If there’s one thing that’s gotten in my way more than anything else, it’s the idea that I need to be “the good one”.
At first glance, being good sounds like, well… a good thing. It’s what we’re told we should want to be but, what are we really talking about when we’re talking about being good?
As a child, I remember having a hard time talking about things that might upset the people around me; I’m not sure where this came from but I was often under the impression that I had to deal with problems or feelings on my own. I hated asking questions, though I had many. Even as a kid I hated looking like I didn’t know what I was doing, I turned to books to answer the questions I had. If I didn’t know how to do something, I’d read about how to do it and practice in private until I had at least a bit of a handle on it. If I wasn’t able to do the research or practice a new skill before I made my debut in front of an audience (or group of friends), I didn’t do it.
Needless to say, I was not much of a risk taker as a child and, though I’m trying to learn, I’m still not. The things I learned to do as a kid are still major players in my adult life: I deal with too many of my emotions by internalizing or intellectualizing them, I obsessively read about how to do things before I do them, I don’t like to ask questions or to ask for help, I work really hard to be able to move seamlessly among folks who I perceive as belonging in the places where I feel like an outsider. It’s fucking exhausting.
I talk a lot about being afraid but I’m beginning to see that I’m less afraid to do the thing and more afraid of people seeing me fail at doing the thing. My fear is deeply rooted in being ridiculed for not being perfect, in not knowing, in not belonging, in being seen as not good enough. In not being Good.
Trying to earn and maintain the designation of good kept me small. It kept me setting impossibly high standards for myself and, when I inevitably failed to meet those standards, it kept me hurting myself. Initially through cutting, later with alcohol and work. Then came the shame and the cycle would start all over again – set the unattainable goal, fail, hurt myself, feel shame, want to do better, set the goal and over and over and over
Thinking of good as an identity, as a prize to win and to keep, kept me silent in times when speaking up would have been the right thing. Too often I’ve been quiet when people around me have said racist, sexist, transphobic or homophobic things. Yes, you read that right: friends, acquaintances and family have all said homophobic things around me and I’ve just… taken it. Fearing losing my status as a good person kept me quiet when there was direct violence being done to myself. Being good robs us of our own self-worth, it tells us that the peace and comfort of a larger majority is more important than the physical and emotional safety of ourselves, or anyone else, for that matter.
But, let’s take this one step further and look beyond how the identity of good impacts us individually. Let’s look at where the wider force is felt and applied. Perfectionism is a tool of white supremacy, it’s a tool of the patriarchy.
Stay with me here: how are we taught to be good when we’re kids? Good kids are quiet, they don’t question authority. Good kids play nice and they’re “too young” to feel the way they feel. In order to be a good kid, we need to abandon who we truly are in order to fit a pre-set, one size fits all template.
We are expected to suppress who we are when we’re children in order to be good kids and that’s the message we take with us into adulthood: don’t question authority, don’t make waves, don’t speak up, keep your head down, keep the peace, be nice, stay small. This is the cost of trying to be good. These and all of the other benchmarks we use to measure our goodness quotient steep into our identities and mold us into humans who don’t trust our own feelings and who are more comfortable being silent than speaking out for what is right.
By upholding the status quo with silence and civility, we are also propping up the systems that restrict, oppress and harm the most marginalized folks. When we think we’re being good people, we’re often actually contributing to harm, whether it be directly or indirectly.
Another way to look at this is through the good/bad binary. The concept of this binary is explained in detail in Robin DiAngelo’s book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Race. In one chapter, titled Good/Bad Binary, DiAngelo explains that the Civil Rights era brought about the common belief that to be racist was morally bad and, in turn, if you were a good person you couldn’t possibly be racist. This good/bad binary ignores the fact that our entire country was built on racism with the goal to sustain it indefinitely. The good/bad binary means when we’re talking to someone about something they’ve said or shared or done that perpetuates racism, the immediate reaction is defensiveness and denial because everyone wants to be able to call themselves a good person and racism is only for bad people.
The same can be said for almost any behavior that society has told us is bad:
- The good/bad binary of homophobia tells us that only people who refuse to make wedding cakes, physically harm or say egregiously hateful things are homophobic. The binary doesn’t leave room for the fact that society is set up to support heteronormativity and common beliefs, actions and systems are harmful to queer folks with or without malicious intent.
- The good/bad binary of fatphobia tells us that people who aren’t thin or who aren’t actively working to be thinner or more fit, are bad. It tells us that the way someone’s body is shaped reflects their worthiness as a human and, in turn, we assign moral value to the food we eat or the activity we do in order to shame ourselves and others into being “good”, being thinner. The kicker in all of this is that we still want to seem like we’re good people so we drape ourselves in concern for people’s health when, in reality, no one owes us or anyone else health. (check out Virgie Tovar and Dana Suchow for more on fatphobia and diet culture)
- The good/bad binary of transphobia tells us that people who openly show disdain for trans folks, make rules or laws that discriminate or who physically assault are transphobic. This doesn’t allow for the fact that cisnormativity and the gender binary let people associate being cisgender with being normal, expect binary gender presentation in order for a trans person to be acceptable and balk at the possibility that there may be more than two genders.
- The good/bad binary of addiction tells us that only people who can’t control themselves become addicted to alcohol or other drugs. Specifically with alcohol, it tells us that drinking is good but becoming addicted or dependent on it is bad. That means we’ll tell ourselves whatever we need to in order to remain Good, in order to continue to be able to drink. We’ll literally continue to poison ourselves just so we don’t have to give up the identity of good person.
In all of the above examples and many, many more areas of life where the good/bad binary rears its head, the possibility that we may be considered bad people keeps us from really investigating our feelings and reactions. It keeps us from apologizing when we hurt someone and it keeps us from believing people when they talk about harmful acts that have been done to them. Reinforcing the morality of racism, homophobia, etc. instead of seeing these things as systems and status quos that need to be challenged and dismantled keeps us spinning. If we’re always seeing our actions as a reflections of who we are instead of what we’re doing, it’s less likely we’re going to want to be honest about the impact our actions are having and make changes.
We can all make good decisions and bad decisions, we can take action that is good or bad. But, there is no such thing as a good person or a bad person. As humans we are inherently both good and bad, we are everything and therefore there is no way we can ever be just one thing.
Once we rid ourselves from the need to attain the identity of good, or at the very least acknowledge how insidious that identity actually is, we can begin to be curious about and acknowledge the ideas and systems in place that are being propped up by the very behaviors and actions we’ve been told we should aspire to.