Being Nice May Not Be Very Nice

Laura Adai via

Geez! Some people just don’t know how to be grateful. I told my ex-wife, Laurie, that I’d be over to light her furnace. Laurie’s a klutz with mechanical things and I thought she’d be blow her whole house up if she did it herself. When I came out of the basement with soot all over me, do you think I got a “Thanks?” It was always like that in our marriage with me giving and giving to Laurie. If she wanted a new car, I’d take the old one and get her a new model. If she wanted some new jewelry, I’d take her to the best place in town. If she was too tired to do the housework, I’d do it all. You know, that’s just me. I’m a nice guy. Oh it was hard when I found her cheating on me with my best friend. I know she didn’t do that to hurt me. But I forgave her. I believe in forgiving and forgetting. This world would be a lot happier place if we all got along. But you know what she did next? She asked me for a divorce. She said she couldn’t trust me. Not if that isn’t the pot calling the kettle black! Say wait, I’m getting a call on my cell phone. It’s Laurie asking me to shovel her driveway. When will she ever wake up and realize what she’s missing!?

Yes, there is such a thing as killing with kindness. Some of us may put on a happy face in relationships and think we are being a gift to our partner. We may go overboard in giving too much to a loved one as a way of suppressing negative feelings towards a partner. We may not even realize how ingenuine and foolish we are being. When we endlessly give and give in a relationship while denying our own needs we really make it impossible for our partner to love us. After all, how can a partner respect a loved one who is selfless, inauthentic and sacrificial? One can only imagine the frustration and despair Laurie felt when she couldn’t even get her husband to react to her unreasonable requests. Ultimately she lost all hope when he took a forgiving approach to her being caught in bed with his best friend. Clearly she was hurting her husband. However, her husband acted as if it didn’t matter and was more interested in being a saint than fighting for her attention. Excessive niceness is a sure way to lose the attention of a partner and deprive ourselves of integrity. It is often passive-aggressive and actually not very nice.

Men acting like White Knights are hardly alone in playing the nice role. Women are notorious for being Little Miss Sunshine’s as the example below suggests:

Can you believe that new girl Leah! Her ratty two tone haircut, multiple body piercing and black leotards worn under a common kitchen dress says it all. She looks like something that came out of the alley. They must be really hard up for help these days. Worst of all on her first day she comes up to me and asks, “Oh yoo-hoo Toots. What are the odds that I get first crack at lunch?” I couldn’t believe her. Worst of all she chews gum! Uh oh, I gotta go. Here comes the new girl…Oh hi there Leah! We’re so glad you’re here as we were short-staffed. That cute little cat pin on your blouse is so-o-o-o-o purr-fect! 

While ultra nice guys may be oblivious to the dark forces within, compulsively nice girls are exquisitely two-faced. They’re frequently aware of but are unlikely to express their hidden sinister sentiments. Being part of a bevy of women who never get angry may be more important to some women than being true to themselves. The infuriating niceness of White Knights and the backbiting vitriol of Little Miss Sunshine’s causes a lot of heartache.

How niceness is a problem

Clearly there is no such thing as too much real kindness. The more we can do to be our “brother’s keeper” will only make us all happier and fulfilled. We humans are wired to be social creatures and we gain our sense of life meaning through kindness towards others. Altruistic niceness — where we do good for others with no hidden agenda — is our lifeblood.

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When we endlessly give and give in a relationship while denying our own needs we really make it impossible for our partner to love us.Compulsive niceness is another story. It is a form of taking, not giving. It has a hidden agenda. When we are compelled to put on a happy face towards others we are really trying to manipulate others into liking us or creating a false image for self-gain. When we deny that we are overdoing niceness we keep anger hidden between ourselves and others and we rob relationships of honesty and trust. Phonies hang out with us not for who we are but for what they can get from us. Unrealistically pleasant people make us crazy by denying they are pretending and deprive us of the security of honest connection. We may feel emotionally close to a false person but we cannot be safe with them as we don’t know the whole story. Problematic niceness is a lot like being sold a car by a used car salesman. It may look good on the surface but later, sometimes much later, we discover there are lots of hidden problems. We feel violated, duped and untrusting in human kindness when we discover that we’ve bought a lemon!

Signals of unreal niceness

Most likely you already know if you have a problem with insincere niceness. Probably such is the case if you:

  • Often put a positive spin on things when others hurt you.
  • Aren’t aware of feeling anger even when others say you should be.
  • Hate to be seen as a selfish person.
  • Regularly get roped in to doing things for others you don’t want to do.
  • Can’t stand people who are ungrateful after others help them.
  • Sometimes feel superior to people who only look out for themselves.
  • Feel that you are always working harder in your friendships with others.
  • Often get duped into believing people like you more than they do.
  • Frequently lack a backbone when others take advantage of you.
  • Really avoid disagreeing with others.
  • Wish that others would just tell you what to do or how to be.
  • Become dishonest with others and don’t act like yourself just to fit in with a certain crowd.
  • Are kind to others in order to manipulate them.

Personal and cultural origins of compulsive niceness

Culture exerts tremendous pressure on us to “be nice” even when we don’t feel like being nice. Much of TV news assumes we will adopt the same corporate mentality that news anchors are burdened by, like always smiling when you don’t feel like doing it, worrying whether your ratings are up or down, adopting a politically correct way of responding to human tragedy, and never going too deep with your doubts and questions. After all if we are told by media giants that being nice is what everybody is doing, how could we do it any differently? It just doesn’t look good to be a meanie. Needless to say, media advertising that manipulates to sell products also normalizes  the apparent wheeling and dealing we all must do to be successful in relationships. When we consumers swim in a sea of manipulation we can’t fathom anyone truly liking us for who we really are nor can we grasp that honesty is the best policy on relationships. Our materialistic culture compels us to be compulsively nice as if our normal human failings is something to hide from. Indeed, as our recent rash of corporate scandals show, most of us ordinary citizens have much less to hide from than big businesses do. It’s just that we’re made to feel ashamed when we have no need to be.

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Some of have personal reasons for being compulsively nice. Often we do so as a survival strategy to hide from unconscious pain in our formative years. If we grew up in a family with chronic problems or emotional aloofness chances are we were prevented from developing a secure sense of self. Today we may worry that others will not like us as we were not liked as children. To offset these fears, we may unknowingly adopt a strategy of making ourselves so likable that no one could ever reject us or so indispensable that others would never let us go. So we put on the happy face. Unconsciously we blame ourselves rather than face a far greater tragedy — the very people who said they loved us in our childhood were unable to carry it out. It may seem easier to blame ourselves, remain in a cycle of people-pleasing and experience human love as desperate, ephemeral and unattainable. Unfortunately it’s not easier. Nor is it wise. Many people already like us more than we notice or allow to like us. The only person we really need to worry about liking us is the person we look at in the mirror each morning. That’s our real challenge.

Becoming more authentic

A friend of mine once said, “If you have a thousand lies to own up to, just work on one.” Becoming more authentic is a lifelong process that only needs to be done one day at a time. Our psyches can stand only so much honesty at a time. Also, if we heal only one lie we will be lead to heal them all. Behind every lie we heal there is hidden grief. Most of us can only grieve step by step. It’s best to start small with lessening little white lies. Perhaps we have to stop exaggerating our success and report the facts as they are. Do people still love us when we don’t wow them? Are we lesser persons for having a setback? Then we can go to the next level by not lying by way of omission. Perhaps we need to admit to a trusted friend or mentor that we are not all that secure with ourselves and that we are not sure we deserve to be loved at all. We may have years of tears from people not accepting us as we were in our childhood and from our not opening up to willing listeners today because we felt we weren’t worth it.

Finally there are our deep dark secrets. Perhaps in the confidence of a trusting relationship, such as those found in a good Al-Anon group, we can begin to mention the unmentionable, one step at a time. Possibly we are burdened by overwhelming shame over something that occurred in our lifetime that feels too horrible to talk about. Let me give you a tip. Sharing a deep dark secret, no matter how bad, with someone who has been trustworthy with us is always better than staying alone and ashamed. When we try to be what we are not, no one can hurt us worse than ourselves. This theme occurs in the poignant book, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. Let us be who we are.

John H. Driggs, LICSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.

This article first appeared in the February 2009 issue of The Phoenix Spirit. We may earn a commission via some of the links on this page – at no cost to you.

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

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