I grew up a good kid.
I followed the rules and tried to not make too much trouble for people around me. And in return for this show of respect for the rules and others, I was often praised, and shown love and appreciation.
Nothing wrong there, but what did that developed into over years and years of reinforcement?
A belief that: being “good” (or really, being “compliant”) gets me love.
But then, a sneaky implicit belief follows:
“Being “bad” means I don’t get love, in fact, I get punished.”
It all still sounds harmless, right? These seem like healthy worldviews to have.
But now, let’s look at the other side of the spectrum — what beliefs does a “bad kid” start to develop?
The first one is the same as the belief of the “good kid”: being “good” (or really, being “compliant”) gets me love.
And that second belief of the “good kid” is true here, too, BUT with a very key adjustment:
“Being “bad” means I don’t get love, in fact, I get punished…but eventually I’m shown love again.“
What’s so different about that?
The good kid believes they have to always be good in order to get love.
The bad kid learns that even if they mess up or act bad, despite them, they’ll get loved anyway.
The good kid never learns that they’re allowed to mess up, to make mistakes, to even try new things and take risks…because they’re afraid they won’t be loved despite it.
What follows is that once the good kid grows up, being “bad” looks even more alluring and tempting, and so they want to test the waters of this whole “bad” thing — why? It’s not just some “forbidden fruit” complex that they finally have freedom to do what they want — but on a much deeper level, the good kid wants to test out a theory that they never had proven to them, by doing bad for the first time, they’re asking the world:
Will you still love me if I did something bad?
And so, you’ll find good kids start to shirk their responsibilities, unconsciously hoping that someone will forgive them or show them some sort of mercy (giving them love that doesn’t feel conditional, for the first time).
You’ll find good kids turning their backs on all the achievement and involvement they once held so dear — because they’re questioning now why they did any of it, and whether it was really from their own goodness, or if they were always after the love of others.
When the good “break bad,” so to speak, it’s not because they’ve gone crazy or suddenly have turned into bad people — they’ve just finally gotten fed up with the notion that they’re unlovable unless they continue to adhere to this standard of “good” as defined by everyone outside of them.
And so, they wanna define their own morality now.
The trouble is, the more “good” they were (again: “compliant”), the more they’ll be willing to go farther outside the lines to figure out, “is this really all that bad?”
So what can we do, as good kids, to deal with all of this?
Firstly, we have to understand why we’re doing what we’re doing, and see how much this “goodness testing” is a part of our psyche.
Are you late to events, or procrastinating on assignments, or acting rudely with people you care about? Is it possible this is because you want to test the limits of the world and your relationships to see — how far can I go before they stop loving or accepting me anyway?
But secondly, if these thought processes are driving you, then you have to think about when and with whom they might’ve developed — for most of us, it was with our parents, but for some it could’ve been a teacher, or another authority figure you respected.
Once you figure out who it was — it’s time to talk to them. If it’s your parents, sit down and tell them that based on the way things were growing up, this is the message I received — that unless I did good, I wouldn’t be loved — and now I know this may not be true at all from your perspective, and it may not be something you ever intended to communicate, but from my end, this is the message I got. Usually from there, the discussion will follow where they’re surprised that you thought that, but you might have to ask them bluntly — but I want to know for right now, if I ever mess up, even something huge, will you still love me?
They might be offended or hurt by the question as we all feel that that’s something that should be understood between our families — but the thing is, it’s not always understood — we have to communicate it, early and often.
If it wasn’t your parents, and maybe it was a person who you might not be able to contact (or it’d be very awkward or inappropriate to contact them at this later stage of your life), then you need to have an imaginary conversation — yes, I’m serious. If you imagine and believe, your brain can’t tell the difference between real experiences and imagined experiences (but you have to really use your imagination and not do this in some half-hearted way).
Sit down and imagine them sitting across the table from you, picture what they look like, what they’re wearing, how their hair is styled. And then, tell them what we said above — through our relationship, the message I received from you is that I can’t get love unless I follow your rules. Was this true? If I ever did something really bad…would you have really discarded me, would you have really stopped loving or approving of me altogether?
And then, think through in your mind the answer you need to hear — hear it in their voice, and really imagine it to be true. (You have no idea how they’ll respond — so why not choose to believe a response that will help you heal from an unrealistic belief?)
If you’re a parent (or a sibling or just someone who someone else looks up to), please make sure to communicate to your child that you love them, early and often, and that no matter what they do, you’ll still love them.
And make sure to not confuse being “compliant” with being “good.”