And no, I’m not going to argue that if you’re too nice, you’ll become a doormat. We’ve all heard that before, so it’s not unconventional wisdom. Going beyond the doormat argument, I’ve found several reasons why making a distinct effort to be a nicer person towards someone can have negative side effects:
I decided a while back to be nicer to a housemate. She could be quite sensitive about comments to do with her house, so I decided to stop making any. Easier said than done, of course, as I was living with her and really could have done with a few adaptations here and there. But I made a huge effort and resisted mentioning all sorts of things. She, however, mentioned something about me and the house on an almost daily basis, from food in the plughole to forgetting to turn things off. If I hadn’t made my pledge, all would’ve been pretty equal but, as it was, I got sicker and sicker of receiving comments while having to hold all mine in. I’d end up blurting them out during a disagreement, which was hardly the best time. In future I’ll be entering into these kinds of resolutions with a heavy dose of caution!
This goes hand in hand with increased inequality. It can easily arise when you’re making a big effort for someone but that person appears to be making zero effort towards you. Sometimes it can even be quite illogical. You can think: here I am, trying to think the best of this person, and yet they’re still mean to me. Well, maybe that person has no idea you’re trying to think the best of them. Resentment is such a difficult emotion to soothe away, I find. It’s hard to give freely and expect nothing (or worse than nothing) in return.
There’s a practice in Buddhist-inspired mindfulness where you wish people well, starting with yourself, then a near-stranger, then someone ‘difficult’, then a larger group of people. An unexpected side-effect of this practice for me was forgetting about people’s darker sides. Let’s say my difficult person one day was a chap called Damien. I spend time thinking about what could have led to Damien’s unpleasant behaviour. I remind myself he’s a human being with hopes and fears like the rest of us. I wish him well. Then, later in the day, or even the next day, I meet Damien and he’s a complete arse towards me. I found myself feeling more shocked and more wounded by Damien’s behaviour as if, subconsciously, I’d expected him to be more likeable, more kind, simply as a result of my meditation.
I still do this meditation but with more awareness of what might happen.
This links in with ‘unpleasant surprise’. It’s more of a deeper loss of awareness of people’s motives. It can be beneficial to think the best of people and not assume their motives are bad. They might not have called you for ages because of a rough patch at work. They might have been rude because they had a bad day. But if you take this too far, you risk slipping into delusion. I’ve observed it, and I’ve been there myself. For about a week I convinced myself that someone wasn’t being rude to me because of anything I’d done. Only when he stopped talking to me altogether did I get the message, when it was really too late. Kindness = good; naivete not so much.
But don’t turn into ****head!
I’m not suggesting anyone stop trying to be nice to people. Even ‘difficult’ people. I just wanted to share some of the surprising after-effects of my attempts to be a nicer person. I’m not sure what the answers are here, but I feel like being aware of the issues is always a good first step! I guess my takeaway is to still try to be a nice person but:
- still listen to my gut if someone is acting in a mean way, rather than assuming I’m reading too much into things or being too sensitive
- not take this too far by doing too much for someone who’s not reciprocating or appreciating it
- reminding myself that even if I’m thinking kindly of someone, they might not have a similar focus and may have no idea I’m doing it either!
Have you got any advice on avoiding these pitfalls, while still trying to be a better person? Or just got some tales of your own on the topic? If so, please share below! And if you want to be kept in the loop in case I find the perfect solution, or just to hear more of my ponderings in future, please subscribe.
https://wordpress.com/read/blogs/97182472/posts/502 8 Signs you are way too nice
https://wordpress.com/read/blogs/113568713/posts/981 Being too nice and bullying
Business context: https://hbr.org/2014/04/the-problem-with-being-too-nice