What Does it Really Mean to be “Good”? How Your Beliefs Might be Making you Anxious!

Woman holding two pieces of paper on a red background. One says "good" the other says "bad"

We are taught from a young age that we should be “good” and not be “bad”. And over time, these rules or beliefs about what is “good” or “bad” become internalised in our inner critic.

But the simplistic beliefs we develop as a child simply don’t fit in the adult world. There are shades of grey. We make mistakes. We need to deal with people who cross our boundaries and make difficult, complex decisions.

And this is how we end up with anxiety and painful inner conflicts: so if my critic has a belief that I should put others first—but I’m exhausted and need to say no and take the night off, I am in conflict within myself. Our critic will try to make us do what it believes is the “right” thing, while we want (or need!) to do something else. And this leads to feelings like anxiety, guilt or shame.

But if we can see this conflict instead as different “parts” of ourselves1, if we can see that the rigid beliefs of our inner critic are outdated (and even childish), then perhaps we can open up to a new way of seeing ourselves. And a new way of being that allows us to be who we are and to meet our needs without feeling terrible.

1 The idea that we have different “parts” of ourselves has been around a long time. Sigmund Freud popularised it with the Id, Ego and Superego. NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) uses “parts work” extremely successfully to heal inner conflict and get people unstuck. Recently Richard Schwartz’ Internal Family Systems Therapy has been gaining momentum and kudos in the world of therapy and counselling for just a few examples.

And so I’m sharing some personal journaling, so you can see this for yourself! Here goes:

What does it really mean to be “good”?

Last weekend, I had been reading in bed (a favourite activity!) and I noticed I had panicky feelings. Butterflies in my stomach, a tight throat and tension in my neck and shoulders. I was feeling anxious. And the more I ignored it, the more the anxiety ramped up.

So I switched from reading to journaling. And had a conversation with my critic to figure out why I was feeling anxious.

What came out pretty quickly was that my critic thought I was being “bad”. Specifically it thought I was being “lazy” and “wasting” time, and was panicking that it would get into trouble. So it was trying to get me to do something useful instead of reading.

Of course as an adult I know that reading on a Saturday morning is a perfectly acceptable—even healthy—self-care activity.

But my inner critic is both immature and stuck in the past. And all it wanted me to do was stop doing whatever was making it feel uncomfortable.

Many of us experience that relaxation can sometimes be stressful…

Feeling anxious when I relax is a common pattern for me (and also many other people in this doing-obsessed society).

But this time, for some reason, my brain was getting really curious about what being “bad” meant. And what would being “good” mean? And who gets to decide that anyway?

What does it mean to be “good” or “bad”?

Because “good” and “bad” are of course judgements—and life is rarely black or white.

Yet, this is how our inner critic sees things: “good or bad”, “right or wrong”: it’s a simplistic way of seeing the world created by a child.

And I did some very interesting and helpful journaling that I’d like to share.

Here’s what I journaled

Journal Page

Yup. A real journal entry. And not one of my nice, tidy ones either! Enjoy

I started with the question: What does it mean to be good?

Rather than go straight to what it means to be “bad”, I thought I would start with what it means to be “good”. And here’s what I journalled:

  1. To think of others—to be aware of my impact on them—and minimise my negative impact.
  2. To think of the world—to be aware of my impact on it—and minimise my negative impact.
  3. To do the right thing over the easy thing (when it matters).
  4. To accept and be aware of your own faults (as much as you can, but not dwell on them).
  5. To use my strengths in service of others and the world.
  6. To take care of myself so others don’t have to (unnecessarily).
  7. To work towards being a better person and doing the right thing.

As I read this over, I realised that what I’d written was what it meant to me to be “a good person”.

Aha! moment number 1:

  1. I do those things—or at least am working towards all those things.
  2. Maybe I am already “good”!
  3. And now I have “evidence” I can use with my critic to help it loosen its grip.

Note: any time we want to consciously change a belief, we need a new belief to replace it with. It’s also extremely helpful to have evidence that proves our new belief—and now I have it!

Next I asked: So what does it mean to my critic to be “bad”?

Now I found myself wondering what my critic believed to be “bad”? Interestingly this list is extremely personal and childlike. Being bad is:

  • To disagree with someone.
  • To be “difficult” or make life difficult for others.
  • To be different, to think differently.
  • Challenging others.
  • To get in the way or slow others down. To be a burden. To cause extra work for someone.
  • Being lazy.
  • Being selfish or thoughtless.
  • To upset others—making them angry or disappointing them (even if I am “right”).
  • To be annoying or irritating.

And of course this is what I learned growing up. It’s not what I believe as an adult—but a part of me (my critic) believes this.

And I do many of these things ALL THE TIME.

How can we go through life and not disagree with others? Or relax sometimes? And I’ve chosen a career where my whole purpose is to think differently and to challenge!

Finally I asked: What does it mean to my critic to be good?

I already knew what I (the adult me) thought, but seeing the “bad” list made me wonder what my critic thought was being “good”. What standards of “goodness” did I need to meet to keep my critic happy? Here goes:

  • Do as you’re told.
  • Put others first/make others feel better.
  • Don’t question things/don’t challenge.
  • Don’t make life difficult for others/ask for anything.
  • Fit in/be quiet/go along (be seen and not heard!).
  • Work hard and do well (don’t do anything which makes those around you look bad).
  • Follow the rules.
  • Accept what I’m told/the way the world is and realise it can’t be changed (don’t rock the boat!).
  • Tolerate bad behaviour from others (don’t embarrass anyone or make a fuss).

Wow. Well, there’s a recipe for anxiety right there. A list of criteria for being “good” that no adult could possibly meet.

Aha! moment number 2:

  • No wonder my inner critic is so strong, because I’m constantly doing “bad” things and failing at the “good” things.

What does this mean for you?

So, why am I sharing this? What could this have to do with you?

Of course, we’re all different. You have your own set of beliefs around what it means to be “good” and “bad” and be a “good” or “bad” person.

But I’m sure at least some of those “good” and “bad” statements I shared above will have resonated with you.

And I feel sure that, like me, you have your own (adult) ideas of what it means to be “good” or “bad” that are in conflict with your inner critic’s ideas—and how you live your life.

And if so, like me, this will be creating unnecessary anxiety and stress for you.

Here are some situations where you might feel (unnecessarily) anxious or stressed

A few perfectly common and normal circumstances where we could trigger the idea that we are “bad” include:

  • Saying “No” to someone.
  • Asking for help.
  • Getting angry with someone who has rightfully earned our anger.
  • Being snappy and mean (when we’re tired or stressed).
  • Relaxing and taking care of ourselves.
  • Speaking up and challenging the status quo (especially when something is wrong or could be better).

Of course it’s complicated.

Sometimes we’re mean or we get angry and lash out—and we do need to apologise.

BUT. Many of these circumstances where our critic makes us feel “bad” about ourselves are instead healthy, natural—and in fact admirable. For example, standing up for what is right, asking for help when we need it, setting boundaries or some much needed self-care.

Why should we feel bad about saying no? Asking someone for help? Taking some much needed self-care?

And when we can see that it’s actually our inner critic being unreasonable, that we’re not bad, our level of anxiety reduces. And life gets… easier!

Some journaling prompts for you! Hand with Butterflies

1) Start by thinking as an adult, with your “kind, wise self” hat on:

Imagine being the kindest, wisest person you know. And then answer:

  1. What does it mean to be a “Good” person? Write whatever springs to mind—making a list is a great option.
  2. Now consider: How well do you meet these criteria?

Take your time. Give this some deep thought.

2) Next think back to your childhood, and from the viewpoint of your critic or that nagging inner voice:

What rules, beliefs or lessons did you learn as a child about how you should behave?

  1. What does it mean to be “Bad”?
  2. What does it mean to be “Good”?

Again write whatever springs to mind—making a list is a great option. But this time, connect to your inner critic or gremlin—and remember this is likely to be a childish or immature view of the world.

3) A little reflection

Now thinking about your answers to questions 3. and 4. above:

  1. How do those beliefs serve you as an adult?
    • Which beliefs are still relevant and helpful?
    • And which are not? (make a list)
  2. Considering the unhelpful beliefs, what could be a new upgraded version of that belief? (write these out alongside)

4) Wrap-up

  1. What have you learned from this journaling exercise? What was most helpful?
  2. What will you do differently going forwards? (choose at least one action)


Fierce Kindness LogoThere are many ideas and concepts contained in this article and it’s been hard to know which bits to focus on!

The key is that we have different parts of ourselves with different beliefs or rules. In particular this week, we have looked at our inner critic and the outdated rules it lives by. Because until we bring those rules into the light, our critic will unconsciously make us anxious or stressed when we don’t measure up.

It’s painful to be in conflict within ourselves. But once we become aware of the cause of our inner conflicts, we can see things differently. And we can respond differently too.

This is the path to inner peace.

Change the world. Start with you!

If you liked this, you may also like:


Image of Woman holding two pieces of paper on a red background. One says “good” the other says “bad” by Kraken Images


  1. Abena

    A very worthwhile share so thank you for being vulnerable and taking us on this journey with you. I could have written much of it myself! Great prompts and a great exercise for silencing that critic and challenging cognitive distortions with evidence. Thank you!

    • Emma-Louise Elsey

      Dear Abena,
      Thank-you so much for your comment and kind (yet insightful as always) words 🙂 I’m so glad you found this helpful.
      Emma-Louise x


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