Letting go of the good girl complex doesn’t mean compromising who you are, and it could help to boost your career.
People are often surprised when I tell them I have a good girl complex. My mother is from the Bronx, my father from Eastern Europe and my years in New York have hardened me to yell at a stranger in a parking lot, call a customer service line to demand a refund or to drive a stiff bargain with a new business relationship. But, when it comes to setting boundaries, standing up for myself or having to deliver news that will impact someone I have a personal relationship with in a negative way, my backbone might as well dissolve into a puddle of gelatin.
I’ve spent months and even years in romantic relationships that have no longer served me, in awe of friends who could dispose of boyfriends like weekly recycling. I’ve stayed in unhealthy professional arrangements because living with discomfort had become part of my norm and the fight or flight survival mode a default. From a childhood punctuated by conflict, I developed into a nimble conflict-avoidant adult, darting away from any sign of unrest. Worse than the emotional burden of personal failure was the fear of letting someone down, seeming caustic or abrasive to those I know. Ultimately, I’ve spent much of my life terrified of not being liked.
It’s easy enough to suffer through unhealthy relationships when it impacts no one but yourself. But the rubber hits the road when you become an entrepreneur, with a baby you have to ruthlessly defend. The stakes grow even higher when there are investors and employees and small farmers and retailers in a cut-throat industry that isn’t known for second chances.
During our first dinner meeting with our new investor a few months back, he turned to me and said, “I want to know that you will be able to lead this company.” He nodded to my mother and said, I know she’s amazing, but she doesn’t want to work this hard forever. It was a moment of elation and sheer terror. I could no longer hide behind my mother to be the bad cop or to offset my personal responsibility for tough business decisions. And so when it came time to sever the first major business tie that was not serving the best interests of the company, I was plagued by anxiety and sleepless nights. My mother was baffled how I would spiral into a hyperventilating tizzy, rehearsing what I would say, how we would be as nice as possible while saying goodbye. I originally tried to make her deliver the blow. But it always came back to that first dinner —“I’m investing in you.” There was no escaping.
Of course my inner nice girl felt pressure to perform for this person who was taking a leap of faith on us. But there was also a newfound sense of personal power and confidence that came with building a company of which I was really proud. The brand that I had created over the past year and a half was beyond me, Nicole as the person. And with that came the epiphany that making tough decisions didn’t have to be personal nor did it have to offend the nice girl or my inner sense of compassion.
I began to notice the ways in which my passivity had hurt me in the past. I noted the moments in which an overcharge on a legal bill would have gone unmentioned, an error by a distributor would have simmered deep inside, unaddressed. I saw that there were opportunities to speak up for things I believed in like emailing a cannabis education organization to tell them why I disagreed with their sponsored content business model after they had solicited me for sponsorship. I publicly spoke up about injustice in the cannabis industry. I also noticed that by avoiding “conflict” I had missed out on opportunities to engage in meaningful collaboration and dialogue. Was it uncomfortable to update my retailers after the regulations kicked in on July 1, 2018 that I had no product for their shelves? Yes. Did it feel totally out of my comfort zone to negotiate voting rights with my investor after my lawyer had already proposed a structure not in our interest? Absolutely. But I began to find that bringing issues to light actually gave me more leeway to get what I wanted while working constructively with another person.
I wrote that email to my business associates. I was decisive and firm and I didn’t make excuses or try to soften the blow. It was scary and hard, but it felt good to be honest. It was an affirmative step toward becoming a strong woman who is smart, savvy and nice. The nice girl is still there, and I talk to her on a regular basis, coaching her through high anxiety moments. I tell her that people admire her strength and resolve and they still love her—maybe even more—when she communicates exactly what she wants.