts from a very young age. So, we’ve got the outside pushing in, often influencing our internal dimensions. For example, we may create an autopilot of goodness within our physical dimension, with ideas of goodness being linked to ‘going to the gym’ and ‘eating healthy.’ In the emotional dimension goodness might be linked with ‘being kind.’ And in our intellectual dimension being good might be connected to ‘getting top grades’ or ‘being top of the class.’ The autopilot goodness narrative will depend on multiple cultural and social circumstances. But sometimes these autopilot narratives don’t serve us. As we develop and grow, these ‘goodness’ narratives may become outdated, limiting and stop us living from our true values. So, this is when we have to fire up our intentional self and look inward for answers. Asking ourselves questions like: what does goodness really mean to me? What elements of good will be useful to live by to be my best self? And how does being ‘bad sometimes serve me? As Michelle Obama said: “I have learned that as long as I hold fast to my beliefs and values — and follow my own moral compass — then the only expectations I need to live up to are my own.”
When we live with intention we can push back from the inside out and learn to love all of our parts. Intentional living isn’t about being perfect: it’s about being integrated and connected to your whole self. To use the words of Swiss psychiatrist Karl Jung: “I’d rather be whole than good.”
For Goodness Sake
Once we’ve begun to take ownership of our own values of goodness, the real challenge is acting on them. Why for many of us is it so hard to invoke our inner rule breaker when we are faced with opposing forces in the real-world? Because of a deep-set desire to people please.
American Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory around the stages of moral development can help us to understand why we can struggle to embrace the rebel inside, particularly when faced with a moral dilemma. Kohlberg theory suggests that the majority of us remain in level two, Conventional Morality, so called because it is where we conform to conventions and rules of society: “Good behaviour is that which pleases or helps others and is approved by them. There is much conformity to stereotypical images of what is majority or ‘natural’ behaviour. Behaviour is frequently judged by intention. ‘He means well’ becomes important for the first time. One earns approval by being ‘nice.’” What Kohlberg is saying is that at this level we are more concerned with group approval than we are with taking charge of our own moral compass. We self-sacrifice our own values in order to please the group.
So, how can we begin to step out of this conventional level and into what Kohlberg calls ‘post-conventional morality’? We can look to our inner creative or our inner child. The free spirit who wants to push boundaries in a playful, curious and flexible way. This doesn’t mean throwing around chairs in your next boardroom meeting. But it could mean, putting the desks to the side and setting up your meeting in the circle. Small changes that can create huge waves in organisations. One only has to consider the theory of ‘disruptive innovation’ to see this in action. And thanks to companies such as Uber, Airbnb and WeWork, the way we travel, work and play has completely changed. These companies have not only changed the game. They’ve rewritten the very language of the game. (I wonder how long the word ‘taxi’ will remain in circulation given that we now are all ‘Ubering’ everywhere!) Yet, this didn’t happen by following the rules. In fact, they ‘did good’ by redefining what it means to ‘be good.’
So, like these disruptive innovators you too can relax your boundaries around what it means to be good, in order to give yourself the space to be curious, creative and think out of the box. Instead of living by the hard lines of right and wrong, learn to love the space in between. Because it is in these unknown, grey spaces where we find inspiration, innovation and unbounded potential…and perhaps your next big adventure!
Atelophobia is the fear of imperfection. The fear of never being good enough. Something that I’m sure touches many of us on some level on a daily basis. However, if you practice being good to yourself, connect to what goodness means to you and allow it to be an open, unbounded concept…then you no longer need to fear being good enough because good is no longer in the equation. You are quite simply enough.
The next time you find yourself feeling bad for not doing something, seeing someone or being something check-in with your own goodness barometer. Does this definition of ‘being good’ really sit with you? And, how might your ‘being bad’ actually be really useful? Last week I cancelled dinner plans with a friend and I felt really bad as it’s something I rarely do. But this was also an example of ‘being good’ as I was – for the first time in a long time- prioritising self-care and sleep after a very hectic week. It really is all about perspective. Flip the story, fire up your intentional self and start writing a goodness narrative that works for you and your life.
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