The Good Girl In The Family

Almost a year ago, I woke up at dawn to a phone call from the Leon County Prison. My then-19-year-old sister had been somewhat-mistakenly arrested for a minor infraction on her way home from her nightclub job.

I was sleep-hazy, but unsurprised. Part of me always suspected I’d eventually be my little sister’s “one phone call” from jail.

There’s a lot more written in creative non-fiction and personal essay about being the “black sheep” of a family than about being “the good girl.” It makes sense. My sister’s story is probably way more fun, twisty and relatable. (See: David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs, Tobias Wolff, Susan Jane Gilman. You get the picture.) Being good isn’t very good for memoirs.

As kids, my sister was the more difficult, rebellious “bad kid” to my reserved, well-mannered “good kid.” While she was prone to earth-shattering temper tantrums, I tried to melt into the wallpaper. In high school, she was the center of more friend-drama than Lauren Conrad and I spent a lot of time alone on the Internet. She dealt with learning disabilities; I was an overachiever. At my prom, my act of rebellion was wearing a pair of silk elbow-length gloves in an attempt to be quirky, which no one appreciated. At hers, she was caught with a bottle of vodka and my parents had to come pick her up early.

Even so, our labels are misleading. Sure, I was generally the Abel to my sister’s Cain, but I definitely had my nights of sneaking out, going to parties, experimenting with drugs and sex, etc. I had issues with my parents and fights with my friends. I self-injured with a razor blade. When hiccups of growing up happened, I felt inordinate amounts of guilt. Wasn’t I the good girl? Wasn’t I my parents’ easier child? Shouldn’t I perfectly fit the part carved out for me?

Similarly, my sister isn’t all “bad.” She’s fantastically witty, talented at handling people and social situations and a lot of fun to be around. Calling her “the bad kid” doesn’t give her the credit she deserves. It’s just a way to simplify our roles.

After her arrest, my parents and I sat around the kitchen table and talked about my sister. I’m often called in as my family’s mediator, or “the third parent.” My parents told me they didn’t plan to ask my sister to repay them for the bail money they’d fronted. I was angry. Once again, I felt they were giving my sister a new doll to end a tantrum, metaphorically speaking.

This “reward” system between my parents and my sister is reactionary. She’s handed attention, money and mollifying presents for causing problems, and I’m generally left alone because I don’t “need” it or because I can “handle myself.” Hence, I work so hard to garner some imaginary, magical praise that will put me in the spotlight and shift focus from my sister’s bad behavior.

“Don’t worry about her broken curfew, Mom and Dad! Look at my A+ spelling test! Look at me!”

Or as my mom, exhausted from my sister’s latest crisis, simply put it: “You’re our ray of sunshine.” My dad was dismayed.

“It’s not fair to put that kind of pressure on Gaby,” he told her. He felt naming me as such would make me reluctant to share any negative feelings and cause me to hide my problems. It was way too late.

Being “the good kid” means I feel responsible for my family’s fragile balance. My anxiety manifests in a never-ending echo in my brain that I’m not doing enough, not working enough, not achieving enough to fill my familial role. There’s a constant fear of falling from grace since so much of my self-image is wrapped up in being “good.”

I try so hard not to cause trouble that, like my dad suspected, I sacrifice a lot emotionally: I feel constantly guilty for not being perfect and I struggle to confront my (normal) feelings of anger, disappointment, selfishness or laziness. I find them unacceptable rather than facts of life. Every time I misbehave or make a mistake, it threatens my identity as “the good kid.”

My therapist thinks I need to accept that my sister is not part of me. It’s no longer — and never should have been — my job to compensate for and/or to clean up after her. We’re our own people — both good in our own ways and bad in our own ways — just like everyone else.

The thing I have to realize is: I am “good” without all this extra white noise — and so is my sister. We’re both good, and we’re both bad. Most people aren’t all or nothing. Siblings can’t be, nor should they be, limited so simply. TC Mark

image – Library of Congress

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  • Hannah

    I needed this article more than I can put into words. I’ve always been the “good girl,” and recently I’ve been struggling with this identity. Thank you for this.

  • a good woman

    i hear ya, the good girl’s addiction as an adult becomes achievement, we crave it because it’s the only way we know how to value ourselves

  • Kate

    Seriously, anybody out there without a therapist?? Or am I the only one?

    • http://www.facebook.com/andrea.lynema Andrea Lynema

      I had a therapist. It helped loads while I got all my issues sorted out, which was my mom. After my therapist convinced me I wasn’t crazy, I ditched her and never looked back since. But seriously, if you can afford it, therapists are wonderful.

      • Kate

        Seems a little self indulgent.

    • Rose Georgia

      if you don’t need a psychotherapist that’s wonderful, it’s just that some people really do. sometimes it can be a necessary crutch to help you through a bad time, it can be a way of learning how to cope with a recurring difficulty be it anxiety or depression or something else, mostly importantly it can help people who have experienced something so horribly awful that they are a danger to themselves and to other people.
      real, effective psychotherapy is not an indulgence. it’s difficult, it really is.

      • Kate

        I wasn’t referring to people who really need a therapist, I’m talking about people who use it as a status and drop it into casual conversation “oh my therapist says…” Every fifth article on this site is by someone who has a therapist. Seems over the top.

  • Neither Good nor Bad

    Gaby, you’re my favourite writer here on TC. You somehow always seem to perfectly articulate what I can not express myself. Thanks for writing this article – it’s inspiring me to think about the pressure I’ve also put on myself to be a “good girl.” And to let go of the resentment I’ve harboured for not being able to indulge in my “bad girl” instincts. But perhaps you’re right, none of us can be entirely good or bad. We just try to be honest versions of ourselves.

  • http://www.itmakesmestronger.com/2012/07/the-good-girl-in-the-family-2/ Only L<3Ve @ ItMakesMeStronger.com

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  • http://www.facebook.com/andrea.lynema Andrea Lynema

    The best thing about being a “good girl”, is when you finally find the freedom to shock everyone and become “bad”. At least in my experience. And from the sounds of your story I would still be referred to as good by your family, but mine is a different story…

  • http://twitter.com/brendagarcia35 Brenda (@brendagarcia35)

    beautiful. i can relate to every word.

  • zafinob365

    how timely. considering a conversation i just had with someone today

  • Rose Georgia

    this was excellent. truly.

  • Sarah

    Being “the good kid” means I feel responsible for my family’s fragile balance. My anxiety manifests in a never-ending echo in my brain that I’m not doing enough, not working enough, not achieving enough to fill my familial role. There’s a constant fear of falling from grace since so much of my self-image is wrapped up in being “good.”

    This is GOLDEN. It’s been hard for me lately, trying to deal with breaking out of this role. I feel so guilty for wanting to venture out, to find my own self and own identity that’s something other than the “good girl.” I’m not sure what’ll happen or how I’ll develop into my own person as I continue to get older, but I’m scared. I’m scared as hell.

  • B

    You have captured my struggle for the past couple of years. Thank you.

  • belle

    Couple of weeks ago, I was really upset because my family decided to go on a surprise vacation – I was left behind because I was working. I went to boarding school for high school, then spent 4 years all the way across the continent studying at one of the best undergrad universities in the country, so I’ve missed out on a lot of family time, and this was just one more family memory that I will never share. I felt like my brother, who graduated high school in June and who hasn’t ever been able to find a job for his summer breaks, gets rewarded for being a slacker while I, who earned and kept a full-ride academic scholarship, generally taking an extra course each semester in order to graduate on time with two full degrees, as well as carrying two or three jobs throughout my university career and working every summer from Grade 10 on, have to be the ”responsible one” and try to alleviate as much financial stress on my family as possible. So my mother and I had a huge fight about this trip that they were taking without me, and I mentioned how hard I try to work to be the “responsible” one, the “good girl”, and instead of saying something like ”I’m proud of you” or ”I know it’s hard”, she decided to tell me how much pressure that puts on my brother and how it hurts him. Like… Wow. Talk about missing the point entirely. Mainly it sucks because I feel like no matter what I do, I will never, ever be good enough, which in turn makes me extremely depressed and lonely. I really don’t know what to do about it, but it’s eating away at my life and I don’t want to be this person.

    • Learned to make myself dinner at 5

      I feel like a lot of families do that. Mine does. I’m the good girl in my family and my brothers, who both did drugs and dropped out of school, get to stay at home. I’m also on full scholarship and have extreme pressure to keep it as well as work to pay for my own expenses. It’s a difficult road because it feels as if you are owed some kind of return on your hard work. After years of striving for excellence, all the family funds are funneled into the “broken” kids. I love my brothers but I can’t say this system doesn’t breed some resentment. So, in short, I know that feel, bro.

  • Jackie

    Thanks, this is exactly how I feel. I needed to read this. Thank you

  • MusingChaos

    Thanks for this article, as the oldest kid in my household and being the first generation to have graduated from college I’ve always felt like I had to be the “trailblazer” in my family and therefore have kept this “good girl” image about me. My brother who’s 7 years younger than me can get away with getting horrible grades, throwing tantrums, not doing chores, being lazy enough so as to make me fill out paperwork for him and just plain being difficult.

    Today he threw a tantrum for no reason other than to help clean up after dinner; I took away his laptop since he’s glued to that thing and he flipped out on me, he actually seemed like he was going to hit me. I know that since I’m the older one I’m supposed to be way more mature and whatnot, but he tried the same thing with me the other day with our positions reversed and he didn’t understand why I had gotten so upset, yet today he was so upset to the point of rage.

    The pressure has always been on me to be the “good” example and I have hidden a lot of stuff from my parents, one of the main things being that I fall into depression a lot about not being enough to fulfill all their dreams for me. It’s like I feel my family’s hopes and dreams land firmly on my shoulders and they can never really understand why I feel the way I do.

  • Cc

    My dad says I need to be more like my brother, ironically the ‘bad one’.

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  • CD

    I completely understand, and this extends to how I see myself with my friends, too. They can handle blacking out and getting into all kinds of trouble, and I’m the one who has to go home early because I work in the morning (or I’m tired from working all week). The thing is, I’m not even interested in making alcohol a central priority in everything. I just get anxious that everyone thinks I’m no fun because I don’t do those things. It’s a confusing feeling… being responsible and being able to take care of myself makes me feel like an outsider, lame and only getting worse. It doesn’t help that everyone is telling me that I’m basically squandering my twenties because I don’t have any desire for one night stands and getting fucked up all the time.

  • http://breakingtheclocks.wordpress.com breakingtheclocks

    Reblogged this on i break the clocks.

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  • Brenda McCorkle

    This could be myself and my sister. Flash forward about 25 years, though … and that’s where we are. Theoretically, at least. I know that I am a suffered of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) with certain traits more evident, and that she is as well, with her traits as individualized as a fingerprint. Good luck to you in this! Yes, I have a therapist. She is not a status symbol, though. More like a life-saver …

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