Let's talk about a difficult childhood experience that predisposes girls to develop the Christian Nice Girl problem: having anxious, overprotective parents. You inherited your eye color and perhaps your oddly-shaped toes from Mom and Dad, but did you know that your parents also can transmit their view of the world to you? Not directly through their genes, but through the countless interactions and choices, your parents let you know how they see the world and life in general. For Christian Nice Girls with anxious parents, the message transmitted was "Life is to be feared."
This type of caretaker hovers like a search-and-rescue helicopter, transmitting fear and over-protecting children by:
~Not allowing them to regularly go outside and play in a reasonably safe neighborhood. Watching them like a hawk when they are allowed outside, which thwarts their play.
~Setting limits that would only be appropriate for a much younger child on how far they can ride their bikes or walk with friends.
~Overreacting to and overanalyzing normal childhood developmental challenges or minor injuries.
~Painting a verbally frightening picture of the world by continually pointing out any possible dangers, however remote or unlikely.
~Performing tasks that they could do themselves (like cutting older children's meat during meals) which reinforces beliefs of inferiority and powerlessness.
~Intruding into and trying to control all aspects of their children's free time, relationships, and jobs.
~Constantly calling them on their cell phone (an electronic umbilical cord) just to "see how they're doing."
~Making all of their children's decisions.
~Rescuing their children from any mistakes and not allowing them to suffer any negative consequences.
Instead of keeping children safe, fearful over-parenting makes children timid and fragile—the kind of children that adult predators prey on and that bullies target. With the best of intentions, parents who shield their children from all of life's difficulties actually make their children's lives harder, especially as they become adults. Such children are growing older but not growing up.
Parents perform these overprotective behaviors in the name of love, but look closely, and you'll see that they are actually motivated by fear. And making choices out of fear leads to short-range, selfish decision making: parents choose whatever makes them feel immediately less anxious instead of looking at what is best for their children in the long run.
For examples, when overprotective parents are afraid of the necessary pain that comes from watching their daughter make normal mistakes, and choose to "protect" her by making all he decisions, she won't ever learn how to make independent decisions. Instead, she will wait for others to tell her what to do, perhaps because the decision-making part of her brain never fully developed. Over the long run, this sets her up to be passively subservient in relationships. She will easily yield to powerful peers and be prime pickings for manipulative men who want to control or sexually exploit her.
Likewise, when overprotective parents rescue a daughter from the consequences of any mistakes she might be allowed to make, she doesn't get to learn crucial life lessons that area best taught by the real world. She won't know what adversity feels like or how to handle it, so when hard times come in adulthood, she's a deer caught in the headlights—overwhelmed and paralyzed by fear. She's likely to become a perfectionist, unrealistically hoping that doing things perfectly will calm her anxious heart and keep her safe.
Simply by watching fearful parents worry about what might happen, girls can learn to invent things to fear, and will then live small in the scary, imaginary Land of What If. They play it safe, even when that means falling behind their peers and missing out on opportunities and dreams.
While you can't prevent inheriting your oddly-shaped toes (truly, they are part of your charm), you can learn to overcome any unreasonable fears that anxious, overprotective parents may have passed down to you. First, recognize where cowardice is rearing its ugly head in your life. Women don't usually think of cowardice as a particularly bad thing because of the Nice Girl culture allows females to get away with timidity. But when women shrink back from doing the right thing because they fear potential pain or loss, it's called—gulp—cowardice.
And God takes the sin of cowardice very seriously. Revelation 21:8 states, "The cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur." Cowardice is included among the worst temptations you can give in to.
Cowardice can be difficult to spot because a cowardly spirit and a gentle spirit can appear outwardly similar, but look inward, and your real motives will reveal the difference. So ask yourself: "Am I holding back here (not saying or doing something) because doing so is the wise, loving choice, or because I'm fearful of what I might lose (popularity, money) or what I might gain (negative attention, criticism, retaliation)?"
It's also helpful to ask yourself if your fear is reality-based or merely False Evidence Appearing Real (FEAR). Many fears are counterfeit. They seem frighteningly real, but look closer, and you'll see that what you are afraid of is often something that is highly unlikely to happen. Don't let something that isn't even real scare you into the very real sin of cowardice.
Second, you can learn much about moving past the fears passed down to you by talking with courageous people. Courage is far more caught than taught, so seek out the company of the courageous. Study them and ask them questions about how they pushed past their fears. And don't overlook people from history, including Jesus. He faced every fear imaginable, so spend time with the real Jesus. When you rub shoulders with someone, you take on their characteristics, and there's no one better to resemble than the 360-degree Jesus. As you study the Bible, make notes in a journal each time you read how Jesus faced an anxiety-inducing situation and chose to do what was right, not what was easy or safe. Each time you see Jesus facing fear, give yourself permission to be like him.
Third, take small steps toward facing your fears so that you build your courage to eventually face them head-on. For example, if you're afraid to make financial decisions, such as buying a house or investing in stocks/bonds, begin with a small step, like making an appointment with a real estate agent or financial planner. You will likely feel a strong pull to let the professionals make all the decisions for you—fight this urge because you need to develop your discernment and decision-making skills.
Your body can be your friend when it comes to facing fears and growing courage. When anxious, breathe deeply from your stomach. Within three to four deep breaths, you will feel less afraid and more clear-headed. Also, put a slight smile on your face. Yes, that sounds weird, but doing so will make you feel less fearful inside and look more confident to others, Fatigue can make a coward of anyone, so if your body is tired, irrational fears can appear alarmingly real. Get more rest, and you'll likely find facing fear easier.
Lastly, if you are a parent trying to move past the fears handed down to you, examine how you relate to your own children. Are you unknowingly passing on the same "life is to be feared" message that you heard? If so, push past your fear of the unknown, and allow your children age-appropriate freedoms and the blessing of learning from their mistakes. Scary "what-if's" may crowd your mind, but don't let them control your parenting. Breathe deeply, turn your worry list into your prayer list, and talk to a counselor if your anxiety interferes with daily living.
Encountering abuse is the final difficult experience that sifts girls and leaves them vulnerable to becoming Christian Nice Girls as adults. Whether it's verbal, emotional, physical, spiritual, or sexual, abuse deeply shames its victims and leaves them believing lies, such as:
~ "I deserved what happened to me. It was my fault."
~ "I am worthless/stupid/bad/dirty/unwanted."
~"I am forever flawed."
~"I need to hide because no one would like the real me."
~"If people knew what happened to me, they would reject me."
~"What happened wasn't that bad/wasn't really abuse."
~"Other people are always smarter and better than me."
~"I'm a constant screw-up."
~"I'll never be good at anything."
~"God doesn't love me."
If you experienced abuse, you know what it's like to live in a dangerous, unpredictable world where everything is upside down. Healthy actions are condemned—normal needs are shamed, speaking the truth is punished, and exerting your will can be deadly—while unhealthy actions are the only way to survive—hide your thoughts, numb your feelings, give in quickly, deny the painful truth, keep unwanted secrets. Surviving abuse, as a child or an adult, often means that you have to play by your abuser's rules—rules that set you up to behave like a fearful, passive person long after you have escaped the abuse.
I (Paul) experienced the upside down, confusing world of childhood abuse. I walked on eggshells as a kid because one moment my mother was warm and nurturing, and within minutes it was like a switch was thrown deep within her, and she would turn angry, abusive, and disdainful. I was thrown across the room by my hair, slapped, punched, and kicked and hit with household items like brooms and vacuum cleaner attachments.
But it's the verbal and emotional abuse that lingered long after my physical wounds healed. My mother told me I was "Worthless," "stupid," and even "evil" for committing common childhood blunders. Her use of sarcasm was especially cutting. When my elementary school administrators informed her that my test scores indicated that I was bright, and asked for her permission to place me in the gifted program, I heard her bitter laugh and caustic reply: "Him? He can't even find his shoes in the morning."
Most parents lose it occasionally, say or do things that they regret, and later apologize. My experience was beyond this. I cannot remember my mother ever apologizing for her cruel and contemptuous behavior that was intended to strip me of my God-given dignity. Her abuse was designed to pierce my core and steal my self-worth. She succeeded. It has taken courage to confront the lies that come with abuse, and years of personal soul work to understand what really happened and heal from it.
My home was a dangerous place, so it was only natural that I would feel tremendous fear there. But, like many abuse survivors, I generalized this fear to include the entire world. I began to believe the lie that all people and experiences are dangerous, a lie that produces two fear-based extreme responses: overeating or under-reacting.
The Hidden Cost of Under-reacting
Overreacting happens when fearful people try to protect themselves by adopting an aggressive "I'll get you before you get me" attitude. Guarded and defensive, they overreact when no harm was even intended. They come across as irritable and prickly, but there is a frightened person under all that bluster.
In contrast, instead of overreacting to words or behaviors that might threaten their well-being, fearful CNGs under-react. They respond passively to life because that is what they had to do to survive their upbringing. When parents explode unpredictably, children survive by learning "don't make waves or things will get even worse." The problem is, when you won't make necessary waves as an adult, you end up drowning in a sea of timidity and mediocrity. You will sink into an ultra-safe, but ultimately unsatisfying life marked by resentment when others, who are willing to take risks, swim past you.
When children are called names or beaten, they survive by learning "don't fight back or things will get even worse." Then, as adults, they find themselves accepting poor treatment and petrified by needed confrontations. They felt devalued early in life by cruel words and actions, and later they won't defend themselves because they mistakenly believe they have no value.
When children are emotionally neglected and left to fend for themselves, they survive by learning "don't even try because it will only make things worse." Then, they go into adulthood living small, passive lives, hoping to remain unnoticed because they falsely believe that they are hopelessly inadequate.
When children are shamed for expressing normal needs, valid emotions, or personal opinions, they survive by learning "deny your needs, ignore your feelings, and don't have an opinion, or things will get even worse." As adults, they then discover that they have lost touch with their core—they don't know what they feel, need, or truly believe.
What helped Christian Nice Girls survive abuse—under-reacting—now costs them dearly as adults. Ultimately, under-reacting to life out of fear costs the most precious thing you have to offer: yourself.
If you are a Christian Nice Girl and an abuse survivor, you no longer have to paste on a fake smile to hide your pain and confusion. You no longer have to deny your own needs and opinions to earn the love and approval of others. You don't ever have to again accept physical abuse, manipulation, sexual or financial exploitation, or keep unwanted secrets because you have no other choice. You have survived, you are now safe, and, as Paul mentioned earlier, you can begin to do the soul work necessary to heal from your wounds.
There are many fundamental truths that you'll learn during this soul-work, beginning with: the abuse wasn't about you—it was about your abuser. Your abuser is the one with the problem, not you. When this distinction, this truth, takes root in your heart and grows, you will stop taking ownership of what happened. It wasn't your fault. As Shakespeare put it, some people are more sinned against than sinner. Let the sinner, not you, own the sin.
Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including Unleashing Courageous Faith, No More Christian Nice Guy and No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps. He also co-authored a book for married couples with his wife Sandy, titled Married But Not Engaged. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the values-based and faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for public schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals who want to diminish child-based bullying.