Why the hell do I manage to be nice ALL THE TIME (in caps, meaning I’m mad) to people who don’t deserve it?
-Steaming in Silence
You are nice to people who don’t deserve it because somewhere along the way the world impressed upon you that it is dangerous to be otherwise. The trail markers that once told your baby brain which way to turn said in paint on tree trunks in a forest that might otherwise have been too wild: this is the path toward safety. Keep your limbs inside the boundaries at all times.
It’s not a failure that you followed those instructions. Evolutionarily, it’s a success. But it does mean that instead of venturing into the wilderness of anger and learning how to hack through it, or how to listen to what it would tell you, you kept your feelings, along with your limbs, to yourself. Maybe you tried them on while reading fiction or turned them into paintings, maybe you pushed them down so far that they got lost for a while and you had to go looking later, when the woods looked less frightening. Whatever your strategy then, you’re feeling its effects now. Nice is the direction you turn by default, even if you really want to follow another set of trail markers this time.
The first step to figuring out the right direction, rather than the familiar one, is to re-frame what “nice” really means. “Nice” does not mean kind or generous or thoughtful or humane. It doesn’t mean supportive, considerate, warm. It just means “not unpleasant,” or maybe “pleasant” if you’re feeling optimistic. In short, nice — to yank a valuable insight from Stephen Sondheim — is different than good.
Being nice is not a useful priority. It sounds like you know that; the angry caps in your question suggest you don’t just want an answer to “why” but also a hint as to how to change.
It’s a disorienting process. Becoming less nice turns on its head most of the guidance heaped upon you since kindergarten. It requires patience, which is notoriously difficult, and bravery, which is notoriously uncomfortable. You’re going to scrape out superficial filler and rebuild that space with a spackle of kindness, honesty, connection — all the things we like to think “nice” means, but which “nice” really shoves aside in favor of empty platitudes.
That spackle is going to be a little rough. It’s not just made of sweetness and warmth; honesty comes with some embarrassing bits along with the enlightening. You might be throwing hurt, shame, fury into the mix, and it will take patience and time and effort to work through — but honesty leaves less structural damage than dissembling. You may have to lay the damage bare, but you also get to fix it.
I would start small. For example: don’t say the word “sorry” unless you have something to apologize for. Don’t say “it’s okay” either, unless it is. Precision and accuracy get muddied in our interactions, and recovering them is one way toward aligning what you say with what you mean. When someone interrupts you or disappoints you or dumps coffee all over your shoes, can you stay silent instead of offering empty reassurance? What can you ask for instead of forgiveness when you need space or attention? Try saying “thanks” instead of “sorry,” and notice how much taller you feel. Now imagine, from the other side, getting to say “you’re welcome” instead of yet another placating “no problem.” Gratitude can be kinder than guilt — to you and to others.
Ask yourself too what you want to prioritize and what you want to express. Is it anger that you need to share so badly it’s seeping silently out of your pores? Is it sadness? Is it uncertainty, frustration, shame? I don’t advocate putting all your feelings and foibles on display like skewered butterflies; decorum and tact have their place, and in fact can make any expressiveness more effective. But don’t confuse decorum with disengagement.
You may not have to look that far for guidance. You mention the people you’re nice to who don’t deserve it — but what about the people around you who do, with whom you can be truthful and not just “nice,” the ones who welcome your complexity instead of squashing it? Learn from their example what to look for in others. Learn from the power you have in their presence. You don’t have to grow your new habits from scratch, just transplant them, like leaves of hardy succulents, from the ones you already use elsewhere. You know how it feels to draw boundaries that don’t get trampled. You know how it feels to let yourself expand in the presence of people who celebrate that. How can you hold on to that hugeness when habit tells you to shrink yourself instead?
It’s not going to happen all at once, and it will almost certainly be difficult. You will have to go back into the wilderness a little. You’ll need to re-draw the paint strokes to point your own way, and you’ll need to decide which turns to follow and which to forget. The trail you’re on has led you this far; it’s done its job. Maybe it did keep you safe, or maybe it taught you to trust the wrong voices and ignore your own. Don’t dwell too much on how you got here. You get to choose which way to turn next.
For a little unprofessional advice in these uncertain times, send your questions to our anonymous portal. We want it all, from the epistemological to the inane. We’ll dig deep to find some answers in the next installment of BLARB’s advice column, Asking for a Friend.