The Price of Nice

What's so bad about being nice? If we're determined to be "nice" at all costs, then something's wrong--with us.  In a previous post I wrote about the "Inauthentic Niceness Syndrome." In this post, I'll discuss our sincerity in trying to be nice--but to the detriment of our own emotional well-being. I was raised on the ethos of niceness. "Be nice," was a mantra in my family, in our LDS culture, and in our societal expectations of girls and women. I learned my lessons well. I was nice---no matter what. When other women were rude to me, I smiled rather than confront them directly. (But like most--if not all--women, I figured out other indirect ways to "voice" my displeasure.) My "niceness" came at a very high cost; I wasn't true to my own self. Now, I'm recovering from people-pleasing compulsions.  It hasn't been easy. I'm forever reminding myself that it's okay not to be "nice" while being mistreated. Divine intervention has also helped me in this quest: As a college instructor, my job is to evaluate students, not please them. I'm in an environment where I will never be able to please every student. Not all of them will like me. And that's okay. Not everyone has to like me. Dr. Harriet Braiker defines the dangers and pitfalls of the "Niceness Syndrome":

People-pleasers whose distorted thinking is the predominant cause of their syndrome  are ensnared in burdensome and self-defeating mindsets that perpetuate their disease to please problems. [You are] driven by a fixed thought that you need and must strive for everyone to like you. You measure your self-esteem and define your identity by how much you do for others whose needs, you insist, MUST come before your own. You believe that being nice will protect you from rejection and other hurtful treatment from others. And while you impose demanding rules, harsh criticism, and perfectionistic expectations on yourself, you simultaneously yearn for universal acceptance. In short, you have thought your way into the problem and, to a significant extent, you will need to think your way to recovery (The Disease to Please, 2001, p. 6).

I had to learn that no matter how much I tried to be nice and to please others, I would not automatically be rewarded with niceness in return.  And I had to stop feeling betrayed when others didn't acknowledge my super-human efforts in the name of niceness. (As I re-read my last two sentences, I make this self-recognition sound effortless. It was so NOT easy...and took me years to recognize and understand my mindset.) On the extremely rare occasion when I directly vocally voiced my frustration at a woman, I felt empowered and relieved. But there's still the uncomfortable aftermath to deal with if the association with the other person continues.

Artist Unknown

Gradually, I also came to realize that my fear of angry people was tied into my people-pleasing mindset. Dr. Braiker further elaborates:

People-pleasers syndrome is primarily caused by the avoidance of frightening and uncomfortable feelings. You will recognize the high anxiety that merely the anticipation or possibility of an angry confrontation with others evokes. Your disease to please syndrome operates primarily as an avoidance tactic intended to protect you from your fears of anger, conflict, and confrontation. As you already may know, the tactic is faulty. Your fears not only fail to diminish, they even intensify, as the avoidance patterns persist. Because you avoid difficult emotions, you never allow yourself to learn how to effectively manage conflict or how to deal appropriately with angry [people].  As a consequence, you relinquish control too easily to those who would dominate you through intimidation and manipulation (p. 6).

That last line personifies the "old me" perfectly. The desire to please can paralyze us to the point that we allow others to verbally abuse and devalue us. By the same token, our refusal to talk openly to those who (intentionally or unintentionally) hurt and abuse us serves to undermine and even end our relationships.

The Hidden Costs of People-Pleasing

Dr. Braiker uncovers the ironies of this syndrome:

People pleasing is an odd problem. At first glance, it may not even seem like a problem at all. In fact, the phrase "people-pleaser" might feel more like a compliment or a flattering self-description that you proudly wear as a badge of honor. After all, what's wrong with trying to make others happy? Shouldn't we all strive to please the people we love and even those we just like a lot? Surely the world would be a happier place if there were more people-pleasers....wouldn't it? [However] your emotional tuning dials are jammed on the frequency of what you believe other people want or expect of turn a deaf ear to your own inner voice....trying to protect you from overextending yourself and from operating against your own self-interests. Your self-esteem is all tied up with how successful you are at pleasing others. Fulfilling the needs of others becomes the magic formula for gaining love and self-worth and  protection from abandonment and rejection. But in reality, it's a formula that simply doesn't work.  People-pleasers become deeply attached to seeing themselves--and to being certain that others see them---as NICE people. Their very identity derives from this image of niceness. And, while they may believe that being nice protects them from unpleasant situations with friends and family, in actuality,the price they pay is still far too high. The more you identify with being nice, instead of being real, the more you will find yourself plagued by nagging doubts, insecurities, and lingering fears (p. 8-9).

Dr. Braiker also points out that in our niceness, other people often manipulate and exploit our willingness to please them. I learned that keeping up my facade of "niceness at all costs" prevented me from showing my true feelings, my anger, frustration, and indignation when I felt mistreated by friends, co-workers, family, and even strangers. Surely, I got some sort of pay-off when I let others (intentionally or unintentionally) mistreat me; I got to be "the nice one." (Big deal. I'd rather have my self-respect!)

Artist: Thomas Cooper Kotch

For the rest of my life, my knee-jerk response will probably always be to adapt and to please others who intimidate me. But I've learned how to consistently stand up for myself. I've totally freed myself from this burden because I've retrained my thoughts, my feelings, and ultimately my behavior. All it takes is one thought at a time to generate progress. As we celebrate our little victories over our thoughts and then our feelings, we become more powerful. We become the guardians of our own destiny.

There's hope for the cure!


The title of this post comes from a chapter title of Harriet Braiker's book, The Disease to Please.