I’m perpetually seeking inspiring quotations to ‘share’ on my business Facebook Page and when I came upon this one it seemed like such a noble recommendation … but then I remembered. I remembered the times in my past when my commitment to being ‘nice’ trumped my willingness to intervene on my own behalf. I remembered the times when being ‘nice’ unwittingly condoned the wounding of unguarded hearts. I remembered the times when being ‘nice’ silenced me on issues where it would have been far more prudent to take a firm stand and dare to defend the marginalized and oppressed.
Ultimately, I remembered that being ‘a nice human’ is only good advice in particular contexts. I realize I might be confusing or even frustrating some of you right now … but, in all honesty, I am no longer convinced that being nice is a universally noble quality nor an unequivocally desirable human attribute. Let me explain …
I was having a little pity party for myself a few years back and remember woefully lamenting to a good friend of mine that it felt like people were more willing to let me down/take me for granted than they did others. My friend caught me by surprise when she casually but candidly responded with “they do it because they can.” Huh? She clarified that “it is safe to do it to you.” It took me a minute to wrap my head around what she was actually saying! We ended up discussing how people trusted:
- I would be understanding.
- I was compassionate and empathic enough to put their needs first.
- I would not hold any grudges.
In other words, I was ‘nice’ and folks learned that I would typically step over any perceived transgressions between us. Wow … it was an ‘aha’ moment of gargantuan proportions because I had no idea that by opting to always be ‘nice’ I was actually co-creating my own suffering. I was not aware that when I predictably allowed others to disappoint me without experiencing any sense of discomfort themselves, I was implicitly making it safe for them to continue to do so. Who would have thought …? It was such a profound lesson. Thank you Kimmy!
I’ve also come to recognize that in order to be ‘nice’ it might be necessary to compromise our own inner truths. Being nice can stop us from saying “No, I really don’t have time to help” or “Sorry, that doesn’t sit right with me” … or … “No thanks, I don’t like mushroom soup“. There are countless times like this (in all of our lives) when silencing ourselves (in the name of being nice) can foster all kinds of internal heartache. Furthermore, if/when being ‘nice’ unconsciously morphs into habitual self-denial and persistent self-sacrifice, we ultimately end up resenting those very folks we were too ‘nice’ to be honest with. As a result, our relationships begin to suffer.
Another downside of always committing ourselves to being ‘nice’ is that we may have to withhold a powerful ‘truth’ regarding someone else. Nice always looks very, very pleasant … truth can sometimes seem cruel. If I committed myself to being a ‘nice’ counselor, I would have to deny myself permission to speak the hard truths that people often need to know in order to stop sabotaging themselves. It may not be easy for them to hear, but as a brave feminist once wisely shared: In keeping with that (and on a more personal note), I will never forget one of the times when I was floundering desperately in the parenting trenches and my husband dared to say: “Sometimes you can be so mean”. Whoa. Me? Mean? His honesty pierced through to the core of my being because I would never, ever (not in a million years!) have considered myself anything vaguely resembling ‘mean’. Some might argue that he was being mean in saying what he said. Perhaps he was … and I could have rejected his unflattering observation on those grounds. Instead, I decided to let his hurtful words land in my heart and humbly notice how what he was saying was might be true. I remain forever indebted to him for helping me see what I could not see for myself in that moment. It was a gift of growth that would have been left unwrapped if he had opted to be ‘nice’ instead.
I have also learned from clients there are times when being ‘nice’ will keep you in situations that are not healthy. I’ve noticed that the people who typically tolerate more abusive exchanges in their relationships tend to be the nice, compassionate, strong ones. Interesting, isn’t it? These seemingly noble qualities can actually keep them from standing up for themselves. Their ‘niceness’ allows an abusive partner to manipulate their perceptions of who is responsible for their unhealthy relationship dynamics. Their ‘compassion’ allows them to excuse and forgive their partner’s disparaging behavior, time and time and time again. And, their ‘strength’ gives them the capacity to ‘soldier on’ long after a more nasty, intolerant, and weak person would have declared “I can’t take this anymore.”
Now, please don’t misunderstand me. There are countless situations where being nice is clearly merited. No one would argue that our world would be a much brighter, lighter space if we all made an effort to be nice to the new kid at school. Perfect context for being nice. Or, maybe at the grocery store … could we offer a frustrated parent (obviously embarrassed by “the little monster”) a compassionate smile instead of a scowl? Might we invite them to go ahead of us in line? Nice place for nice. Or, maybe we could choose to be nice with someone in our day to day interactions who doesn’t share our religious beliefs, ethnicity, sexual orientation or politics. Perhaps we could resist the temptation to make them wrong/less than? Maybe nice is especially critical here! You’ll get no argument from me about the virtue of being nice in these particular moments …
I’ve come to believe, however, that ascertaining whether human attributes are virtuous/noble OR reprehensible/undesirable is entirely dependent upon the context in which they are being expressed. A characteristic that may seem like a noble quality in one context may not be virtuous in another situation. For example, we all know many mothers who resist being ‘selfish’ because they believe ‘a good mom‘ always puts her children’s needs first. Unfortunately, this ‘selflessness’ may actually come at the expense of their children because empty, stressed and exhausted mothers are simply not great gifts to their families. There are times in life when being ‘selfish’ enough to put the needs of your children’s mother first is clearly the wisest and most loving thing to do for the children!
Along the same lines, there may be times when a loyal commitment to being ‘generous’ is counterproductive. Consider all the young people who have developed a debilitating false sense of entitlement because they have been given everything. These kids become demanding in their expectation that other people must take care of their every need, want and desire. In an effort to be generous, parents can actually rob their children of learning how to independently make their own way in the world. Too much generosity can undermine a person’s opportunity to build confidence in their own abilities and pride in their own accomplishments.
Paradoxically, there are also times when seemingly negative attributes like being ‘rude’ or ‘disrespectful’ might actually serve the greater good. In the presence of a bully, a ‘nice’ request for them to stop might fall on deaf ears. We might need to ‘rudely’ interrupt them in order to get their attention as soon as possible. Although many of us have be taught it is rude to interrupt … we all know there are things that should be interrupted. That said, many of us have been taught not to disrespect our laws, cultural norms or elders, but … thank goodness Rosa Parks dared to disrespect the segregation laws. I am equally grateful to all the women during The Suffrage Movement who bravely protested for gender equality and earned me the right to vote . If we are to be honest, we owe thanks to Jesus Christ, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and so many others for disrespecting the prevailing doctrine that dominated beliefs in their time. In the right context, disrespect may lead to great gains for humanity.
I could go on and on pointing out times when seemingly positive (light) human qualities may actually not serve the greater good … and … when apparently negative (dark) human characteristics could actually come bearing great gifts. As a result of doing the liberating shadow work inspired by my training with Debbie Ford, I am reluctant to agree with anyone (or any dogma) that suggests we should always be something. Rather, I would suggest that we should always make room in our lives to be everything. As Debbie explains in one of my favorite books of all time (The Dark Side of the Light Chasers):
We live under the impression that in order for something to be divine it has to be perfect. We are mistaken. In fact, the exact opposite is true. To be divine is to be whole and to be whole is to be everything: the positive and the negative, the good and the bad … (pp. 12-13)
If we can give ourselves permission to express both light and dark attributes (in the appropriate context) … we can embrace being whole humans! No one would contest that a whole day contains both light and dark. Even a whole atom contains both positive and negative electrons! If it is only positively charged … it is an unbalanced atom. If it is only negatively charged … it is also unstable. What if humans are no different? If we remain 100% committed to being ‘nice’ and light in all circumstances, might we lose our balance and stability too … ?
So many of us reject important aspects of ourselves by trying to only express the ‘right and good’ parts of humanity. We beat ourselves up mercilessly for even feeling anything perceived as ‘wrong and bad’. In doing so, are we losing our capacity to wisely discern which human attributes might actually serve the greater good in a particular context and which might not….? Maybe being nice isn’t always nice …
Maybe it’s not the attribute itself that defines the merit in any moment, but the intention behind it. As we have discussed, we can unwittingly use our perceived ‘good’ qualities to do harm … and … we can just as easily use our perceived ‘bad’ attributes to help. Maybe it’s just not as black and white as we have been led to believe … and maybe it doesn’t have to be!
I guess for me … the truth is … I don’t want to just be a nice human. I would rather be whole. How about you …?
Slowly learning to embrace it all, Karen