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  • Writer's pictureCécile Hemery

Overcoming The Good Student Syndrome at work

Updated: Dec 12, 2023

Woman in class raising her hand to ask a question

For some of us, being a “good student” at school in our youth played an essential part in our lives. We were praised for it, were getting good grades, pleasing the teachers and our parents in the process, and it somehow became a part of our identity.

Many of us carried this drive and dedication into our professional lives, striving to impress and achieve recognition. And it served us well - promotions, raises, and recognition that made us feel valued. It reinforced our identity as successful professionals. However, over time, things may have changed. The same approach that worked wonders in school and at the beginning of our career no longer yields the same results in the workplace. We find ourselves questioning our purpose and skills, losing motivation as well as confidence, and feeling undervalued.

If this sounds familiar, you are not alone, and this article aims to shed light on this transition from being a “good student” to becoming a self-reliant and empowered adult in the professional world.


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The Good Student Syndrome

For many of us, being the “good student” at school meant that we were most likely quiet, described as shy, and probably not the most popular kid in the class; but liked by teachers and getting approval from them. Getting good grades was our “normal”, it’s what was expected and it became a part of who we are.

All our life has been focused on “doing good”, where “doing good” is being measured by grades we get at school, validation from our parents or teachers. Doing good meant going along with the expectations of the figures of authority in our life.

Since it became part of our identity, it also became something we needed to maintain. If we were not good students, then who were we? If we did not get good grades, then instead of being worthy of praise, we would disappoint. What would we be good for? That identity was built on constant need for performance.

The Good Girl Syndrome

For women, there is the additional twist of being “a good girl”. Historically, girls were raised to be obedient, self-effacing in front of others, putting others' needs before their own and overall being pleasant company. That may have translated for some women to develop the “good girl syndrome” where we may struggle to say no, to speak up for ourselves, acknowledge to others our own needs and are afraid to upset others.

The Good Girl and Good Student syndromes are very similar and intertwined and focused on pleasing others, especially the figures of authority.

The Transition from "Good Student" to "Good Employee"

Somehow, as we entered the workforce, we carried over with us the posture of the good student. We worked assiduously, and aimed to please, often sacrificing personal time, believing that our hard work would speak for itself.

And at first, it serves us well. The Good Student attitude works very well for junior roles. We got good feedback, we got promoted, we got raises. All things that made us feel good about ourselves, validated and recognised. All things that reinforced that identity relying on performance.

We were eager to impress, work long hours, and seek constant feedback to ensure we were doing well. But eventually, things stopped going our way more and more often. Doing a good job didn’t seem to be enough anymore. Seeking validation and praise for our efforts, we took negative feedback personally, potentially becoming defensive and bitter under pressure. We found ourselves taken for granted, and our hard work seemed to be ignored.

The Weight of Work

Work isn’t like studying. There isn’t an exam that marks the end. And long holidays to reset. It’s constant never-ending piling up on things. We can never be done. There’s always something left to do.

We were happy to work long hours when needed, and found ourselves needing to do it often. It was always justified. Without realising it, work has taken a larger chunk of our personal time. Answering emails in the evenings or getting some work done during week-ends may have become a way of staying ahead or keeping our heads above the water, rather than the occasional occurrence.

As years go by, it's starting to take a toll.

The Sting of Negative Feedback

Having received mostly positive feedback in the past, negative feedback at work can be difficult to handle. It feels like a bad grade, it’s not something we’ve learned to deal with well and it may hurt our feelings. We may not understand it. Though we know we're not perfect and there's room for improvement, we struggle to cope with criticism. Under pressure, we might become defensive, bitter and place blame on others. This emotional response is a result of our deeply ingrained "good student" mindset, where our self-worth was tied to approval and validation from others.

This may leak into a sense of lost purpose or maybe faith in the organisations we work for. We don’t feel like we’re in the right place anymore, we’ve lost motivation and we’re questioning ourselves.

The Silent Expectation of Recognition

We keep our heads down, and we expect our good work to speak for itself. We don’t necessarily speak up about what we want but expect recognition and opportunities to come our way naturally. And early on, it did.

As time goes by, though, instead of being valued for that good work, we’re being taken for granted. We might not have been vocal about what we wanted, but we did want it and expected it to come our way without needing to ask for it, because it’s obvious through all the hard work that we’ve done that we’re deserving. But unfortunately, things don’t always work that way.

And even having to ask for a promotion is already a letdown - why didn’t they offer it to us of their own accord? It’s obvious we’ve earned it. And we’re frustrated about it. This frustration may have been piling up for a while now: we don’t recognise that bitterness in ourselves, it doesn’t feel like ourselves.

Breaking free from validation from others

The pattern of seeking approval from others and authority figures is not sustainable for independent, self-reliant adults. While it was a crucial part of our journey until now, it’s time to develop our own set of criteria to evaluate - and recognise - success and happiness.

As children, we grow up. As adults, there’s no need for that “up” anymore. We just aim to grow personally, know ourselves better and become the version of ourselves that we are meant to be. That means making our own decisions and questioning this conditioning and societal expectations. That means trusting ourselves to know our own value and celebrate our own achievements regardless of what others might think or say. It’s scary, but it’s the path to true growth and fulfilment.

Embracing Change and Growth

The journey towards embracing change and growth can be daunting, but it’s essential for our professional and personal growth. It’s time to let go of the fear of standing on our own, of failing or going against the flow. True growth, freedom and emancipation come when we start making our own decisions, define our own measures of success and pave our unique path.


Transitioning from the identity of a "good student" to a self-assured, empowered individual in the workplace can be challenging. Recognizing that seeking external validation is not sustainable and embracing personal growth is the key to finding purpose and fulfilment in our careers and lives.

It's time to break free from the expectations of others, make our own decisions, and pave our way towards genuine success and happiness. Remember, it's not weakness or failure; it's a step towards growth and becoming the best version of ourselves, the one we want to be. So, let's embrace the journey and flourish as confident, independent, and thriving professionals.


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