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Nice Is the Near Enemy of Kindness
Nice is not as nice as it seems
In childhood, we’re often told to be nice: be nice to your siblings, be nice to your classmates, your teachers, your neighbors, and your pet guinea pig. The message to children is clear: being pleasant and agreeable is better than being unpleasant and disagreeable.
But is being nice all that it’s cracked up to be? Before we get into it, let’s explore what it means to be “nice.”
Nice Is Fear Masquerading as Kindness
To be nice is to be friendly, welcoming, and likable. It includes being polite, smiling, and building rapport. Generally, we are nice because we want to be liked or at least avoid upsetting others. Being nice is so fundamental to the social convention that we can smile and act pleasant, even when we don’t want to.
I grew up as a classic “people pleaser,” wanting everyone to like me while avoiding conflict. I attempted to be nice to everyone, spending time with them and listening to their problems. I would stay on the phone longer than I wanted because I didn’t want people to feel lonely like me.
Eventually, being nice became a part of my identity. I imagined myself as an authentic person living in a fake world, which allowed me to feel unique and superior to others. The great irony is that, in truth, I was inauthentic and untrue to myself, perhaps the biggest fake of all.
Despite my lack of self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-respect, someone once wrote that I was so perfect that he had trouble finding fault with me. “One thing you can’t hide,” sang Lennon, "is when you’re crippled inside.” That’s not always true.
Niceness is often about self-preservation and maintaining a sense of belonging. Our family of origin can compound such self-imprisonment. If you felt unseen and unheard as a child, you may have learned to “hustle for love,” as Brené Brown brilliantly refers to it.
When a child is punished for their behavior, they can misinterpret the punishment as if they are being rejected rather than the behavior itself. In this way, a reprimand can feel like a death sentence—if my parents don’t love me, who will care for me? Being nice becomes a strategy for staying alive: If I can be who my parents want me to be, they won’t abandon me. Daily life becomes a life-or-death game of seeking praise and avoiding blame.
I felt deeply ashamed for much of my life as if I needed to justify my existence. I continued to say “Sorry” well into my thirties, even when there was nothing to apologize for. I felt a profound lack of personal worth and experienced so much self-loathing. Inside, I beat myself as if I were both a prisoner and a guard. “The primary goal of parenting,” said a therapist years later, “is for children to feel good enough.”
Always Being Nice Means Nobody Wins
On the surface, nice people appear to be cheerful all the time. But what happens if we are unhappy yet feel compelled to be agreeable? The need to maintain our self-image can cause us to become angry and resentful. Occasionally, we may surprise people with a seething outburst.
We pay little attention to our internal needs or our heart’s longing. Being nice all the time means relinquishing our sense of agency and surrendering our freedom. As Stephen Covey might have said, empowering our weaknesses creates exhausting internal conflict.
“The world’s most perfect person” is how I jokingly refer to someone I know. He’s an exceptional human and would make a great partner, but beyond the always-smiling, always-friendly veneer, I have no sense of who he is, what he believes, or what he dreams of for his life. There’s little, if anything, for me to hold onto.
When we’re nice all the time, everyone loses. The nice person loses connection with their true self and no longer knows who they are. Others only get a counterfeit version of us and don’t experience one of life's great joys—the unique expression of our personality.
At first, being nice felt safe and comfortable. I liked playing the hero, and I liked being liked. But at some point, I didn’t enjoy it anymore. It started to feel not so nice. Sometimes I would become angry, not realizing I was part of the problem. Being nice was no longer how I wanted to be.
Along the spiritual path, I discovered kindness, an idea regularly invoked today but wasn’t just a few years ago. Kindness is similar but very different from niceness. Even the word conjures a living element, whereas nice has a more static connotation.
Whereas being nice is a social norm often motivated by fear, kindness is the genuine concern for the happiness and wellbeing of others. Where nice is shallow and manufactured, kindness is deep and choiceless, a way of engaging with others with our full humanity and wholehearted attention. Kindness is a “Sincere willingness to protect and not cause harm to each other and ourselves,” writes Hal Atwood.
The compulsion to be nice often comes from weakness and insecurity, while being kind emerges from strength and confidence. Kindness, or generosity of heart, is guileless and has no pretense. Whether an act of service or a way of being, it is free, flexible, honest, courageous, and authentic. It emanates effortlessly from you because it is you, a part of your fundamental good nature.
Kindness Can’t Be Turned on Like a Switch
When people hear of kindness, they often want to be kind. They think, “I can do that.” And so they assume the persona of a very loving person like Jesus or the Buddha and go about being so nice to everyone they meet. This lasts until they read the morning news or someone cuts them off while driving. That’s because you can’t turn kindness on like a switch. Play-acting is not the same as “practice.”
Kindness emerges from an understanding that we all suffer. Awareness of one’s suffering makes us aware of others’ sorrows, and kindness is a natural response. It is a purification of the heart, starting with being gentle with ourselves. First, we must love ourselves before we can love others. Learning to be with our pain enables us to be with the pain of another. Comforting ourselves through our sorrow and not covering over it allows kindness to emanate from within us.
But we tend to reject painful parts of our painful experience and avoid facing the suffering in the world. By distracting ourselves from pain, we distance ourselves from one another. We lose the ground of connection that makes kindness possible. When we open ourselves to others, we open ourselves to pain. I was laid off early in my career and felt alone and isolated. When I tried to talk to friends, they would change subjects or run away, which only magnified my aloneness.
Though kindness is a lifelong practice and not a destination, once cultivated, it never leaves you. You begin to treat everyone and everything with respect and care. You listen and empathize with friends without running away. You avoid stepping on bugs on your morning walk. You listen to your child and mirror back their feelings. You tell others what they need to hear, not necessarily what they want to hear. In other words, you empower them with the truth.
We can find ourselves facing the difficult choice of being nice or kind. Following are some common scenarios.
A person comes to talk to you about something and then starts discussing other subjects. You sense their desire to continue conversing while you’re ready to end it. Despite your hints, they hook you back into the conversation. Niceness requires you to remain pleasant on the outside despite growing increasingly frustrated on the inside. Nastiness would entail raising your voice and getting angry. But what would kindness do?
Your boss asks you to work over the weekend, but you’ve promised to take your family out of town. You tell him you can’t, but he persists. If you feel compelled to be nice, you have a problem: To whom will you be nice? Whatever you choose, one or more people will become upset. Like most people, you would likely struggle to decide whom to please and whom to disappoint. Ask yourself: What would kindness do?
In each situation, at least one person, including possibly you, will be unhappy. If you feel obligated to be nice, then whatever you choose, you will be discontented. You may even lie, violate your integrity, and make yourself feel worse. If you decide out of kindness, one person may be unhappy, but you will be content to choose from kindness.
Kindness Doesn’t Always Look Nice
So, “be nice” is not always good advice. For starters, it robs children of their sense of agency and choice. In its truest sense, however, kindness is always correct because it emerges from wisdom and is not about pleasing anyone or looking good. It may not always appear nice, but it is always kind.
Kindness doesn’t mean being a pushover. It may require being assertive to defend ourselves or others if someone misbehaves. You may even have to use physical force. If you see someone being attacked, would kindness not move you to act forcefully if necessary? When we’re kind, it is discerning from the heart, whether we smile, agree or disagree, scold, or speak softly. It is all-inclusive and without limits.
Today, when I witness someone being extra nice, I wonder how long they can keep it up. Of course, I still find myself being nice on occasion. Sometimes I avoid confronting people’s behavior to keep the peace. Or I may listen to a boss somehow thinking it will bring us closer together.
To this day, my mom still tells me to “be nice.”
Keep being kind,
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