Jennie Steinberg, LMFT, LPCC
We all know the story of Little Red Riding Hood. She’s on her way to Granny’s house when she encounters a Big Bad Wolf who turns on the charm, waylays her, and coerces her into spending a bit more time gallivanting in the woods so that he can have a delicious meal of Granny with a Little Red encore. At its core, this is a coming of age story – a tale of learning to be judicious in where one places one’s trust.
As retold in the musical, “Into the Woods,” Little Red articulates the lessons she has learned:
And though scary is exciting,
Nice is different than good!
This is an important message, but it flies in the face of a powerful societal message we receive: be nice to everyone. This is a directive given to children by teachers and parents. A failure to perform niceness is often pointed out by peers: “That’s not very nice!”
This is especially salient for those of us who grow up female, who are described in our baby announcements as “sugar and spice and everything nice” before we even have a chance to cultivate a personality. But it’s not limited to women. I once met a man who told me that his entire life philosophy boiled down to two words: “Be nice.” And yes, that’s a lovely sentiment…
But there are three things wrong with nice.
First, nice is superficial.
It’s about creating a veneer of thoughtfulness. More often than not, when someone appears “nice,” there’s something bubbling right under the surface. This can be manipulation, as in the case of our Big Bad Wolf friend, but it doesn’t have to be. What I’ve seen much more frequently than that is that it’s resentment that boils under the surface.
When your priority is taking care of other people and you’re not thinking about yourself, you run out of steam. When you undervalue yourself in favor of the needs of others, you start to wonder: “I’m so damn nice…why don’t other people go out of their way for me like I go out of my way for them?”
Second, nice is about people pleasing.
When you prioritize people pleasing, you seek validation from other people. At first glance, this doesn’t seem problematic, but when the only time you feel good is when you receive accolades from someone else, you’re giving away a lot of your power, and over time you lose a sense of self.
Some people say that a desire for positive feedback keeps them striving. That’s great! But the problem is that you can’t selectively value positive feedback. When you decide that what’s important is how other people feel about you – not how you feel about yourself – then you’re open to being absolutely crushed by the negative judgment of another person. And that’s not motivating; it’s demoralizing.
Third, when you’re nice, you never get your needs met.
That’s why the saying “nice guys finish last” is actually pretty true. But that doesn’t mean be a MEAN guy. It means be a guy (used here as a gender-neutral term) who engages in self-care, who puts on their own oxygen mask first, and who recognizes that if your own needs aren’t met, you can’t help anyone else.
In short, this all boils down to assertiveness.
If Nice isn’t the goal, what is?
In a word, kindness. The difference between kindness and niceness is that kindness runs deeper. It involves thinking of others without completely sacrificing yourself.
I’ve written about the importance of assertiveness twice before. What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate, one of the first articles I wrote on this blog, details the differences between the communication styles and advocates that assertiveness is the Gold Standard. More recently, I wrote Assertiveness is an Act of Kindness, which continues to explore the value of assertiveness from the uncommon perspective that sometimes kindness and brutal honesty (emphasis on honesty, not on brutal) are shockingly the same thing. I suppose you could think of this as the third article in that series.
So in the spirit of continuing that exploration of assertiveness, let’s bring back my favorite Venn diagram:
What the above image shows is that if you value only the needs of others, you are communicating in a passive way, whereas if you value only your own needs, you are communicating in an aggressive way. It’s at the intersection – that assertiveness middle – where you strive to meet the needs of both parties, and everyone feels understood, even if the encounter is uncomfortable.
Let’s shift the diagram, just a little bit:
The next time you think to yourself, “I’m going to be nice,” ask yourself whether you’re also being kind. And the next time you think of another person as “nice,” ask yourself whether they’re being kind or superficial.
That question might have saved Little Red Riding Hood a lot of trauma!