The Dangers of Being Nice
There's a downside to always being the good guy.
Posted Jul 21, 2018
You’ve met them, I’ve met them, or you may be one of them: nice people. They always give others the benefit of the doubt, are ready to give a hand, or volunteer for that task that no one wants. They’re sensitive to the feelings of others, easy to be around, and rarely if ever argue. What’s not to like?
Not much, you say. But if you’re always the nice guy, if it’s your 24/7 public persona, there are often psychological dangers lurking below that friendly surface, a downside that can take its toll. Here are the most common ones:
You’re that good, that laid-back all the time, really? Unless you’re on some major and highly effective medications, probably not. What always-nice people tend to do is internalize — hold in negative emotions that naturally rise up in the course of everyday life. The byproduct of these emotional crunches are often depression, anxiety, and addiction.
Periodic Acting Out
And if depression, anxiety, and addiction aren’t strong enough to keep those non-polite feelings at bay, you are likely at risk for acting out, through the one-night stand on a business trip, going on a binge, going into a hurricane-like rage at your kid, your dog, or your gentle, but always-absent-minded coworker. It seems to come out of nowhere, you feel terribly guilty, you apologize profusely, you promise never to do that ever again . . . until you do. Until the pressure builds up, and the right stress-triggers set you off.
What goes a long way to being nice is that you're more likely to blame yourself than anyone else: It’s your fault, you should have known better, you did something that caused the other person to act the way they did, though you really have no idea what that may be. You have this critical, scolding drill-sergeant/parent voice coming at you all the time, looking over your shoulder, wagging its finger. Under such steady verbal abuse, you vow to try harder, not screw up, be even nicer, but whatever you do is never good enough; fault, mistakes, and incriminations are around every corner. It’s a miserable way to live.
A build-up of resentment can often fuel the acting out, but sometimes it’s just a slow and ever-present simmer that you internalize along with everything else. The resentment comes, because your niceness also comes with expectations — that others will appreciate your martyrish efforts or will follow your lead and be like you, always putting others first, stepping up, etc. — or expecting them to realize what you need and give it to you, even though you never say what those needs are.
If you do all the heavy lifting all of the time, you are prone to periodic collapse. It may be exhaustion, or it may be getting sick or sinking into the depths of severe depression. The burnout may sideline you for a while, but once you recover, you're quickly back on duty.
Pre-compromising in Relationships
Rather than clearly stating what you want at the start of a discussion with someone, you instead anticipate or assume what the other person would like, and then downshift your own demands before the conversation starts. Jane probably wouldn’t want to swap out my entire weekend shift, you say to yourself, so instead of asking if she can work the entire weekend for you, you ask her if she can do Saturday. When you do this pre-compromising all the time in close relationships, you wind up never really getting what you want (though you fantasize that the other person will read your mind and offer it anyway), and instead only get watered-down versions that are “okay.” Over time, what you're left with is a watered-down life.
Appearing Controlling or Passive-Aggressive at Times
Others, especially those closest to you, may see you as subtly controlling or passive-aggressive at times — because you are. Your persona cracks a bit, and you put on subtle pressure or guilt to get your way, or you go along with something, but then act in a passive-aggressive manner, because your unhappiness leaks out.
Close relationships can lack depth. Between the pre-compromise and internalization, you never say what you truly want and feel, you're not being really honest and emotionally intimate. And if both partners are nice, the effects are multiplied, resulting in a no-conflict but superficial relationship.
That poor 100-year-old woman who regretted eating too many beans and not enough ice cream. That cartoon of the headstone that says, “Ate all that kale for nothing.” The watered-down life, the not being truly known, the millions of missed opportunities to do and get what you want instead of what others wanted can leave you with serious life regrets.
Does this mean you shouldn’t be nice?
Of course not. But there’s a difference between a values-driven life and an anxiety-driven one. A values-driven life comes out of your values, your core beliefs as an adult of how to be with others. You are kind and considerate and see that we are all struggling on this tiny dot of speck in the vast universe; you treat others the way you’d like to be treated. You do it not because you “should” or because you will feel guilty otherwise, but because it’s your life blueprint.
But along with this, you can say no, take care of yourself as well as others, be assertive and honest without being aggressive and hurtful. Life is win-win as much as possible.
The anxiety-driven life, on the other hand, makes being nice a way of managing anxiety. You learned to take a nice-stance as way of avoiding conflict and confrontation that you can’t tolerate, a stance that is “I’m happy if you’re happy,” meaning I do whatever I need to do to not get you disgruntled, because your being upset makes me anxious. Here you don’t say no, you don’t speak up and be honest and assertive, because of your own fear. It’s less about a value of how to treat people and more a psychological flack-suit to protect you from what seems to be a scary world.
Ramping It Down
If you decide that you are, in fact, tired of being nice all the time, or tired of absorbing any or all of these consequences, it’s time to stop going on autopilot and begin to make choices and change some of your behaviors. Here’s how to get started:
1. Slow down to realize how you really feel.
If you’re an always-nice superstar, you likely don’t even realize how you feel a lot of the time. Rather than quickly raising your hand at the staff meeting when they call for volunteers, take a few deep breaths, and ask yourself whether you really want to do this. The same is true about negotiating with your partner: Stop the pre-compromise and figure out what you truly want. If you can’t tell at the time, wait, and continue to ask yourself how you truly feel; something will eventually emerge.
2. Practice saying no.
Not raising your hand is saying no, but you want to practice doing this more actively — this is about setting boundaries. If you’re asked to be on a church committee, for example, and don't want to, say no. Better yet, be proactive and let others know where you stand before they come to you. If it's too difficult to say no in person, call and leave a voicemail, or send a text. Just get it done.
3. Use your anger as information.
When you feel anger, irritation, or resentment, use it as information telling you what you need, what you don’t like, what you may want. Then again speak up.
4. Practice being more honest.
Honesty is essentially what setting boundaries is all about, but honesty is also the driver of intimacy. Move out of that superficial talk and experiment with deeper conversations — tell those close to you how you really feel rather than “fine.” If your partner is doing the same, get the problem of verbal intimacy and honesty on the table as something you both want to work on.
5. Use your symptoms as tools to let you know when you’re overextended.
Don’t just sweep the binge or the burnout or the passive-aggressiveness under the rug, but instead use them as red flags that you are being over-responsible, that you are neglecting your own needs. It's time to not just apologize or recover, but again speak up.
6. Push back against the critical voices.
Your critical voices will go crazy as you begin any of the above. You will feel guilty, you will feel anxious that the world will despise you and that terrible things will happen. This is little-kid stuff that flares up when you start to break your old patterns. Take a few deep breaths, pat yourself on the back, and keep moving forward.
So, are you ready to give up some of your niceness?