Maybe being nice isn’t always nice …

Be a nice human

Source Unknown

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:

  1. I would be understanding.
  2. I was compassionate and empathic enough to put their needs first.
  3. 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: Gloria Steinem 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 meritedNo 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 storecould 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 isI don’t want to just be a nice human.  I would rather be whole. How about you …?

Source Unknown

Source Unknown

Slowly learning to embrace it all,  Karen

11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Thomas Kevin Dolan
    Sep 17, 2013 @ 22:37:09

    Such a powerful piece! I love the examples, I love the humility & mostly I love that you espouse being the full spectrum of ones self. Brilliant! Thank you for the reminder to stop being nice all the time… your timing is impeccable.



    • Karen Lanser
      Sep 19, 2013 @ 10:42:03

      Thank you Thomas for your encouragement. It helps take the edge off the vulnerability I feel every time I put myself out there in such a transparent way. I’m so glad the timing was good for you … 🙂



  2. Joan Parker
    Sep 19, 2013 @ 19:57:29

    No argument from me! The more and more we embrace our authentic selves the more we are able to see the world for the beautiful and very colorful place it is. Very seldom is anything “black or white”. Sometimes the nicest thing to do is not be so nice.



  3. Marie
    Sep 20, 2013 @ 18:11:22

    So beautifully said Karen! I remember years ago, when I first met you, and I had mentioned how someone was so ‘nice’. Even way back then, you were pondering the concept of ‘niceness’ and what we make it mean and the expectations around it. Thank you for reminding me to step out of the stifling ‘niceness box’.



    • Karen Lanser
      Sep 21, 2013 @ 10:27:14

      For sure … I have been chewing on it for a while … it’s kind of liberating to flirt with these alternate possibilities, isn’t it? Thanks for sharing the ‘nice’ memories my friend … ♡♡



  4. Coach Cate
    Sep 26, 2013 @ 17:08:36

    Yes, Karen, sometimes it really is the best to be bitchy if that’s the honest response! Thanks for the reminder that along with my nice-ness is the polar opposite, always, and never to deny either.



    • Coach Cate
      Sep 26, 2013 @ 17:12:56

      As I sit with this for another millisecond, I am struck by something more… and it is that the intention for me is to reach a point where I can simply stand up for myself, my truth, somewhere in the middle of nice and bitch, and how I am perceived is none of my business. Yeah, that works.



      • Karen Lanser
        Sep 27, 2013 @ 09:33:59

        So true for me as well Cate. Intention is the key … helping or harming or healing can be all expressed as bitchy, nice or somewhere in between. Thanks for your thoughts … always adds another layer of juicy dialogue.


  5. deejohnn
    Jan 09, 2017 @ 16:57:28

    I guess tonight I’m being led to connect with certain truths that I so need to be aware of at this time in my life. Thank you for another great piece about unhealthy silence…and for the added bonus of “being nice” about it.
    I love this statement from your post: “I would suggest that we should always make room in our lives to be everything.”

    Liked by 1 person


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