“What is the essential plot of a nice guy? The feeling/belief that it does not feel safe or acceptable for a boy/man to be just who he is. So, during formative years, all nice guys receive this message from the people and world around them.” ~ Dr. Robert Glover
The Nice Guy Syndrome
All my life, I’ve been a nice guy.
The peacemaker, the guy you call in for all your favors- from picking up your errands and dropping them to your door (yes, I did this once), to writing your paper to make sure you don’t fail the class.
In eighth grade, I came in early to school one time to do someone’s chemistry homework. This individual was someone I fancied (note- I never asked her out, instead, I just hoped that somehow, my niceness will attract her to me).
In tenth grade, as an anniversary gift for my first girlfriend, I wrote her a book about how the two of us met (67K words). Two weeks later, she broke up with me because she thought she’s not “good enough for someone as nice as me”.
A while back, I convinced this girl (who, I really liked) to go out on another date with a guy after her terrible breakup.
Again- I didn’t ask her out, I didn’t take the risk myself. I just hoped that my niceness, somehow, will make them love me.
I’m the guy people say they can always rely on, especially at work. If you ask me to do something, I will do it. I will push all my personal priorities aside and get on your task. I won’t tell you ‘no’ because I’m scared you will not accept me.
At times, people take advantage of that. Oh, believe me, people take advantage.
I’m the typical nice guy you hear about in the movies and no, it’s not true that we finish last.
We don’t finish.
To get some perspective on why I behave the way I do (and its repercussions), I decided to do some research- primary and secondary. At first, I started with the latter by reading some literature about nice guys.
Fortunately, I came across a book called, No More Mr. Nice Guy, by Dr. Robert Glover.
Now, as much as that book helped me make better sense of myself, I wanted to personalize those lessons and so, I went to a therapist for six months.
Fortunately, this experience has helped me grow.
Now, whether you’re tired and exhausted of carrying out a “nice facade”, or just starting out and enjoying the approval you get from the world- here are some things I learned, that, I hope helps you gain a better perspective about the “nice guy syndrome”.
A Message from a Nice Guy to All Overly Nice People
1. No one is inherently good or bad
When it comes to personalities, there’s a strong misconception – that, our personalities will be constant. So, we will always be the same person.
This idea was stemmed from the famous Marshmallow test that was carried out by psychologist Walter Mischel in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In it, researchers led subjects (children aged four to six) in a room which had three kinds of treats- an Oreo cookie, pretzel sticks, and a marshmallow.
These children were then told that they could have the treat if they wanted, but, if they waited for fifteen more minutes without touching the treats, they would be rewarded with another treat.
At this time, the researchers would step out of the room and observe.
The purpose of the study, simply, was to study delayed gratification- the ability to resist temptation and reward for a later reward.
After this, follow up studies were conducted on the same children as they grew up, and eventually, it was concluded that children who gave in to temptation had higher levels of obesity and all in all a higher likelihood of getting into trouble, as opposed to children who waited for fifteen minutes.
This experiment led to the conception that to a large extent, we cannot change our personalities.
If you gave in to the temptation and took the marshmallow- you will find it harder in the future to control yourself in the face of temptations- be it drugs, alcohol, food, or whatever.
Fortunately, this conception was proven wrong.
Alternatively, the truth seemed to be that our personalities can, and in fact, do change, and the one factor that determines this change is the environment. This is why people who’ve lived in a similar environment all their life always seem the same.
This history lesson was to get to a point that most nice guys have (including me)- that, people are inherently good or bad, and they’ve been fortunate enough to be on the former team. The truth, however, is far from that- we’re all, for the most part, good during some phases of our lives and bad during the others.
Delayering this misconception can help lift a weight off and give us permission to be authentic– to say ‘no’, to speak up, and most importantly- to be true to ourselves.
The goal, therefore, isn’t to be an angel or a demon, it’s to be human- to strive for niceness, not beat ourselves to reach it.
2. Do some Internal Work
Although this applies to almost anyone who has survived childhood, we need some internal work more than anyone.
My research (both primary and secondary) taught me that there’s a reason why nice guys and girls are the way they are; in some point of their lives, they learned/wholeheartedly started believing that the way they are isn’t acceptable.
Here’s Dr. Robert Glover in his book “No More Mr. Nice Guy”-
“What is the essential plot of a nice guy? The feeling/belief that it does not feel safe or acceptable for a boy/man to be just who he is. So, during formative years, all nice guys receive this message from the people and world around them.”
This could be a judgmental parent commenting on the shape of your body, for example, or simply a bully that convinced you that you don’t matter.
However and whenever this happened, once we realized that it’s going to be hard to find acceptance and kindness in ourselves, we started seeking this from other people, by doing them favors.
That one line of acceptance we all desperately seek for: “You’re the nicest person I’ve ever met, thank you so much.”
What’s even more unfortunate is that even after getting approved by other people, somehow, its hard to believe it for ourselves. That line of acceptance is overridden by another thought:
“Me? The nicest? Ha, you don’t know how horrible I am.”
And the cycle goes on and on- we keep seeking acceptance and approval without feeling any of it.
It becomes a survival mechanism, a drug of sorts. And, unconsciously, we start creating contracts with the people we help- an unspoken agreement which goes like this- “if I help you do your chemistry homework/ help you solve your life’s problems, you will fill my void, accept me and love me”.
Doing some internal work helps us understand the origins of our belief- childhood/adolescence, etc. The idea here isn’t to blame someone for your condition, instead, it’s to use awareness to change behavior and most importantly, gain some self-approval.
As kind as we are to the world around us, if we applied even a little bit of that to ourselves, we can start becoming authentic. Given that we’re all prisoners of our past patterns, awareness can set us free.
Seeking a therapist would be an excellent start.
3. You don’t have to be rude
That’s the advice nice guys get when we share our problems with others:
“Dude, stop being so nice”.
And, naturally, the inclination is to think that being nice is the problem here.
Fortunately, it’s not, and we don’t have to start showing the finger to everyone.
The problem isn’t that we’re too nice. The problem is that we’re not authentic and real.
Being real means saying no to an invitation, or declining to speak to someone because you know you’re not in the mood after a bad day at work. By not being real we’re writing imaginary contracts with other people again- expecting love and approval for doing someone a favor.
The trick here is to find some balance between the two extremes of the spectrum- being too nice or saying what you want all the time. And this is a tough endeavor, especially because we’re used to thinking about extremes.
The word “nice” in itself, portrays someone stripped of all the evil there is.
Setting boundaries can be helpful here, which, unfortunately, none of us do. How can we when we actually need people’s approval to feel better about ourselves? However, setting clear boundaries helps us stay sane, or, if you’d like a metaphor- helps us keep our ship steady in the storm that is society.
Given that we’re not particularly skilled in this area, it can help to start small.
For example, I don’t look at my phone until after work. In a way, that is the boundary I’ve set with the world.
That said, it has its downfalls too.
You will no longer be the “go-to” guy – that person who saves everyone else. And, as upsetting as that sounds, people who truly care and love you will stay- believe me, they will stay.
You have to get used to not saving everyone else because in a very real sense, you’re saving yourself.
You have to learn to be your own hero first.
In any way, unlikely to popular opinion, you don’t have to be rude. In fact, the world needs more niceness.
Setting priorities and boundaries can help us be nice to people, not for gaining self-approval, but rather, for a true (and yet less spoken) reality – that, niceness is a necessity given that everyone suffers.
The school of life puts this brilliantly in their book, On Being Nice:
“We must be kind not only because we’re touched by the suffering of others but because we properly understand that we are never too far from being in need of an equally vital dose of charity to get through life.”
4. Being authentic will make you better at solving problems
Being authentic makes us acknowledge the grayness that is life. It makes us realize that all of us are suffering- either from the consequences of our actions or simply forces of randomness we often like to call fate.
And, once we know this, we stop so desperately trying to fix other people’s issues in the hopes of getting that bite of approval.
Typically, we like to act like superheroes; we’re called in when things go wrong and our job, simply, is to fix them. Your friend went through a bad breakup and she calls you because she wants someone to listen as she explains what happened, how she felt, and how, for some reason, this break up makes her think about how she’s going to be alone all her life.
You, however, have a different approach to fixing. You want to make her laugh, maybe even call up her ex-boyfriend and talk him into getting back with her.
For you, every problem needs to have a clear solution. After all, if you don’t solve things, how on earth will you get approval and sustain your “nice” status?
Being authentic, however, changes this approach.
Now that we acknowledge that suffering is inevitable, we also realize that we can’t really solve everything. As desperately as we’d like to help that friend get back with her ex, we can’t.
We can, however, do something that is much needed – listen.
We can listen to them, without imposing any solutions that we think might work (because it worked for us in the past). And yes, maybe listening doesn’t solve the problem or make us be perceived as superheroes. But, it does, in a very real sense, stop us from evaluating ourselves by the extent to which we solve other people’s problems.
Most of all- it makes us really help them because we can finally listen with that newly developed compassion, as we acknowledge the inevitableness that is suffering.
5. No one really knows
We hate ourselves because we think that other people know it all and that to survive, all We need to do is keep our heads down and sit on their shoulders by doing them favors.
The fortunate (or unfortunate) truth is, no one really knows.
That better looking friend who gets all the stares has never had a real relationship because of the problems that come with beauty. That person who makes seven figures, at times, wonders if he ever got lucky in his endeavor.
The things that influence order and peace in this world are largely governed by strong held beliefs and fears, not people.
In fact, to take this belief up another notch, we can look at the three universal orders that united Homo sapiens- economic and monetary order, political, and religion. The first one, money, is something we deal with every single day of our lives, and yet, if looked at it closely, it’s something that is largely governed by belief and trust.
Here’s Yuval Noah Harari, in his groundbreaking book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
“The sum total of money in the world is about $60 trillion, yet the sum total of coins and banknotes is less than $6 trillion. More than 90 percent of money- more than $10 trillion appearing in our accounts- exists only on computer servers. Money isn’t a material reality- it is a psychological construct.”
The point is- If something as essential as money, to a greater extent, is based on belief and trust, we can rest be assured that no one really knows the answers.
We’re all just trying to figure it out.
As nice guys, it’s important to remember this concept because it allows us to mess up, to get over rejection, to be courageous enough to take action when necessary, and most of all (perhaps something all of us need)- to be kind and gentle towards ourselves.