Being too nice

I’m not nice anymore. Oh, I used to be a nice person, and for quite some time I was darn proud of being nice. But I put a stop to all that nonsense. What I realized was that even though I was a nice person, had a great husband, two wonderful children, and a career; the fact was that I was miserable. Because the truth was that I had absolutely no idea who I was. I had it all –everything but me.

From the outside looking in, I had a good thing going. No major problems, a pretty smooth and uneventful life. But somewhere along the line I had lost who I was. I had strayed so far off the path of my own life that I had lost my bearings. As a nice person/wife/mother/coworker, I had put all my energies into meeting everyone else’s needs. It didn’t matter who they were – family, friends, coworkers, the local store clerk or meter maid. It was important to me that everyone thought that I was the nicest darn person they ever met. My self-worth was riding on it. After all, always putting others ahead of me conveyed that I was a considerate, polite, and nice person. While there is nothing wrong with being polite and considerate, I made being nice an extreme sport. No doubt about it, I was playing for keeps.

Being nice exacted a stiff price. I was invisible to me. I had no clue what I was all about, what I liked, thought, desired, dreamt, or felt. I was at the bottom of an endless list, and it didn’t look like it was going to be my turn any time soon. My life had become an out-of-body experience.

For me, being a nice girl meant never ruffling feathers, never making waves, never telling it like it is, never being honest if it meant making someone else uncomfortable. Being nice meant fading into the woodwork and putting others before me – always. In all fairness to my parents, they raised my siblings and me in a generation when good children were seen but not heard. My family legacy was always doing the right thing – behaving, looking, and doing nice. I’m certain that my parents never expected that what they believed to be a virtue would be my undoing.

But what I finally learned is that niceness is not a virtue. After all, I was a nice person not because I was an inherently good person, but rather because I hoped that people would think more highly of me. How virtuous is that? How pure can a deed be if it’s done more out of desire for approval? Think about it – niceness is really an externally driven attribute. In other words, other people determine how nice we are. They set the bar of expectation and if we meet it we are deemed nice. If not, we are less so.

We are meant to be strong and live a life that integrates our core values – to live with integrity. We are not meant to be nice. I’ll bet that Mother Theresa, Florence Nightingale – heck, any woman who has achieved greatness in life – did so by not being nice. If they had been nice people, they would have worried too much about courting approval than going against the status quo, creating change, and in many cases, forever altering history. Instead they were good and strong women who weren’t afraid to rock the boat. They weren’t afraid to blaze new trails and live a life larger than others thought they deserved. Allowing others to determine our self-worth is a recipe for personal disaster. Don’t get me wrong –nice people are pleasant enough, but many times they are also weak, unable to express their opinions or feelings, and certainly unable to say no. How can they? To do so would fly in the face of niceness. Sure, a nice person may smile, but underneath simmers a cauldron of resentment; a messy stew of hopes and dreams gone unanswered. Women especially, are socialized to smile and be and do nice. Heaven forbid you should ever be called selfish. Most women would rather grit their teeth and swallow their discontent to their grave than be accused of not giving enough of themselves. What a waste of extraordinary power and grace.

When we’re nice, we lose the opportunity – and it’s the only opportunity – to live a good, powerful, and authentic life. Our life. Being nice sets us up to live the life that is most accommodating to those around us. Heck, they’re having a grand old time living their powerful and authentic life, fueled in part by our life’s energy. I can’t imagine that is what we are put on this earth to do. What impact can we have when we live our lives through others while our very core rages in protest?

be-kindA self-effacing, “Oh, don’t worry about me…” really serves no one. And, it’s a poor example to model for our children. How can we expect them to have a strong sense of integrity when they are dangling at the end of the self-sacrificing apron strings of their mother or father? What they learn instead is 1) the world revolves around me and everyone should sacrifice their needs and wants for my whims or 2) a need to be self-effacing and suffer as much as the parent. Teaching or showing our children that they need to be nice sets them up to be a victim. And with the predators on the streets and on the Internet, none of us can afford to raise a child who would rather say “yes” than be thought of as not nice. And that’s just what predators’ count on – a victim who will give in rather than offend someone, speak up, or fight.

Niceness sets us all up to be victims. The result is jealousy and constant competition with others. The last thing you want is anyone around you who would compete with your rightful place as the most sacrificing mother/father/child/sibling/coworker. However, when we are good and strong, we live a life that is internally determined by our values and beliefs. We say “no” with conviction and “yes” with ease.

So when did I see the light? I believe it was the cataclysmic collision of hormones and hot flashes. The woman I thought I was did not jive with the rebellious woman unleashed by night sweats and mood swings. Frankly, I’m not convinced that mood swings are just an unpleasant side effect of menopause. I think they’re actually the real woman inside, frustrated by silence for so long, breaking out of the holding tank.

Christiane Northrup, MD, author of Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, says that menopause is symbolically the birth of another life – our own. And so here I was, born again into my own life and learning anew. It was a frightening and exhilarating time. It took fluctuating hormones to release the real me, for me to finally unpack my bags and start to live. I decided that being a nice girl was not serving me. Raging behind my smile and nice deeds was a wild and angry woman who was willing to squash her own dreams for everyone, and she was someone I could not live with anymore.

I questioned everything and everyone. Everything was open for debate. “This is how it’s done”…Who says? “You should do it this way”…I don’t think so. “Because I said so”…Sorry, not good enough. This was it. No more Mrs. Nice Guy. I was determined to be an awesome woman.

How do we get stuck in this mire of sweet smiles and acquiescing? We’ve been rewarded for it all our lives. The rewards for us are the occasional compliments that people – especially those who benefit most from our niceness – pay us. You know, “Isn’t she wonderful for setting up the entire Boy Scout banquet by herself (again)?” or “John, you are so wonderful to give up your day off to help us move (for the umpteenth time).”

Egos are funny things. They love to be stroked. They’ll forgive almost anything to get a fix of that good strokin’. But the authentic part of us – the person we are meant to be – doesn’t fall for the same lines. Deep inside, that authentic part of us understands that we gave into our ego, and it doesn’t feel good. The feelings that erupt shortly after include a sense of being taken advantage of, of betrayal. How could they ask me to do that again? In other words, you’ve sold yourself short yet again – for a compliment.

On the other hand, the person with integrity and strength might agree to set up the Boy Scout banquet or help someone move. The difference is that the person would agree to do it when the authentic part inside concurred – yeah, we can do that. And, maybe respond with, “Sure, I can work on the banquet, but I’ll need some help.” Or “I’d love to help you move, but I’ll only be available for a few hours in the morning.”

Martha is an example of the perfectly coifed, self-sacrificing, nice person. She is the mother of grown children and her husband is healthy and retired. Martha’s never held a job outside the home, but she’s still working at a job she can’t and won’t retire from until she’s taken her last breath. She continues to put her own needs and wants last, even though her children are grown and have lives of their own. She jumps at everyone’s beck and call, like she always has. Her reward is the compliments people pay her for her dedication to her family and her ability to always put herself last – as if devaluing her own life is something to be admired.

niceSadly, no one does understand Martha, because no one really knows her. She’s had her game face on her whole life. The people around Martha have never been introduced to the real person behind the self-sacrificing façade. She’ll probably go to her grave with people thinking how wonderful she was for being so nice. But her children, family, and friends will never have the sense that they really knew who Martha was. They’ve been cheated. Sadly, Martha will disappear like a vapor, because she was never really here. Does this sound familiar? Well, take a leap of faith. Honor your integrity and inner strength.

When you operate from a position of integrity and strength you have so much more to give, and the gift of giving is genuine. We are meant to be strong. We are meant to honor our integrity. We are not meant to be nice. It’s time to move to the front of the line. It’s true that nice guys finish last. And when you stop to think about it, that’s just what they deserve.