My therapist once told me that being nice was overrated. It took me awhile but I ultimately saw the light and I’ve given up being nice, thinking about being nice, or even caring whether I am nice or not. Nice has become irrelevant to me.
Kindness, though, is a different matter. Kindness is very important.
On the surface, kind and nice are similar. Kind people avoid being cruel, say kind things, do not shame or dismiss or humiliate other people purposefully. Those seem like “nice” behaviours too. I see a lot of “nice” people in my psychotherapy practice. They are also very unhappy.
Kind and nice might look alike, but the sources are different. The foundation of niceness is what other people think of you. The foundation of kindness is compassion.
“Be nice” always means to be mindful of how other people are perceiving you. Don’t do anything that might disturb, and, in fact, if you can do something that influences someone to think that you are a nice person, that’s even better. Being “nice” includes using manners that you have been trained to use, adding value to conversation, using praise or compliments to make other people feel good, and doing things for other people.
Niceness, however, can go beyond these behaviours to include putting yourself out for people, trying to get inside another person’s head to fix how they are feeling or how they are thinking, extending yourself even to your own detriment in order to “help” someone else or to “make them feel better.” It can move into ignoring truths that are obvious but that would create conflict or distress if named. There may be lying involved. Often the nicest people are the most conflict averse.
Additionally, people who are extremely “nice” may operate under an unspoken assumption of give-and-take. That is, I do so much for you, why can’t you do what I want you to? When do I get to have someone bend over backward for me? This is a recipe for huge resentment in relationships.
Sarah is very nice
Sarah, a very nice woman, brings baked goods to the office weekly. When it is a birthday, she is always the one who remembers and collects money for a gift. She routinely compliments her co-workers on their attire. She is always smiling and cheerful. She is very nice. She has an internal compass for this way of interacting: if other people are happy, then I am happy, she says with a smile.
At home she works hard to maintain the happiness of her teenage children and her husband. The kids do not talk much, except to point out that their laundry isn’t done or that their favorite snacks are not available. Her spouse is busy with his career and plays sports three nights a week. Sarah would like to have more couple time with her spouse and she misses the family time that they all had when the children were small, but she recognizes that things change. She fills the refrigerator, throws laundry into the machine, goes to parent-teacher meetings, walks the dog and ruminates on how tired she is and how little she gets for all the effort she makes for other people. Sarah occasionally screams at her family for not appreciating what she does for them, then collapses in guilty tears. They apologize and remember for a day but then things go back to the usual. Sarah goes to therapy and says “Don’t I deserve something for me? I do everything for them.” Despite her stated belief (if you’re happy then I’m happy) the happiness of her family is not a sufficient condition for her own happiness.
What has happened here? Sarah is very nice. She wants to be seen as a good employee, good co-worker, good mother, good spouse, and to feel like she is okay in those areas, she focuses on how other people see her. She wants them to be happy with her (happy WITH her, not along with her but because of her behaviour). She looks for approval by doing nice things. She states that her value in life is to keep other people happy. But this is clearly not true because she is so miserable herself.
Sarah is miserable
Sarah is missing an important component: herself. And by missing herself, she is missing good opportunities to be truly connected with her family. Because she is willing to subsume her needs to get approval, she behaves as if she both has no needs and as if she is omniscient about other peoples’ needs and omnipotent to meet those needs.
This results in a major paradox. A person who denies her own needs in order to meet other peoples’ needs, but also acts as if she can know the inner space of a person and, moreover, meet the needs that she thinks she discerns there, this person is simultaneously unimportant (I have no needs) and all powerful (but I know your needs and I can fill them).
And NICE. She is just so darn nice. Too bad she is miserable while trying to keep everyone else happy.
What is her alternative? What can Sarah do?
Kindness is grounded in compassion; a compassionate stance breeds kind behaviour. The spotlight of compassion for the human condition will include ourselves in that illumination. This sounds like another paradox but it isn’t; we need to attend to ourselves in order to hold a kind and compassionate space for others. If we can acknowledge that everyone has needs, then we are not “needy” or “weak” or “bad” for having them. That’s a big shift toward compassion.
Sarah is unhappy because she’s not getting some things that she genuinely needs. She has trouble acknowledging that she has needs, and she feels “needy” and “weak” when she is pressed to acknowledge them. She would prefer to be the one that helps everyone else. However, it just isn’t working. When Sarah can view her own needs with compassion, she can ease back on the demand to do everything for everyone, and have some energy to meet her own needs. That will help her let go of resentment and make room for kindness.
Making a shift, step by step
Sarah can shift from being nice to being kind. Instead of focusing on how she is seen by others in the hope that they will magically arise and meet her needs, she can begin to attend to her own needs. This requires a friendly, curious objectivity turned inward. Giving herself this kind of attention will be uncomfortable at first, but it leads to a compassionate attention that generates kindness.
Sarah can do these steps, and so can you. Try the following to increase your compassion and capacity for kindness.
Step 1: Acknowledge your needs.
Take a moment to check in with yourself. How does my body feel right now? What parts am I aware of? What do I need in this moment? Can I give myself a little of what I need?
Needs do not have to be big psychological phenomena. In fact, this exercise works best if you start with concrete and physical needs. Are you tired? Hungry? Need to pee? These are legitimate human needs that arise everyday for everyone. Can you allow yourself to meet that need? If not now, then when?
While checking in on your needs, keep it simple. Just check on your body sensations, your emotion labels, and see if you can stay out of the storyline that arises with those needs. Just for now, try to stay with curious, friendly, compassionate observation.
What if you need a hug? Companionship? Some other thing that cannot be acquired immediately? It is often helpful to simply acknowledge the need and put it on a list. Imagine that your need is a small child who has to wait: they might not like it, but they probably can wait awhile, but not forever. Like a small child, your need has to learn to trust that you will not forget it. So even if you feel better later, check to make sure that your need has been met.
While feeling full of needs, also check on your inner dialogue. Can I be kind to myself in this moment? What would be a kindness for this struggling self? If you have a lifetime pattern of dismissing or negating your needs, watch for that pattern. See if you can notice it without judgment. Oh, that’s my pattern, but right now I am not dismissing, I am paying attention.
Step 2: Shine the light of compassion on yourself and your needs.
Compassion for your own inner self, full of needs and wants, feelings and thoughts, and the experience of having your needs taken seriously and met, at least part of the time, can free up a lot of energy to bring kindness into the world. If you want to be kind to other people, you start by being kind to yourself. Then you can take it on the road, so to speak. When you start being consistently kind to yourself, your kindness will flow toward other people, too.
Kindness isn’t indulgence or softness or letting people get away with things. I think of a good mama who encourages and supports but who also makes sure you get enough sleep and eat right. That good mama will also tell you like it is: she won’t let you deceive yourself in order to keep peace (or be “nice.”) Good mama knows that kindness is often very firm, very structured, and offers space for change. The kindness of the good mama is clear-seeing, boundary-maintaining truth, judiciously applied.
With self-compassion, you can be your own “good mama.” With awareness of your own needs and ways to meet them, you will no longer feel the need to influence how other people see you. The desire to appear “nice” falls away. No longer tied to imagining what other people think about you, you taste the freedom to choose how you want to be in the world. Instead you are free to offer your kindness from compassion for the human condition.
Step 3: Bring your compassionate light to the world of other people.
Stopping being “nice” isn’t easy. People can become cranky when you stop doing too much for them. Consider Sarah, who does many things to be nice for her teenage kids. She does their laundry, buys their favorite snacks, cooks meals and cleans up, and, even though she lies to her therapist about it, cleans their rooms for them, too. Imagine if you had someone who did all of that for you and one day, she stopped. You might be cranky too.
Of course Sarah has been cranky about it for years but only because she understood her role to be that of the nice mama. Instead, now she is becoming good mama (kind mama). Teenage children who are unable to feed themselves or do their own laundry are missing some important skills. The kind thing might be to help them learn how to do tasks of self-care and to give them the opportunity to practice. Sarah might even consider letting them practice kindness by sharing the chores around the family. Learning skills and then using your skills to support your social group (family or other) are important parts of the process of growing up.
Nota bene: don’t start at the end!
Sarah might decide that she is just going to take care of her own needs and furiously tells the children that they have to do for themselves. If Sarah starts at Step 3, things are going to fall apart and she’ll be back in the same miserable place in short order. The kids are going to object, she is going to fret about how they see her (“so mean!”) and nothing will change. If, however, Sarah does her work of checking in with her own needs, practicing meeting her needs as best she can, holding herself and her needs in the glow of curious, friendly compassion, then she will be ready to make a change at home. It won’t be as a result of her feeling resentful and overworked, but because she is a clear-seeing, boundary-maintaining mama who wants her children to be supported and also have skills to meet their own needs.
Being nice doesn’t work for most of us because it represents a desire for approval from others. Niceness is grounded in looking like a good person; kindness is grounded in authentic compassion for the human condition, and starts within the self. Shifting gears from a focus on niceness to a focus on kindness requires kind attention to one’s own needs and taking responsibility to meet them.
The three steps to making the big shift from NICE to KIND are these:
1. Acknowledge your needs. Drop the story about other people and just focus on your inner experience.
2. Shine the light of compassion on yourself and your needs. See what steps you can take to meet your needs (remembering the “good mama”).
3. Bring your compassionate light to the world of other people, and treat them kindly. This includes respect for them as sovereign persons, acknowledgement of them as humans with needs, and awareness of yourself as no more or less needy or vulnerable or powerful than them.
Are you nice? Are you TOO nice? See if acknowledging your own needs changes things and lets you become a kinder, not nicer, person.