“May I kiss you?”
It’s my first time meeting the small-framed older man asking me this question. I don’t even know his name, yet he’s looking directly into my eyes. I know I’m supposed to tell him “no,” but I’m feeling anxious and my face is beginning to flush.
“Um, uhhh… no? Thank you for taking care of yourself? Wait, that’s not right…”
I stumble over my words and proceed to giggle nervously.
Here’s some context: I’m at a consent workshop in Portland, Oregon. Participants are instructed to go up to a stranger and ask that person if you can kiss them. The stranger is supposed to respond “No,” to which the initial asker says, “Thank you for taking care of yourself.” Then, you switch roles.
I was supposed to tell the man, “No.” Just a simple no.
Many of us don’t like saying this word. It’s hard to let someone down. In this situation, I was surprised to witness my struggle to say no, even though that was technically the correct response.
This fear of saying no comes from a deeply rooted desire to avoid creating conflict or hurting or disappointing others. From the time we are children, we are taught to be polite. “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” We are trained to accommodate others and keep the peace. Women are told to smile even when we don’t want to and to dress appropriately (modestly) so that others approve of us.
Unfortunately, I’m really good at being nice.
It’s one of the most common “compliments” I receive. I’ve been called “the nicest person in the world” and “the nicest person I’ve ever met” by well-meaning acquaintances. I used to take pride in this, thinking that it was a good reflection on my character.
Well, after 26 years, I’ve realized that being “nice” is not all it’s cracked up to be.
Here’s how I came to discover the dark side of making Santa’s Nice List every year and why, this Christmas, I’m making a break for the Naughty List.
Why it’s not nice to be nice
My exploration of the downside of niceness started with a book. As I was browsing my Kindle Unlimited reading options, I stumbled upon Not Nice: Stop People Pleasing, Staying Silent, & Feeling Guilty… And Start Speaking Up, Saying No, Asking Boldly, And Unapologetically Being Yourself by Dr. Aziz Gazipura.
The title intrigued me. Can’t I be nice AND unapologetically myself? What’s wrong with being nice, anyway? I opted to give the book a try.
Within the first chapter, Dr. Gazipura makes the bold claim that being nice is detrimental to living an authentic, empowered life. Being nice, he argues, doesn’t come from inner goodness or high morals. It comes from fear. Self-identified “nice” people would rather be agreeable and keep harmony than risk creating conflict, displeasing others, or failing at something… even if it means disempowering themselves again and again.
I was already well aware of my tendency to go out of my way to please others, so it didn’t take long for me to resonate with Dr. Gazipura’s message. I could easily call to mind times I’d stifled my voice & given up my own satisfaction to let others get their way. From situations as insignificant as choosing a place to eat to as personal as expressing my deepest desires, I’ve avoided speaking up in order to be “chill” and “go with the flow.” I usually think I don’t mind doing this. It feels like a small sacrifice to make to keep harmony, but Dr. Gazipura’s reframing of niceness helped me see this for what it is: a sneaky way for my subconscious to avoid the discomfort of confrontation and rocking the boat.
As I discovered during the consent workshop, I’ve struggled to say “no” and set proper boundaries. I would take on burdens that weren’t mine to bear, including making myself wholly responsible for the well being of others. In romantic relationships, I didn’t give my partners enough credit for being able to handle the aspects of me that I thought might hurt or disappoint them. So I would stay silent about things that were important to me and even try to change myself to fit what partners wanted me to be. In one case, this approach backfired spectacularly when my self-denial led to a heart-wrenching breakup that blindsided my partner and left me feeling guilty for years. The reality is, I was never (and should never have been) responsible for someone else’s feelings. It would have been kinder to speak my truth early on, rather than please my partner at my own expense and, ultimately, the expense of our relationship.
As I’ve read and reflected, it’s become increasingly clear that being nice is, ironically, not so nice. In fact, it’s pretty selfish. By self-sacrificing and people-pleasing to keep harmony, I avoided the short-term discomfort of asserting myself. This caused long-term harm to my relationships because it meant showing up less authentically for the people in my life to know the real me.
And then it hit me that I shouldn’t strive to be nice… I should strive to be kind.
The opposite of nice
The definition of “nice” at Dictionary.com includes “pleasing,” “agreeable,” “amiably pleasant,” “refined in manners, language, etc.” and “suitable or proper.” Merriam-Webster adds in “socially acceptable” and “polite.”
Kindness, on the other hand, is more closely related to benevolence and compassion.
A kind person takes responsibility for self-care and is genuinely interested in the well being of others. A nice person is more concerned with being liked. A kind person acts out of love, whereas a nice person’s actions are rooted in the need for approval or validation.
Being nice had been a part of my identity. Finally, I understood the truth.
Nice Tayler wasn’t the REAL Tayler. Nice Tayler was the watered-down, people-pleasing version of myself. Nice Tayler wasn’t honest with herself or others about her feelings. And Real Tayler had so often lived in Nice Tayler’s shadows that I struggled to distinguish my true desires from what others wanted from me.
The opposite of being nice, according to Dr. Gazipura, is “being real. It’s being direct, honest, and truthful. It’s saying what you really think, expressing how you really feel, and sharing what’s true for you in that moment… the opposite of nice is knowing who you are, what you believe in, and what you value. It’s you being powerful and going after what you want because you are no longer held back by the fear of what others will think of you. It’s you being fierce, determined, courageous. It’s you being your best self.”
Once I understood the difference between being nice and being true to myself, I envisioned in what ways my life might look different if I could let go of fear. I challenged myself to answer some deep personal questions: What would I do and how would I feel if I wasn’t afraid of others’ opinions? What would I be free to pursue if I could learn to say no without guilt or fear? What could I learn and accomplish if I knew it was OK to fail? What opportunities would come my way if I could confidently ask for what I want?
Nice Tayler couldn’t say no to the man at the consent workshop. Real Tayler would stand boldly in the face of discomfort and assert myself kindly, authentically, and courageously.
It’s taking a lot of practice, but I’m learning to give myself permission to decline the things that don’t move me toward my best life, and pursue those that do. I’m learning to put myself first and ensure my own needs get met before trying to meet the needs of others. Instead of always asking others what they want, I’ve been practicing checking in with myself first by asking: What do I want in this situation? What is my inner wisdom telling me should happen? To many, this might seem simple; however, my fellow recovering people pleasers understand how challenging this is for those that are used to putting themselves last.
Now, when I set intentions for my day or week, I never focus on how to be a nicer person. Instead, I ask: How can I be more bold, direct, authentic, and empowered? How can I be true to myself today? What can I do that will put me unapologetically on Santa’s Naughty List?