Saturday, September 28, 2013

You're too nice!

I knew she was going to go there before she actually said it.  I've heard it enough that I could even anticipate that's what she was gearing up to say.  "Thanks so much for your help, Auto," my colleague said.  "I really appreciate it."

"It's not a problem at all," I said.  And it wasn't.  Genuinely.  It wasn't at all a problem.

"You're just so nice...and calm...and helpful...and...I mean, if I had to pick someone to be my therapist, I would pick you.  You're always so calm and nice and patient."

"Seriously," I said, "it's not an issue.  I remember how confused I was when I first started, and I know what would have been helpful for me then.  Just trying to pass it along."

"I know," she said, "but still.  You're TOO nice.  I bet you've heard that a lot, haven't you?  You're too nice."

And I wish she hadn't said that.  Too nice.  The phrase makes me want to punch something.  I'm not kidding.

She even followed up with exactly what most people follow this up with: "have you ever been angry?  I can't imagine you angry.  Do you get angry?"

This one just makes me laugh.

See, my colleague was right about one thing: I HAVE heard that phrase a lot.  I have been told for as long as I can remember that this is what I am -- too nice. 

Maybe I am, what do I know.  Maybe I'm too nice.  Maybe I need to practice being meaner, or bitchier, or more assertive, or whatever is the opposite of "too nice."  It's possible.  I don't agree with the terminology, but it's possible. 

(Full disclosure: I'm not entirely sure where this is going, but it's making me ridiculously anxious.  This "too nice" thing is a big deal.  No fluffy post tonight, k?)

As women -- and before that as girls -- we are (generally) socialized to be nice.  We are (generally) socialized to be pleasers.  We are (generally) socialized to put others' needs before our own.  We are (generally) socialized to go above and beyond in our niceness.  The nicer we are, the more feminine we are, the more we are succeeding in our womanhood.  At least, that's the message I got.  Because I wasn't just supposed to be nice: I was supposed to be perfectly nice.  No matter what.  I was not supposed to argue with my sisters, or be angry, or be upset...I was supposed to be nice, and I was supposed to grow up being nicer and nicer at all times, until I met a nice man and fell in love and had a couple nice children that I raised very nicely. 

And you know what?  I hope those things happen, but I want them to happen differently.  I want to be a good, strong woman who meets a man who loves her.  I want to have a couple children who are kind and healthy and strong, and I want to raise them in the best way I know how.  But I don't want them to be nice.  I don't want to be nice.  Not if "nice" means what I have come to understand it as meaning.

When I was in 2nd grade, I was being bullied by a group of girls.  When my mom talked to the teacher, she was told that the problem was that I was "too nice," which made me a "target."  The problem didn't stop.  I wasn't taught to be or encouraged to be more assertive.  I was encouraged to keep being nice.  It became part of my identity.  It had to.  How else could I possibly understand why I was being bullied, or how I should handle it?  The only explanation I had ever gotten was that I was "too nice" (which was a good thing), and the only cure was to continue being nice.  I was like a little nice time-bomb.

This story played itself out again and again in middle and high school.  I tried to be "mean" or "assertive" on several occasions, but it generally didn't work.  I couldn't be "mean" or "assertive."  I
was too nice, remember?  Mean or assertive was laughed off.  (Until that one time when I was in 10th grade when I turned into a mean, assertive teenager for all of about 2 minutes.  Then everybody left me alone for a bit.  But that's a story for another time). 

I heard that I was "too nice" throughout college, too.  People always wanted me to "be mean" or "be bad" or break rules to prove that I could do it.  And the truth was, I was too nice in college.  I routinely said "yes" when I wanted to say "no."  I agreed to do things that I didn't have the time or the energy to do, just because I couldn't refuse to do it.  I was the epitome of a "pleaser."  I was "too nice," I knew that I was "too nice," and I was proud of it.  Being too nice was a good thing, in my book.  Being too nice, and maintaining that too nice attitude was something of an achievement.  Every time I heard that I was too nice, my head swelled into a little too nice ball of doing-too-much-attempting-to-please-everyone-24/7. 

My senior year of college, though, that started to change.  It was a rough year.  A really rough year.  I lost two grandparents and my dog that year, and saw multiple family members through serious and life-threatening hospitalizations.  I simply had to learn how to say "no."  I could no longer be the person that just listened and played the role of the nice cheerleader.  I needed friends that I could lean on--and I found them.  And I learned how to let the others go.  There just wasn't time or the energy to be "too nice" anymore.  For the first time, with family and with friends, I learned that I could ask for things, too.  I learned that I could be a real 3-dimensional person with feelings beyond "nice."  I learned how to draw some necessary boundaries.

But, come the time that I entered grad school, I was quickly pegged as the person in the cohort who was "too nice."  Teachers wanted to change me, telling me I had to "find my voice."  (This lasted about two quarters before I wrote a scathing journal entry for my multicultural class in which I told my professor that if she thought I had not found my voice, then she wasn't listening in the right way, and I told her all of the reasons why.  She listened after that -- and she never told me I was "too nice" or that I had to "find my voice" ever again).  I learned to be active in making my voice heard and known, and most importantly, I learned that I am not "too nice."  I have a different voice.  I come to this life in a different way.  I hold a different perspective and a different way of thinking -- a way that is not better or inferior -- just different.  It is a way of kindness, but it is also an assertive way.  Just ask that teacher I challenged.

My cohort, however, held onto the idea that I was "too nice."  When I refused to be boxed into that mold, I lost friends.  When I also refused to go down the road of behavior that did not fit with who I am, I lost other friends.  To put it mildly, it SUCKED.  It was downright awful.  But I made my decisions based on what I felt was the right thing to do, not what was the "nice" thing to do.  As a result, those decisions are still decisions I can stand by.

Then, though, shit happened.  People who thought I was "too nice" and who thought they "knew what I needed," but was too "nice" to actually get, acted in ways that led to me getting hurt.  Just like when I was in second grade, the perception of being "too nice" was perceived as a target, and they hit me (metaphorically).  When you are "too nice," you see, no one expects you to say "no."  You're not supposed to say no.  And when you DO say no, it's not supposed to mean anything.  When you're "too nice" and you do say no, there is this misconception that it's okay to ride over that "no."  It's okay for other people -- the ones who aren't too nice -- to say yes over your no. 

The other thing is that when people misinterpret you as being "too nice,"...and then they realize that you're not "too nice," drop from "too nice" to "bitch" in a hot second.  I'd rather be the bitch than be too nice, if I had to choose.  And angry?  Dear lord, if only my poor colleague KNEW how angry I have been.  Anger and I have it out with one another sometimes, probably more often than you would expect.

But even with all of that, I didn't fall into people pleasing and over committing and blowing things over.  To the extent that I was able, I sought accountability.  I used my voice.  I did what I believed to be right, to the extent that I was able, when I was able.  I did things I never thought I would have been able to do. 

Although there are few who know the full story, I hang a good chunk of who I am on the belief that I am strong, and I am a fighter, and on the fact that I know that I can and will do what is just and right.  I  strive to be kind, and I know that I am patient and gentle and quiet.  For some reason, I appear to most people to be very calm (I'm not always, but I get that feedback a lot).  I know that I have a firm sense of my voice, and I know how to wield it wisely.  I can be angry, and I can be bitchy.  I try to live my life compassionately.

But I'm not nice.  I don't want to be nice.  Nice is not a compliment.  I will be known as many things, but I do not ever want to be known as "nice."  Let's teach our girls to be things other than "nice."  Let's
compliment other women on factors other than their niceness.  Let's compliment them on being compassionate.  Let's praise others for being smart, and strong, and assertive, and kind.  Let's take the word "too" out of our vocabulary, and let's allow others to be a smart and as kind and as assertive as they are.  Let's allow ourselves to be as sensitive, or bitchy, or smart, or kind as we are.  Let's do more than allow it.  Let's celebrate it.

Is there something you have been told (or something you are told) that you never want to hear again?  What is it?  Why do you never want to hear that phrase?


  1. "I strive to be kind, and I know that I am patient and gentle and quiet." I like these words much better. And all the other words you used instead of nice. You're not too nice. You're just perfect the way you are .... not that you're perfect, thank the Goddess. How boring would that be?

    1. I'm not perfect. I'm also not too nice. Maybe it's time for me to write another "I am" poem. It's been a few years.