How Being Too Nice Can Be Dangerous for Women

Not always being a "nice girl" can make a woman stronger.

Posted Aug 08, 2019

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Why is it that rates of abuse against women are so high? The main reason is that we still allow men to abuse women and get away with it. We’ve come a long way since the time when men believed that their wives and daughters were their "property" and they had the “right” to treat them any way they saw fit. But we still need to make abusive men accountable for their behavior toward women and require them to get the treatment if they need it.

In spite of a great deal of public education, the data tells us that women are still abused and assaulted in record numbers. For example:

  • The American Medical Association estimates that over 4 million women are victims of severe assaults by boyfriends and husbands each year.
  • Around the world, at least 1 in every 3 women have been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in their lifetime.
  • Nearly one-third of American women (31 percent) report being physically or sexually abused by a husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives.
  • Three in four women (76 percent) who reported they had been raped and/or physically assaulted since age 18 said that a current or former husband, cohabitating partner, or date committed the assault.
  • According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, 84 percent of victims of rape know the offender and of those, 66 percent were on a date when the rape took place. In fact, acquaintance rape accounts for the largest category of reported sexual crimes.
  • Of the total sexual assaults reported in the US, 29 percent were perpetrated by a husband or lover, and 7.7 percent of American women have reported being raped by an intimate partner in their lifetime (ndvac.org).

Not enough is being done to expose and treat abusive men. But I propose that another reason women continue to be victimized is in certain cases, they can be too nice for their own good. This “niceness” can make them an easier target to be taken advantage of, controlled, and even emotionally, physically and sexually abused. It can also prevent women from standing up for themselves and leaving relationships that are unhealthy or abusive. 

It is my contention that “Nice Girl” behavior can increase the likelihood that women are abused. This does not mean that women cause men to become abusive. Nor does it mean that women are responsible for their own victimization. What it does mean is that by being too nice, women can send a message to those who already have a tendency to use and abuse. The message is: “My need to be seen as nice (or fair or sweet) may be more powerful than my instinct to protect myself.” 

The hard truth is that women often cannot afford to be Nice Girls. It is not safe. Yes, we need to hold abusive men accountable and insist they get the help they need, but in the meantime, women continue to be abused. And there are too many people (women as well as men) who will take advantage of any weakness they find in another person. Being too nice is certainly viewed as a weakness. While not every Nice Girl is emotionally, verbally or physically abused in her relationships, every Nice Girl is putting herself at greater risk.

Who Are Nice Girls?  

A Nice Girl is more concerned about what others think of her than she is about what she thinks of herself. She is more concerned about other people’s feelings than she is about her own. And she is more concerned about giving people the benefit of the doubt than she is about trusting her own perceptions.

According to the dictionary, synonyms for the word nice include: careful, pleasant, subtle, agreeable, likable, delightful, good, admirable, pleasing. These words describe a Nice Girl to a T. In fact, many Nice Girls have an investment in being perceived in all of these ways. But I also think of other words when I think of the word nice—namely: compliant, passive, wishy-washy, and phony.

  • Nice Girls are compliant. They do what they are told. They’ve learned that it is easier to do what someone asks than to risk an argument.
  • Nice Girls are passive. They are often afraid to stand up for themselves, causing them to be easily manipulated and controlled. They are afraid to speak their mind either out of the fear of hurting someone else’s feelings or out of fear of being rejected or hurt themselves.
  • Nice Girls van be wishy-washy. Because they are so afraid of confrontation they say one thing one time and another thing another time. They want to please everyone all the time and because of this they agree with one person and then turn around and agree with someone else who has the exact opposite belief.
  • Nice Girls can be phony. They are afraid of telling others how they really feel. They pretend a lot. They pretend they like someone when they don’t. They pretend they want to be somewhere when they don’t.

It Is Not Their Fault

Just as it is not okay to blame rape victims for the assault, it is not okay to blame Nice Girls for their Nice Girl behavior. There are very good reasons why they behave as they do, including cultural conditioning, parental messages, and childhood experiences.

Although there are several causes, there are four major origins for Nice Girl behavior.

  • Biological predisposition.
  • Cultural beliefs passed on to a child by the culture or society in which she is raised.
  • Familial beliefs passed on to a child by her family, either directly or by witnessing parental and other family members’ behavior. 
  • Experiential beliefs a child forms as a result of her personal experiences, including childhood trauma.

Let’s address these causes one by one:

Biological: Women are predisposed to generally be more patient, compassionate, and to value connection over confrontation. In her landmark studies, Harvard University professor Carol Gilligan came to the conclusion that what has previously been considered “female passivity” is often the female’s need to seek a solution that is most inclusive of everyone’s needs—“as an act of care rather than the restraint of aggression.”

Another landmark UCLA study suggests that women actually have a larger behavioral repertoire than the “fight or flight” responses males are limited to. When the hormone oxytocin is released as part of the stress response in a woman, it buffers the fight or flight response and encourages her to tend to children and gather with other women for protection.  

Societal: Girls are typically socialized to be polite, appropriate, pleasant and agreeable—all the personality traits that characterize Nice Girls. Girls were supposed to be “Sugar and spice and everything nice.” Unfortunately, in some families and cultures, the feminine ideal continues to be to please others, be selfless, nice, pretty, and to make oneself the object of someone else’s life.

We have also learned that in order to attain this culturally prescribed ideal, a teenage girl must put away a great many parts of herself. She stops speaking out and expressing her feelings. Instead, she focuses on trying to please others, especially those of the opposite sex.

Familial: Our families pass down to us certain messages and beliefs. These include everything from the way people should treat one another to the role women play in a family. These messages and beliefs have a powerful influence on our thinking and behavior and help shape who we are today.

There are several common types of family situations that can set a woman up to a Nice Girl. These include:

  • Having an abusive or tyrannical father or older brother.
  • Having a passive mother.
  • Being raised in a misogynistic family.
  • Having parents who place too high a value on being fair, compassionate, and nice.

For example, the first false belief, that other people’s feelings and needs are more important than one’s own, usually comes from being taught this at home. This belief may have been modeled by a passive or co-dependent mother who sacrificed herself for her family or husband and never considered that she had needs of her own. A girl growing up with such a mother can easily receive the message that to be a good woman, wife, or mother she must put her own needs aside and focus solely on the needs of others.

Another way that a woman may have received this message is if she had a selfish or narcissistic parent who considered his or her needs to be all-important and who ignored the needs of his or her child. A child raised in this environment often comes to believe that her happiness lies in fulfilling the needs of others.  

Experiential: It is quite common for Nice Girls to have experienced physical, emotional, or sexual abuse in their childhood or as adults. Abuse and neglect tend to create certain unhealthy attitudes and beliefs that set women up to be Nice Girls and often, victims. For example, those who end up becoming a Nice Girl or taking on a victim stance tend to:

  1. Blame themselves when something goes wrong.
  2. Doubt themselves, including doubting their perceptions, their knowledge, and their beliefs.
  3. Be overly trusting of others, even when someone has proven to be untrustworthy.
  4. Be naïve when it comes to the motives of others.
  5. Believe they should attempt to meet the needs of others no matter what the consequences or hardships to themselves..

This article is part of a series. Please see Part II here: Why Being a Nice Girl Can Be Dangerous: The Fear Factor

In Part III. of this article, I will present the Ten False Beliefs That Set Women Up to Be Used and Abused and will offer some remedies to the Nice Girl Syndrome.

Please note: although this article is addressed to women, there is information in it that can apply to men as well.

The above information was adapted from my book, The Nice Girl Syndrome: Stop Being Manipulated and Abused—and Start Standing Up for Yourself published by John Wiley and Sons.