Killing Yourself With Kindness

How being a pushover can be self-destructive

The City‘s Whitney Port is said to suffer from “the disease to please”

Celia felt slammed. There, on a personal blog, was a venomous post about her,written by a jealous acquaintance named Robyn. The same Robyn who was up for a job Celia ended up getting fair and square. Not cutting Celia any respect, Robyn charged that Celia was chosen over her because of how she looked, what connections she had and the type of family she came from. Shocked and angry, Celia—who gave a stellar interview and had a skill set which rivaled Robyn’s—went through her options: a) Should she shoot back an equally aggressive comment, attacking her enemy? b) Go passive and pretend it didn’t happen? or c) be assertive and confront her accuser in person? She chose the latter, and her adversary was never heard from again.

But Celia’s direct approach is the exception, it seems; most of us would pick B and are stuck in outdated ways of behaving—being polite, being good and ultimately being too nice for our own good. Given the choice, most would have opted for a more passive way out—either ignoring the insults (but secretly brooding over them) going on like nothing happened (but gossiping about the offender with friends), or actually becoming obstructive (by avoiding the woman and pretending she didn’t exist). On paper, in black and white, it becomes obvious that there isn’t anything nice at all about being too nice. And, in light of Celia’s approach, it makes you question why we do it. What’s the payoff? More importantly, what is it costing us?

You can also begin to wonder if it’s some kind of strange social disorder. Many people you know are probably plagued with it in one way or another. Even people you don’t know, such as Blake Lively’s character on TV’s Gossip Girl or, say, Whitney Port on The City, suffer with it. It’s no wonder it’s been called the “caretaker personality disorder” and has been slapped with the label “the disease to please.” But, according to Toronto-based psychologist Evelyn Sommers, author of The Tyranny of Niceness: Unmasking the Need for Approval, “it makes it sound like it’s something medical—I take issue with that.” It’s not medical, not terminal, not even contagious, but it is unhealthy.

Being too nice can get you into bad relationships (with potential friend rivals or the wrong man) and toxic work environments—and, if you’re really nice, you might find saying the words “yes” and “no problem” to be really addictive. In fact, if you find yourself complaining about being too overloaded at work, taken advantage of by a friend, or taken for granted by your boyfriend, it could be a sign. Sure, you might have a demanding boss, a selfish friend or an occasionally inconsiderate boyfriend, but it’s possible the real issue revolves around a need to please.

Niceness can take on many forms. If you’re always too eager to help (even when you are drained from a pile of duties), too reticent to say no, too complimentary, too understanding, too cheerful, you are, quite frankly, too much of a good thing. You can end up glued to your BlackBerry, like some kind of call centre, ready to respond to everyone and their every need. All the while, you may think you’re a
shining example of sweetness, but as Sommers sees it, it’s really “a kind of dishonesty.”

She’s right. Though none of us would want to admit it, let alone face it, this kind of passive politeness is actually an unintentional form of phoniness. Of course, we don’t set out to fake it, we’re trying to do what we think is the right thing, whether that’s being helpful or kind or good, but what we’re not doing is being truthful. And, as Sommers adds, “many times we’re not even conscious of it; it becomes second nature.”

In fact, it becomes a habit that’s hard to break and what keeps us hooked, she says, is fear. Whether it’s fear of rejection or confrontation, fear of hurting someone’s feelings, or fear if we ask for something we’ll seem selfish, we stick with it because, ultimately, “we crave belonging and acceptance,” she explains.

But here’s the crazy part, even though we think killing ourselves with kindness is a way to draw people closer to us (whether its friends, family or a first date), it does the opposite—it acts like a barrier, blocking them from knowing what we think and who we really are. It’s ironic and, as Sommers points out, “it’s destructive to a relationship.”

Apparently, it isn’t working that well at the office either. A 2007 study called Does It Pay to Be Nice? compared personality types and annual income in the U.K. and found “agreeable” women make as much as 6.5 percent less than their more assertive coworkers. Chantal Westgate, professor of organizational behaviour at McGill University in Montreal, isn’t surprised: “Assertive women get more things done, they influence the decision-makers, they’re an asset to the company and therefore earn more.”

Even so, many of us avoid speaking up or standing up for our ideas, thinking we’ll be seen as aggressive or arrogant or, worst of all, the office bitch—which, according to Westgate, is a very powerful stereotype. “It’s unfortunate because it plagues women and it encourages those who lack self-confidence to remain passive.”

The benefits of assertiveness are just one aspect of the subject matter she delves into in the course she teaches on influence and assertiveness (a new topic of study curiously popping up on course lists across the country). “Very few of us have training in assertiveness,” she says, “and there’s a misconception that being assertive is being pushy or aggressive.” But it’s not. It can be as simple, she says, as maintaining eye contact, using “I” instead of “we,” or making a statement instead of posing a question. (If you’re looking for pointers, check out the website speakupforyourself.com, where U.S. psychologist Linda Tillman blogs on the topic and offers a free web class on assertive language skills.) At a basic level, though, Sommers says kicking the nice habit starts with
learning to have a dialogue with yourself: “Ask yourself, Am I being honest when I say this? Do I really want to do this?”

Sommers advises not only letting go of niceness, but losing the word altogether. Like another classic four-letter word, it can be used to mean anything—the putdown “nice haircut,” the sarcastic dig “nice move,” or the bland compliment “nice party”—and actually means nothing.

But, if we’re throwing out the word and all the behaviour that goes with it, like any bad habit we’ll need to replace it with something. We need new rules of conduct. Let’s start with Sommers’ suggestion of “being direct and honest with respect.” Celia had this down. For the rest of us, this means when your boss asks you to take on another project you don’t have time for, you can respond with your own request that the two of you get together to go over your schedule and find the best way to proceed. And the next time your friend asks for a favour, instead of the usual knee-jerk “yes,” you can give yourself time to think by saying, “Let me get back to you on that.” And when you do, you can reply honestly with “yes” or “no,” or a way she can help herself. And, whenever your boyfriend suggests a restaurant, a movie or anything you don’t want any part of, you can say “thanks, but no thanks,” recommend he go with a friend who would appreciate it and make a counter suggestion that you come up with something else you both would enjoy another time. Really, it’s just one simple rule. As Westgate says, underlining Sommers’ message, it’s “voicing your opinions, emotions and concerns with consideration of others.”

Even if you find it difficult at first, which is natural, it can’t be anywhere near as hard as we make it for ourselves when we’re acting—not living—a nice life.