Michael (not his real name) was a boy in grade five who was worried about his friends. At a school camp three months previously some things had happened that had left him feeling on the outer of his group. As exclusion and abandonment are our greatest fears, I was not surprised to hear that he had become increasingly sad, was struggling to fall asleep at night with sticky worries that he couldn’t turn off, was often feeling tired, and for the first time was not wanting to go to school. He also had told his mother once while angry and upset “No-one likes me anymore, not even you! I may as well be dead”.
His mother and father were understandably worried. Michael had seemed well liked by his peers, and teachers and other adults were glowing in their praise of him. His experience of being shunned by others was quite new.
I asked him why he thought it had happened. He couldn’t come up with anything that made any sense to him. “I’m still nice to them, but all they are to me is mean”. I asked his mother why she thought it may have happened, and her response was to agree with her son: “He is the nicest kid you could ever meet. I just don’t understand why they would reject him”.
Though Michael was sad, worried and angry (actively at himself, passively at others), he was not depressed, and did not have an anxiety disorder. In fact, not only did Michael not have any major mental health difficulties, he also had a lot of good stuff such as empathy, humour, initiative, intelligence, and the ability to have fun.
The main problem was that he was too nice, and nice guys finish last.
In fact not only was Michael too nice, but I discovered that so was his whole family: being nice was seen as not only a good thing, but what made you good.
If we define “being nice” as what you do to make someone else happy with you, then being too nice is a big problem because:
- Whether you feel good or not depends on the other person’s response.
- You reinforce your “false self” (the “you” that does what others want).
- You sacrifice your “true self” (the “you” that does what you want).
- The balance between being true enough and false enough is too far towards false, making you an empty shell; not a very attractive personality trait as you come across as someone who doesn’t value themselves and always values the other person more. Truly liking yourself is infinitely attractive.
- A too nice person usually finishes last, as you give up your own wishes and focus on the other person, seeing their happiness as more valuable than your own.
- It is deeply disappointing as you expect others to be nice back to you, and this usually doesn’t happen. The anger this produces is intense but unable to be expressed as being angry is not “nice” (makes others unhappy). So it is stuffed down inside, only coming out passively towards others, another serious relationship mistake, or becomes self-directed.
For Michael, friendships in early primary school were easy as being nice led him to be liked and valued. His “niceness” made other kids feel good, so they wanted to be with him. However, as he and his peers got older, what made for a good friend became more complicated. Doing what someone else wanted was seen as him being a “try hard”. Always going with another person’s suggestion was seen as being weak. And not having his own views and ideas was seen as him being boring.
Michael’s focus on keeping others happy by being nice was leading him to be devalued. Unfortunately, Michael’s “nice” approach to managing relationships was so entrenched that his response to this gradual exclusion was to try harder to please others, which only reinforced their sense of him not being valuable, disposable, and led to further exclusion. Michael’s anger increased, but being unable to express it he turned it on himself.
Michael was stuck.
Talking with Michael in therapy was going to have very little effect. His long-standing relationship pattern of being focussed on pleasing others (nice) would not likely change in a one-to-one therapy session with a therapist no matter how long it went on for. What he needed was hundred’s of real-life experiences of the antidote for “niceness”. And the group that was in the best position to give Michael that corrective experience was his family.
Donald Winnicott the grandfather of child psychiatry was pretty clear: don’t do something with a child that you can teach a parent to do. In view of this I met with Michael’s parents over a handful of sessions to get a united understanding and approach to Michael. His parents were remarkable, able to see their own blind spots when it came to niceness, and committed to their central role in helping Michael develop the antidote to being nice.
And the antidote to being nice is being kind.
Being kind is similar and yet very different to being nice. If “nice” is what you do to please someone else, “kind” is what you do because it is who you are. “Kind” comes from your true self, “nice” comes from your false self. Nice is measured from the other person’s response. Kind is a self-measure, your own opinion about what you think is best or helpful for the other person, whether the other person likes it or not.
It is kind to tell your partner they have not pleased you, as this openness may benefit you both, but it may not be nice to hear about it. It is kind to not give your child a second ice-cream, but it may not be nice to your child. If parenting is the gradual disappointment of children, then it is much better to be kind than nice. In fact the need to be nice may actually prevent you from confidently helping your child miss out, as you are too focussed on nicely giving them what they want rather than kindly giving them what they need.
Michael’s parents discussed that they rarely said anything that hurt the other partner, or felt bad if they did it. Yet they were also able to see how frustrated they were at not expressing their opinion, and disappointed that the other partner didn’t do the “nice” thing back. Once children came along, this pattern continued in their interactions as a whole family.
Over the next few sessions the parents began the hard work of initially being more kind with each other, and trying hard to not be nice: more true and less false. When we felt ready, we then started meeting as a family and playfully introduced the idea of the need for the whole family to be less nice. Less focussed on getting other’s approval, and more focussed on being real while still remaining kind.
Michael’s mother, younger sister and older brother found it the most easy to change and be less nice. And it was not Michael who had the most difficulty changing. The person who found it the hardest to not be nice was Michael’s father, and he and Michael were able to celebrate and commiserate their wins and losses as they tried to change together. Working as a whole family on being real and less concerned about the other person’s feelings was powerful, freeing, at times fun, and helped Michael feel he was not the only one who had the difficulties.
Over the remainder of the year Michael began to be more real with his friends, still remaining kind (a beautiful aspect of his personality), but being less worried about whether people thought him nice or not. He also felt less frustrated when others weren’t being nice to him as he accepted that like him, they didn’t need to be nice to others, just kind. And reports from the family suggested he began to be valued more as a friend as he was less an empty shell that would change to keep others happy, and more of a solid valuable person…a stronger more likeable self that was kind rather than nice.