When Niceness Isn’t Nice

I recently did something that wasn’t very nice. And I did it on purpose. And I did it publicly. It was in response to something that other people did publicly that also wasn’t very nice. As the dust has settled I have owed a few people apologies, which have been given. And I am also grateful for the gracious apologies that I have received.

And while I do think that I could have made a better choice than matching shame with shame (and I plan to do better in the future), I do not feel bad for standing up for myself and others. Not one bit. Even though it was culturally shocking. And even though some people will write off my perspective entirely because I wasn’t “nice.”

This entire episode has gotten me to thinking about niceness. Actually, niceness is something that I have been thinking about for a while now.

Niceness and Cultural Conditioning

I am a woman. I have grown up in an LDS faith tradition where it has been drilled into me that one of the main things that I–and all women–should be in this world is “nice.” I could exhaust myself providing examples of how this manifests at church, in social interactions, in family dynamics, and in unspoken expectations, but I want to write about other things and so you’ll just have to trust me on this one. And I know LDS women are not alone in this.

For most of my adulthood, I have been spinning my wheels trying to be a very nice woman who always sacrifices her own needs, who doesn’t speak up for herself if it means making waves, who allows herself to be talked over, who over-performs and doesn’t say anything when other people fail to meet their obligations, and who is therefore considered by those in her circles to be “awesome.” And there’s the payoff, right? Because it feels good to be regularly praised as someone who is “awesome.” And as long as I kept being nice in this way, I could continue to be worthy and needed and celebrated.

Trading Niceness for Wellness

But luckily, thanks to a loving and perceptive husband who saw that I was suffering and gave me ample support and space to figure things out (and also thanks to some hard work in therapy), over time I was able to see that the way that I was interacting with the world was quite literally killing me. My “niceness” had become harmful to my emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical health. When I was giving, it was not from a place of abundance, it was from lack, and I was becoming more and more depleted.

I’ve been working hard for several years to make changes. All kinds of changes, big and small. It has been a profound journey of healing and renewal. Amazing people have manifested in my life bringing abundant, positive energy exactly when they were needed. I have benefited, and am still benefiting, from healers of all kinds who have helped me eliminate the various kinds of cancers, physical and otherwise, that had taken root in my life.

Not Everyone Will Be There for That

And while for the most part I have had incredible support, not everyone has liked my changes, especially those who benefitted in some way from how things were before, and who were threatened when I began to challenge certain dynamics. Some people have strongly resisted when I have set boundaries, and in some cases I have been treated with hostility and rejected. As I have chosen to walk away from toxic situations and systems, there are those that have labeled me as broken, and others who have tried to appear magnanimous by talking about me in pitying ways. I tell you this simply to illustrate that my journey to health and wholeness hasn’t been easy or entirely joyful, and it shouldn’t surprise you if yours isn’t either. I have lost friends. But I have come to realize that if a friendship requires me to be in trauma in order for it to function, it has ceased to function as a friendship.

Needless to say, after going through all of that, I am no longer a woman who is willing to sacrifice myself on the altar of “niceness.” Which can get you into trouble on social media if you’re not careful.

I have recently had two friends come to me for advice after having had high stakes interactions with people in their lives. In both instances, the primary concern of both women was not whether they had expressed themselves effectively, honestly, courageously, or authentically–but whether or not they had been perceived as “nice.” I pointed this out to both of them, with the suggestion that maybe nice was not what was needed in that moment. Maybe that moment required boldness. Or honor. Or wisdom. Or clarity. Or strength. Women have an entire palette of virtues that we can use to respond to the needs of our lives.

When Being Nice Isn’t Nice

And, there are situations in which being “nice” simply isn’t nice. That’s right ladies and gentlemen, I have discovered that sometimes being nice is the wrong, less moral answer. Here are some examples:

01 Someone is being demeaned, oppressed, or abused

I have been in situations, online or otherwise, where I have witnessed demeaning, disrespectful, bullying, or even abusive comments from one person to another and I am ashamed to say I stood by and said nothing. After all, I didn’t want that energy turned in my direction. And also, I didn’t want to risk tainting my own reputation by getting tangled in the fray. However, I have begun to realize at a deep level that this attitude is born out of my privilege, and I am trying to examine when being “nice” is actually being complicit.

02 Your actions/words are codependent

Oh hello fellow rescuers and pathological givers. (If you are unfamiliar with what a codependent relationship looks like, read this.) It is so hard to give up codependent tendencies because you think you are helping, which we have been taught again and again is the right answer! And it is so delicious to be needed. So if this resonates for you, I get it. I had to do a lot of work in this space. But if your “niceness” is allowing someone else to wallow in their addiction, mental health issues, immaturity, irresponsibility, narcissism, misogyny, or underachievement–well that’s not actually very nice.

03 When you have a duty to manage boundaries and don’t

I sometimes struggled with managing boundaries as a leader because, as my therapist put it, I wanted to be “hygge to the world.” (Click here if you want to know what hygge means.) If there are boundaries to be managed and it is your job to do it, but you don’t because you can’t manage boundaries AND be nice, once again, that’s not actually nice. Leadership can be uncomfortable and the weight of it can feel very heavy. But whether you are moderating a panel, running a meeting, teaching a class, leading an organization, or any other situation where you might have a duty to protect safe space and you fail to do so in the name of “niceness”–you have traded someone else’s suffering for your own comfort.

04 When by being “nice” you are not respecting yourself

We teach other people how to treat us. It is crucially important that we respect ourselves enough to teach other people to treat us with dignity. I have found that this might mean calling people out when they interrupt, holding my family accountable for household chores, or reminding my children that whining and backtalk are unacceptable. It has meant speaking up when people have been unknowingly offensive, refusing to be in active denial when I am being mistreated, and holding steady with boundary crashers. None of these things will win you any prizes for being nice. But what they will do is model for your daughters and your sons and your friends and co-workers what it looks like when someone has self-respect, and, hopefully, it will empower them to go out and claim it for themselves.

Untangled Abundance

So I guess you could say that I’ve done a lot of work over the last few years to become a less nice person. Or at least to untangle what it means to be a nice person from what was actually toxic positivity, poisonous perfectionism, and trauma-inducing codependent patterns. I haven’t landed in a place where I have it all figured out yet, and clearly I’m still making mistakes as I go, but where there was once heaviness and pain, now there is lightness and strength. Where once I was operating from a place of mental and emotional scarcity, now there is abundance. And you know what?

It feels really nice.

For more about my journey, check out Covid, Cancer, and Liminal Space.