“If you don’t have something nice to say don’t say anything at all”
“Be nice to your sister”
“That’s not nice”
What’s the common word in these three statements?
You’re right! Nice answer.
It’s nice to be nice. But can you be too nice? In a word, “Yes”.
The danger in being excessively nice is that you run the risk of being inauthentic, dishonest, covert, manipulative, and feeling resentful. And that’s not nice. The dictionary defines nice” as: “agreeable, pleasant, satisfactory, and good-natured.”
There’s nothing wrong with that, except this one thing: If you’ve been brought up to hold “niceness” as a condition for others’ approval, you might get the idea that you need to be nice at all times, with all people and if you’re not, you risk losing your relationship. And if you feel obliged to fulfill this relationship requirement, chances are you’ll feel compelled to always fulfill that image, and there is something wrong with that. What’s wrong with it is a couple of things:
- It’s not you and
- It’s not possible
Other than that, no problem.
Needing to be nice and approval-seeking are two sides of the same coin. Social creatures that we are, we tend to favor acceptance over rejection, being liked rather than disliked, and getting along rather than fighting. The situation becomes a problem when weneed others approval in order to feel okay. This occurs when we are unable to generate sufficient self-trust and self-approval and we try to figure out other ways to “earn” it. For example we can excel in a certain activity or sport, get excellent grades in school, be funny and make people laugh, make lots of money, which of course proves that we’re smart and successful. If we don’t want to or fear that we can’t do any of these things, we can always do the one thing that we know that we can do: be nice!
Please note that this is not a criticism of niceness or of people who are kind, considerate, and conciliatory. Those are commendable qualities and we certainly could use more of them in the world. But there is a difference between choosingto be these things andhaving to be them.
When we feel that we need to be nice, we are motivated by the fear of the consequences of not fulfilling this mandate. Consequently we feel trapped, lest we at risk of jeopardizing the approval from others that we so strongly desire.
In effect, we are slaves not only to others’ approval, but to the identity that through our years of reinforcement we have taken on and absorbed like a sponge. By now, it should be becoming obvious exactly how and why this pattern can be problematic. In fact, it’s actually a set up for disaster if it isn’t interrupted.
When a relationship is based upon a condition that needs to be in place at all times, after a while-it could be a matter of weeks, months, years, or even decades- it inevitably breaks down. The reason for that is simple.
Living from a continual need to present an image to the world requires concealing aspects of ourselves from public scrutiny, aspects that are incongruent with that image. We all do this to some degree and when it is a preference, rather than a need, there’s no problem. We are free when we are not identified with the role and experience ourselves as being at choice in regard to how much of ourselves we reveal. Where it gets to be tricky is when we have become so identified with the role that we see it as who we are, and can’t allow ourselves to even be aware of aspects of ourselves that don’t fit our identity.
One of the main motivators in getting into committed partnerships is the hope that they will find someone who will accept them unconditionally for who they are, with whom they will no longer be required to play the game of approval-seeking, with whom they can finally be themselves, warts and all, and still be loved without fear of being left, punished, or judged.
You can’t accept something in someone that you can’t accept in yourself. Most of us have some aspects of ourselves that we haven’t unconditionally accepted. So it’s likely that our partner, who at first seemed to find everything about us sweet, adorable, and lovable, after a while will become somewhat less accepting. We may have also “co-incidentally” have found some not-so-nice aspects of them that have begun to concern us as well.
At this point we have a very important choice to make. We can redouble our efforts to be even nicer and try harder to provide evidence that we really are all those things or we can get honest with them about what else is in us. Then we can find out whether they can really love us, warts and all or whether they require us to continue to play the game.
The catch of course is that we have to be willing to accept them as they are too. Acceptance of someone does not mean tolerating bad or disrespectful behavior. It means acknowledging that they have feelings, tendencies, desires, and needs that they and or others may find undesirable. But then don’t we all?
It’s not until we recover from our addictions, whether it be to food, drugs, alcohol, work, sex, or approval that we can truly get on with the work of true self-acceptance. This process involves the cultivation of qualities like compassion, forgiveness, commitment, courage, patience, and discernment.