Many Christian Nice Girls who were emotionally sifted during childhood want to believe that these painful events are safely in the past, never to bother them again; however, we have seen during years of working with hurting people that the after-effects of certain harmful childhood experiences often intensify current problems with passivity, people-pleasing, and fear-based decision making. When CNGs avoid the often difficult but necessary look into their childhood influences, they sentence themselves to very small lives, full of internal and external conflicts. Instead of learning how to do conflict well, they avoid it at all costs, setting themselves up for even more painful experiences with manipulative people.
God understands that painful sifting is a part of human life. He allowed Satan to afflict job with devastating personal, financial, and physical loss. Jesus told Simon Peter at the Last Supper that Satan had asked to sift him as wheat. God loved these men, and yet he still allowed their agonizing siftings. As hard as it is to understand why God allows bad things to happen to adults like Job and Peter, it's even harder to comprehend his purpose behind the bad things that happen to children. We aren't trained seminarians who can give you a beautifully written theological explanation of pain's divine purpose. This aside, we would like to explain how three particular types of difficult experiences sift women and can leave them vulnerable to hiding their authentic selves behind a brittle façade of fake smiles. Those girlhood experiences are:
1. Lacking inspiring role models and encouraging words.
2. Having anxious, overprotective parents.
3. Enduring emotional, physical, or sexual abuse.
You may have encountered one or all of these negative experiences, which fall along a continuum, from less intense to very intense. For example, some women have experienced occasional verbal abuse while others have experienced horrendous physical or sexual abuse. Christian Nice Girls tend to minimize their negative experiences by saying, "What happened to me wasn't that bad. Other people have had it worse." Yes, perhaps other people have had it worse, but that doesn't' mean that what happened to you should be ignored or judged as unworthy of examination. You have to look for what's perpetuating a problem before you can fix it.
Christian Nice Girls also beat themselves up for struggling with losses and trauma. If you find yourself asking, "Why am I always the one struggling? My siblings/other people went through what I went through, and they seem to be doing just fine," please know that:
~People who look like they are doing fine aren't always doing fine underneath.
~Some people are blessed with resilient nervous systems and temperaments. Things just roll off their backs more easily. They are emotionally built like coconuts—harder to bruise. Other people are blessed with more sensitive nervous systems and temperaments. They are often empathetic, imaginative people who sense everything (changes, emotions, smells, textures, etc.) more intensely. They are emotionally built like peaches—easier to bruise. If God made you a peach, you will likely struggle more to heal from difficult experiences than a coconut will.
~Having multiple early losses and traumas that weren't adequately addressed at the time they happened can affect your brain development and make your nervous system more easily overwhelmed by emotions later in life. Experiencing repeated trauma early in life can even turn a coconut into a peach. However, practicing assertiveness and other healthy behaviors can strengthen your ability to "take it all in stride."
As you read this chapter, try to take a clear-eyed look at the parenting you received without condemning your parents for their mistakes. Many parents are not fully aware of their behavior's harmful effects. Often, the damage was not done out of malice, but out of ignorance. This in no way excuses deliberate abuse where the harm is glaringly obvious and cruelly disregarded or denied by parents or other perpetrators.
Let's start by looking at how lacking inspiring role models and encouraging words sifts girls and leaves them vulnerable as adult women to the Christian Nice Girl problem. When you were growing up, who were your female role models? Perhaps you admired a relative, a teacher, or a friend's mother. My co-author Jennifer Degler admired Wonder Woman. More specifically, Lynda Carter in the TV role of Wonder Woman. Her flawlessly coiffed hair and stunning blue eyes perfectly complemented her gold boots. Somehow she could run up a rocky hillside in those high-heeled boots with nary a slip or slide. Plus, she didn't need a male superhero to come in and rescue her. Nope, she could take care of the bad guys herself using her golden lariat and bullet-deflecting cuffs. She was beautiful, but she was also strong.
Little girls need gracious, strong women in their lives so they can learn first-hand how to be both feminine and firm. These role model women don't have to be as beautiful as Wonder Woman to take your breath away. Instead, their inspiring courage and boldness encourages others to shoot for the stars. When Jennifer was in high school, her mom went back to college to get her teaching degree. She would be the first person in Jennifer's family to graduate from college, and she did it while raising three teenagers. From her example, Jennifer learned that anything was possible for her, no matter how daunting her circumstances.
Not every girl is blessed with that kind of female role model who blazes a trail that gives others hope that they, too, can follow the same path. When you grow up lacking assertive female role models, you don't have any footsteps to follow in. You have to blaze your own trails, and swinging a machete through the tangle of confusing messages and expectations from the Nice Girl Culture is frustrating, spirit-draining work when girls don't have confident, strong women to go behind. Sometimes it just seems easier to tag along with the passive role models who have trudged down a deceptively smooth trail of over-compliance, conflict avoidance, and people-pleasing. Whose footsteps are you following? Do you like where they are taking you?
Also think about the messages you heard about what was and was not acceptable behavior for you or females in general. Words powerfully shape children. Did you hear encouraging words like this?
~ "You can do it, I believe in you."
~ "It's okay to make a mistake. Better to have tried and failed than to not have tried at all."
~ "You can do anything you set your mind to."
~ "Great job!"
~ "God has blessed you with a smart brain. Try that advanced math class."
~ "Wow, you really put forth great effort."
~ "You've got a natural talent for this."
~ "Who cares what other people think? Just be yourself."
~ "If you work hard, you can make it happen."
~ "You have a much better chance of getting what you need and want if you will ask for it directly. So, just ask."
~ "Everyone gets afraid sometimes, but don't let your fear stop you from doing the right thing."
~ "Whatever God has planned for you, he will equip you to do."
Or did you hear discouraging words like this?
~ "Why do you want to try something stupid like that? You can't do that."
~ "You are just going to embarrass yourself/the family if you try to do that."
~ "Look who is getting too big for her britches!"
~ "You missed a spot—again. Why can't you do anything right?"
~ "Men aren't attracted to brainy women. You better dumb down if you want a boyfriend."
~ "You won't follow through so don't even start."
~ "You just aren't any good at this."
~ "What will the neighbors think?"
~ "That's a pipe dream. Give it up."
~ "Stop being so forward. Just keep your hand down and your mouth shut."
~ "Don't make waves. Just act nice."
~ "God doesn't like little girls who act like that."
Now imagine the cumulative impact of these words spoken to a woman over her lifetime. If she hears the first list of inspiring words, she's going to believe in herself and in God's love and providence. She's going to take some risks and live big. She, like everyone, will occasionally stumble or fail, but she has the emotional resources and faith in God to pick herself up and try again.
If she hears the second list of discouraging words, she's going to doubt herself and God's love for her. She will live small, avoiding even the smallest risks. When opportunities come her way, she will wait anxiously for the proverbial other shoe to drop instead of resting confidently in God's provision for her. She will think that the world is a dangerous place filled with people who can't be trusted. She'll be easily discouraged and influenced.
When Jennifer was a high school senior, her biology teacher, Denny Lester, told her about a new scholarship program at his alma mater, Transylvania University (no vampire jokes, please), a private college whose tuition her family could not afford. When Jennifer talked to her school counselor (we'll call him Mr. Smith) about applying for the scholarship, he said, "You can't get that scholarship. Your scores aren't good enough. Don't waste your time applying." Now, this was the first time in Jennifer's life that she had ever heard someone tell her that she shouldn't even try. Had she grown up hearing discouraging words from the second list, she would have believed Mr. Smith and slunk away to her next class, hopes dashed and spirits sunk. However, because she was blessed with a childhood full of encouraging words from the first list, and inspiring female role models, Mr. Smith's discouraging words did not defeat her.
No, Mr. Smith's words made Jennifer angry, which was good because that helped push her past her fear of offending Mr. Smith. She could sense that he would be displeased if Jennifer did apply because, as her counselor, he was required to "waste" his time writing her recommendation letter. She took a deep breath, summoned her courage, and said, "I'm going to apply anyway." And then she bolted from his office before he could talk her out of applying, feeling both panicky and proud that she had stood up for herself.
What happened? God blessed Jennifer with that scholarship. And going to college led to going to graduate school and getting her doctorate. Turns out a scholarship can take you more places than Wonder Woman's gold boots ever could.
If you lacked role models and encouraging words, you can learn to give yourself what you weren't given. Look around your church, neighborhood, and workplace for women who are known for being strong but also gracious. Study them and how they react to situations. Listen to what they say and how they say it. Get to know them if you can. When the time is right, ask one of them if you can get together for coffee.
Be careful how you interpret her response to you. Christian Nice Girls, because they fear rejection, tend to get their feelings hurt when other people have good boundaries and say things like "I'm busy right now. Let's look at next month." Also, look for women who actually have room in their lives for an occasional lunch with you. If they are working outside the home while raising children, they simply may not have any extra time for you during this season of their life. Don't despair—God has other wonderful women in mind for you. Keep looking, and remember that you can learn a lot by observing a role model woman, even if you don't have an intimate relationship with her. For example, God's Good Women from Bible times and modern history can teach us numerous helpful lessons.
In addition, you can give yourself the encouraging words you desperately need to hear. Photocopy the first list, tape it to your mirror, and read it to yourself every morning and before bed. Add Scriptures and other statements that inspire and challenge you. Reach out to your friends and ask them for "booster shots" of encouragement when you need them.
You have to ask for what you need—so ask. Most people feel blessed by the opportunity to support someone else as they previously have been supported. As 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 says,
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comfort us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.
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.