Tyranny of Niceness: A Psychotherapeutic Challenge

Tyranny of Niceness: A Psychotherapeutic Challenge

by Evelyn Sommers
Dr. Sommers discusses the prevalent problem of cultural silencing called "niceness," and offers case studies and advice for addressing associated client issues of anxiety and helplessness.

NEW LOW PRICING!
Video Memberships for personal viewing.
Access to over 300 of the best psychotherapy
training videos starting at $29/month.

 

 

For many people, niceness is the accepted way of being and interacting. In this article I express the view that rather than facilitating psychological and relational health, niceness stands in the way of personal satisfaction and healthy relating. This formulation of niceness in which I outline its inherent conflict with authenticity is useful for working with some people who present for psychotherapy with depression, anxiety, addictions and relationship difficulties, problems not typically associated with the tyranny of niceness.

From Niceness to Authenticity

Personal experiences often provide psychotherapists with insights that are useful in our work with clients. Such is the way my conceptualization of niceness got its start. There was a long period in my life when I accepted that I was a nice person. I had buried the more testy aspects of my personality, at least outside the privacy of my home, in the hope that I would be accepted by everyone I met. It didn't work. After years of this behavior there were still people I was unable to win over with my smile and silence. Worse, I was losing the ability to express my thoughts and feelings. With increased frequency I began to experience anxiety before I spoke.

My silence grew, as did my discomfort with the person I was becoming. There was a black hole in my existence, an interruption of my authenticity that manifested in a real disconnection between what I felt and thought and what I said. And the more I prevented myself from voicing my authentic thoughts and feelings the more I lost opportunities to hone the skills of honest, direct expression delivered in ways that are kind and respectful of the other person.
When I did speak, my words were often fueled by anger—appearing as irritation, sarcasm, impatience—that blanketed a fear of rejection.
When I did speak, my words were often fueled by anger—appearing as irritation, sarcasm, impatience—that blanketed a fear of rejection.

Through self-reflection and observations of others I made the connection between silencing/suppressing my authenticity and being nice. Later, I saw that the connection applied to many of my clients. I saw the same patterns: suppression of thoughts and feelings, deep wishes for acceptance with a concomitant fear of rejection or judgment, anxiety, depression, and erupting frustration. These features were bound together by guilt, shame and fear.

To be nice is to silence aspects of one's authenticity. Niceness means giving up honesty in relationships because entrenched fear of judgment or disapproval overrides the inclination to be forthright. The nice person speaks and acts in ways that he or she believes will guarantee approval or at least not elicit disapproval.
I have learned that degrees of niceness are not possible since silence does not exist in degrees, but this does not mean that rude and disrespectful behavior—which is what one may think is the only substitute for being nice—is acceptable.
I have learned that degrees of niceness are not possible since silence does not exist in degrees, but this does not mean that rude and disrespectful behavior—which is what one may think is the only substitute for being nice—is acceptable. On the contrary, openness and honesty delivered with respect and kindness is the healthy alternative to oppressive, silencing niceness.

How did we get to be so nice?

Children are not born nice. Far from it, infants are noisy and demanding. Children are taught to be nice as the way to get along with other people. The essence of niceness training is obedience to authority. The first teachers are parents but the message is supported and promoted by our educational and religious institutions, by our legal and medical systems, and by governments. Thus, niceness supports the status quo. This social organization may facilitate a subdued and acquiescent, if tightly wound, society where people are accepted for the face they present to the world, but compliance does not guarantee contentment, good relationships, empathy for other people or recognition of our individuality.

In the interest of promoting niceness as a primary method of social interaction something is lost, and that is the expression of honest and authentic thoughts and feelings.
As parents are teaching niceness they do not always realize they are also teaching their children to silence their authentic thoughts and feelings.
As parents are teaching niceness they do not always realize they are also teaching their children to silence their authentic thoughts and feelings. In all likelihood they would be appalled at the idea that they were doing such a thing but at a loss to know how to change their methods.

A great deal of the niceness training occurs incidentally (I provide an example of this later in the article) but some is direct, a clear message: be a nice girl, be a good boy, share your toys (even though the children may not understand what it means to share), be seen and not heard, don't cry, what will anyone think? When parents apply the teaching consciously, they regard it as a way of encouraging children to become cooperative adults. Their intentions are the best: they want their offspring to be accepted and since acceptance is a universal desire and need, this seems like a good idea. The difficulty arises in the tension that exists between our wishes both for acceptance and an appreciation of our differentness.

Niceness as a Diagnostic and Therapeutic Tool

At the simplest level of understanding, niceness is a way of silencing ourselves that keeps us out of touch with our authentic thoughts and feelings. When it is engaged as our way of relating to others it prevents us from speaking with openness and honesty, thus silencing our words or hampering our ability to act in our own best interests if that means possible conflict or disapproval. In order to spot the identifying features that signify deep disconnections that are typical of niceness, one must understand the language of niceness.

Niceness is a language of apology and politeness, ubiquitous and therefore familiar, as is any social norm, and it is a powerful deterrent to authentic relating, a mechanism of distancing rather than connection.
Niceness is a language of apology and politeness, ubiquitous and therefore familiar, as is any social norm, and it is a powerful deterrent to authentic relating, a mechanism of distancing rather than connection.

You may have already noticed the language or even the behavioral difficulties of niceness but had no framework for understanding its implications for your clients. Maybe you have a client who can't say "no" or goes overboard to please people even when it is inconvenient or unnecessary. Maybe the client secretly fears the judgments of others and agrees with them rather than expressing an opinion that might be controversial. You might have noticed that in therapy the client seems too compliant, is too careful of your feelings, talks about parents who advocated that children be seen and not heard, or mouths clichés such as "you've got to keep a stiff upper lip." Maybe the client avoids confrontation and defers decision making to others. Your client thinks these concessions are necessary to facilitate relationships. Your client wends his or her way through life feeling burdened by, but compliant with, authority figures. He or she withholds honest expression for fear of offending anyone, then feels like a doormat.

In my private psychotherapy practice I have found that niceness is expressed, as well, through certain common interactions that function as a disguise covering up the inclination for self-silencing of authentic thoughts and feelings. These are the alarm bells that awaken the therapist to the presence of niceness:

  • False altruism: I didn't want to hurt his feelings so I didn't tell him I wanted to break up; I told her the dress looked nice rather than say what I really think.
  • Rationalizations: I knew my opinion wouldn't make a difference anyway; somebody said it better than I could have.
  • Submissiveness: It was easier for me to just do it/agree/accept what was offered or proposed than to protest or disagree or ask for something else.Over- or under-acceptance of responsibility: Doing too much or, in contrast, avoidance.
  • Self-disempowerment: He was good to me most of the time, between beatings, so I couldn't leave.
When these hallmark behaviors appear in therapy it is a signal for you to probe more deeply, to first identify the behaviors such as false altruism that signal a problem, then identify the link between their silence, niceness and the relevant underlying emotions such as fear, shame or guilt. For example, in probing you might ask questions like these:
  • Why was it so important to avoid hurting another person's feelings that you would be dishonest? Was there anything you feared for yourself if you told the truth?
  • Are there events in your past that have led you to believe your opinion would not have made a difference?
  • What do you think would happen if you were to protest?
  • What would happen if you left work for home at the time stated in your job contract?
  • What is the fear that keeps you from leaving your (abusive) relationship?
Delving into stories from the past in which the significant teachers of niceness are unearthed, whether they are specific people or incidents, can lead to a deeper understanding of the ways that particular aspects of relating came to be problematic for the client. A good example is Brad's story.

Learning to be Nice: Brad's Story

Niceness is taught both directly and indirectly. The inadvertent ways it is taught and, thus, the incidental ways it is learned are illustrated by the story of my client Brad.

Brad was in his mid-thirties and working in therapy to resolve a lifetime of pleasing people at great emotional costs to him. Initially, he presented in a deep depression after the woman he felt was the love of his life broke off their relationship. In the course of exploring his past, he told a story from his childhood that had etched itself into his psyche.

One day, when he was five years old, his mother brought him a coloring book as a gift. Brad was thrilled until he opened it up and saw that it was a color-by-number book.
"I don't like this book," he declared."The numbers make the pictures look bad."
"I don't like this book," he declared."The numbers make the pictures look bad." Upon hearing his words, his mother became upset, started to cry, and left the room. His father, who had witnessed the scene, scolded him.

"Look what you've done now," the father chided. Horrified, Brad picked up his crayons and began to color furiously. After a time his mother returned to the room.

"Look Mommy," he said, holding his work up for her to see, "I really like this book now."

Brad's devastation at his mother's reaction was heightened by his father's stern chiding. What could this little boy do to calm the powerful feelings of anxiety inside him but express the behavior that was so clearly expected? He colored in the book he did not like hoping that the terrible hurt he had inflicted on his mother would be relieved. He needed his mother and panicked when she left him in tears without reassuring him. He regretted that by telling her what he thought, he had hurt her and chased her out of the room where she was not available to him.

Brad had learned one lesson in being nice: to silence his opinion about gifts he received if he was not happy with them. At a deeper level, he learned that his words might chase away someone he needs and that he must suppress words he really means to keep the person with him. At the time of the incident Brad was too young to know that the problem was his parents', not his, and that his mother's problems determined her reaction to Brad, as did his father's. When Brad came for psychotherapy he still held the belief that he was the one who had been wrong—wrong to say what he really felt about the coloring book. That belief became generalized for Brad and still determined his response to situations that presented any threat of emotional abandonment.

Had Brad's parents been more able, they would have encouraged him to express his preferences without fear of recrimination or losing them.
In psychotherapy, this is the task of the therapist: to encourage the expression of thoughts and feelings without fear of recrimination or loss, and with appropriate, illuminating discussion to replace fear with the assurance that the client will continue to survive even when he or she expresses authentic thoughts and feelings.
In psychotherapy, this is the task of the therapist: to encourage the expression of thoughts and feelings without fear of recrimination or loss, and with appropriate, illuminating discussion to replace fear with the assurance that the client will continue to survive even when he or she expresses authentic thoughts and feelings. This discussion can proceed in a cognitive way, addressing mistaken beliefs of helplessness in adulthood that originated earlier in life, and identifying the resources now available to the client that were not available as a child when the disabling view was learned and entrenched. Of equal importance is the therapist's ability to identify, contain and help dissipate the fear, shame and guilt that will emerge during the discussion.

With Brad I worked on dispelling his belief that his mother cried and left the room solely because of his comment. Even though, as an adult, he understood that his mother was troubled and that his comment was merely a catalyst, his childlike omnipotent belief that he was to blame was resilient and sprang into action unbidden at times of stress. His response was to be sure he did not repeat the type of event that had devastated him, inadvertently creating a new problem. Coupled with this was his enduring guilt at hurting his mother and his shame at needing her so much, replayed in his adult relationships. (This one incident was symbolic of other events and experiences in his life, yet much emotion and pain had crystallized around this event.)

Often the adult manifestations of problems with niceness appear most painfully in intimate relationships. Brad told me about a weekend away with his lover Jane, with whom he began a relationship while in therapy, that describes this well. At her invitation he had flown to Washington where she had business. She had work to do but they planned to spend a full day together visiting the Smithsonian Institute during the weekend. By Sunday, the last day of their three-day weekend, they had spent almost no time together and Jane had another appointment that morning. As she left the hotel room she said she would be back in two hours and they would go then to the Smithsonian.

Brad waited... and waited. He ate breakfast and read a newspaper in the hotel lobby. He ate lunch and continued to wait. Jane called after she'd been away three hours to say she'd be another half-hour.

The bellman and Brad were beginning to establish a relationship. "Brad," said the bellman,"you are one patient dude."
The bellman and Brad were beginning to establish a relationship. "Brad," said the bellman,"you are one patient dude."

An hour later Jane called saying, again, that she would be there in a half-hour. Brad weighed the possibility of going to the museum alone and meeting her there but the logistics seemed too complicated and he continued to wait. When Jane finally arrived there was no possibility of going to the museum because they had only two hours before heading to the airport. Jane was apologetic and Brad was forgiving, but later that week he told her he felt he needed the freedom to see other women. As we explored the feelings he had as he waited for Jane that day, Brad commented,"I've got to stop being Mr. Nice Guy. People just walk all over me. I should have gone on my own when she didn't arrive at the time she originally promised."

Brad was full of anger at Jane but wanted to preserve the relationship and so he covered his anger by being silent. Unfortunately, his behavior did not achieve the intended goal. The relationship ended soon after this incident and Brad never told Jane that he was angry at her failure either to keep her promise to him or let him know that she could not keep her promise. If it had been the first time she had kept him waiting it may not have been so upsetting, but this had been part of the pattern of their relationship. Brad could have released himself from the bondage of waiting had he not been such a"nice guy." It is worth noting that his niceness did not save the relationship. It is also worth noting that Jane made promises, called, and apologized. In this instance, at least, she wore a mask of niceness, too nice to admit she would not be available to him in a misguided attempt to avoid Brad's judgment or be the one to disappoint.

In our discussions of the weekend and other incidents in his life I often referred to the coloring book incident to remind him of the fear that kept him hamstrung. It became clear that a layer of profound anxiety was activated in any situation that even hinted at the possibility of abandonment such as he experienced with his mother that day. I helped him find examples from his experiences that showed he was capable of understanding situations in different ways and that, no longer dependent on his parents for his survival, he had agency and choice to determine his own course in life.
The coloring book incident became a signifier of all that he shrouded with his niceness: the fear, anxiety and guilt, and the utter helplessness he felt when under threat.
The coloring book incident became a signifier of all that he shrouded with his niceness: the fear, anxiety and guilt, and the utter helplessness he felt when under threat. It also became a marker by which he could remind himself of the emotional progress he had made as he learned to master difficult situations.

Brad's is a powerful lesson in learning to be compliant with parent/authority figures and the impact on later relationships. But how powerful is niceness with its implicit obedience to external and internalized authority figures, really? Growing from childhood to adulthood we learn the lessons that turn us into people who have lost touch with what it means to live authentic lives and to relate with honesty. As adults, we call up niceness as needed, without conscious effort. We say or do the nice thing as if it were our nature to do so. The behavior—to silence our opinions, protests, and feelings and instead comply with the situational or internalized authority—is automatic.

Authority Pressure to Be Nice: Terry's Story

Terry's story is a good example of just how powerful this cultural silencing into social compliance can be. Terry, 43 years old, reinforced for me the power of the physicians' words. She had been taking antidepressant medication for a long time but felt ambivalent about it. She was also in psychotherapy, had made good progress with her depression and had been working on relationship issues that had troubled her for years. Even though she was feeling much better, the physician who prescribed the medication advised her to continue with it through the winter and then return to him for advice about weaning off, a process that he said must be slow.

Three days before Christmas Terry ran out of the pills and did not renew the prescription. By Christmas Eve she was experiencing symptoms—heart palpitations and anxiety—and on Christmas Day she sought out a pharmacy hoping to get even one pill to carry her through to the next day when her usual pharmacy was open. The pharmacist she found cooperated and gave her a small supply of the medicine. Terry left the store, got into her car and swallowed a pill using saliva to wash it down. It was only halfway down her throat when her symptoms disappeared.

Of course, it is not possible for such a pill to be effective so quickly, and Terry knew that. As we explored the possible reasons for her remarkable recovery she said it was her doctor's words—his cautions about staying on the antidepressants over the winter and weaning off them gradually—that had the greatest impact on her. She believed she should not have disobeyed the doctor and her recovery was a direct result of re-compliance with his instructions, not of taking the pill. This phenomenon suggests that the symptoms were a product of her guilt about her disobedience. A short time after this event Terry decided to stop taking her medication and did so, at a slowed pace. The insight she gained gave her the strength to discuss difficult issues with her husband.
She told him her secret, a secret she held during their entire 15 years of marriage: that she had not wanted to be married but felt pressured to go through with the wedding.
She told him her secret, a secret she held during their entire 15 years of marriage: that she had not wanted to be married but felt pressured to go through with the wedding. When she risked talking with him about what she really felt, her deep shame and guilt lifted and she was able to begin moving forward in her life. Her marriage remained intact and her relationship with her husband improved. The strain of her long-harbored secret shame was gone and no longer distorted the relationship.

Terry's experience underscores what any good psychotherapist knows: that the words of an authority figure carry a lot of weight, for better or worse, for the people whose lives they touch. Because of their special position in our culture, physicians must speak with care and never underestimate the impact of their words on patients. The same applies to psychologists, psychotherapists, psychiatrists, counselors or anyone working with a vulnerable client. We need to be realistic about the power our positions hold in the minds of the people we treat, positional power that is deeply embedded in our social structure. In full awareness of this aspect of the professional-client relationship, we must practice with caution and compassion.

One of the most important things professionals can do is encourage their clients' search for personal wisdom with words and actions to give them a forum for expression. For this to be possible we must always question the tacit messages we are sending. Clients who have experienced abuse as children are especially vulnerable in therapy and we must pay close attention to their responses to us whether they are compliant or reactive.

Dangers of Niceness: Lisa's Story

Niceness creates difficulties relating in all kinds of relationships and the results can be profound and hurtful. Sometimes it puts people in dangerous situations, especially children.

Lisa, for example, was a 38-year-old professor when she first came to see me. She presented for psychotherapy when her mother's illness and death left her in a deep depression. As we worked through her grief it became clear that its depth had been exacerbated by events that had taken place much earlier. Her mother's death brought her face to face with a problem that had long been buried in the person of her stepfather, who survived her mother. Her parents separated when she was four years old and her mother married another man soon afterwards. This man, Mr. P., was the one she knew as her father because her biological father was not a participant in her life. Her mother and stepfather had had a difficult marriage beset by several separations. During one of these separations, when she was about 12 years old, her stepfather negotiated with her mother to have Lisa stay with him for a weekend at his cabin in the north. Lisa did not hesitate because she had spent some good times with him. Preparing for bed the first night of the weekend she noticed that Mr. P. had made up a bed only in the main bedroom.

"Where am I going to sleep?"she asked him.

"Right here,"came the reply. He patted the bed. Lisa was startled. She was bothered by the thought that she would be sleeping in the same bed with him. Yet Mr. P. was the only father she had known and she trusted him. He had taught her to ride her bicycle, stayed with her when her mother was working, cooked for her, helped her with her homework and sometimes cuddled with her. All the same, she felt uncomfortable with the sleeping arrangement.

As a 12-year-old adolescent, Lisa was obedient to the authorities in her life. That night at the cabin she did what she was taught to do: She remained quiet rather than question Mr. P. or insist on sleeping in another room by herself. She climbed into bed with him despite her feeling that something was not right about the arrangement. That night, he molested her.

When children are being nice they are attempting to keep themselves safe by pleasing others—in most cases the adults or older children in authority. They are remaining obedient, as they have been taught. When children who are most affected by the oppressiveness of niceness find themselves in situations such as Lisa's they are unable to protect themselves because the mechanisms of protection have been distorted by the message of niceness. Their ability to act on the feelings they experience when something seems wrong has been impaired because those feelings have been overridden by messages of propriety. Acting on their own initiative when it is in conflict with the authorities in their lives has never been encouraged. They either fear disciplinary action or, like Brad with his coloring book, are afraid they'll hurt their parents' feelings and risk their disapproval or abandonment.

When we teach children to be nice or, more precisely,
when we teach children to substitute obedience and niceness for their own intuitive wisdom, we render them incapable of trusting their sense of danger in situations where they may need to run from exploiters wearing masks, often personae that mimic niceness.
when we teach children to substitute obedience and niceness for their own intuitive wisdom, we render them incapable of trusting their sense of danger in situations where they may need to run from exploiters wearing masks, often personae that mimic niceness. The sexual abuse that has been exposed in recent years bears horrifying witness to this truth. Boys have been unable to tattle on the helpful and befriending coach at the hockey arena who molested them. Indeed, the word "tattletale" is meant to silence. Hundreds of children have been molested by priests whom they were taught to respect and obey. It is a feat that very few children can accomplish: to protect themselves when the natural inclination to detect danger and act on that inclination has been socialized out of them. This is especially true when danger comes in the form of either a friendly or an authoritarian adult.

For Lisa, exploring widely in the wake of her mother's death led to her disclosure of sexual abuse and the profound impact of niceness in her life. I helped her make links between the abuse and her current relationship, and that which she had never faced, her difficulty accepting that the man she wanted to marry might very well be trustworthy. Previously, she had unnecessarily found many reasons to distance herself from him, including her bereavement. Also, Lisa was often inhibited and, in particular, found directness on a personal level more difficult. She made jokes to cover her anxiety and was quick to tears. Working with her on understanding the impact of her past and its impact on her present life allowed her to be more assertive and direct in standing up for herself and getting her needs met in a healthy way.

Using the Concept of Niceness in Psychotherapy

Many nice people who present themselves in therapy do not know that niceness is a problem. They tell the therapist about their partners, about being anxious or depressed or unable to control their tempers with their spouses, about stress-related health problems, about their addictions to substances or electronic diversions, and they talk about other self-soothing ways that dominate their private lives. Even though they may give lip service to authenticity, they do not realize what it means to be out of touch, to be inauthentic. They are unaware of the behaviors that keep them distanced from their loved ones: the refusal to admit feelings, to ask hard questions or simply be transparent and honest. They do not grasp the depth and breadth of the effect on them of being nice and expecting the niceness of others, that is, being inauthentic and expecting—even tacitly encouraging—the inauthenticity of others.

They have never thought that being nice was anything but beneficial even though from time to time they may blurt out, "I've got to stop being so nice!" They do not recognize the links between niceness and shame, guilt and fear. Niceness, when introduced to them, may seem like a trite concept, but as the layers are explored that misconception is dashed.

As a result of the training to be nice and concomitant lack of training to express difficult thoughts and feelings, people suppress and endure, often with serious impact on their health and relationships. If they release the resulting pressure it is often away from the eyes of those with whom they feel most vulnerable. For some this will mean hiding true feelings from a romantic partner. For others it may mean pleasing an employer beyond reasonable expectations. Or it may mean shallow relationships with parents, siblings, or friends. They may release the resulting tension in intermittent angry explosions, and abrupt shifts of mood or sarcasm with deleterious impact on relationships and self-esteem.

In hindsight Brad knew what he had to do that day in Washington, to avoid falling into the trap of silencing his needs. He had to act on his sense of what was right in the situation, which was to go ahead to the museum on his own. Instead, he silenced himself by failing to act. As it happens so often, in that moment he was emotionally the child again, caught up in his fear that he would lose someone important to him. As we talked it was clear he knew what he could have done, to simply tell Jane he would go on his own if she was delayed and meet him there if she could. I asked what prevented him from acting in his own best interests, but he was mystified. I reminded him of the words he had uttered several times in sessions: "I've got to stop being Mr. Nice Guy." He'd spoken the words but thrown away the insight, like an actor flubbing his best lines. He was, at that time, too nice to act from his inner wisdom so he silenced his wishes and his intuitive sense of what was right for him. But that didn't stop the anger that continued to bubble and fester beneath the surface compliance. His anger was more acceptable than the shame he endured for feeling so needy and helpless that day.

Brad's dilemma illuminates the aspect of character development that must be supported in therapy if clients are to give up niceness and become more authentic in their relationships. They must be helped to find their own wisdom and then supported to accept, trust and act on it despite their fears of disapproval, rejection or abandonment, or the guilt and self-hatred they have accumulated as they have yielded their lives to niceness. They must be helped through the intense anxiety that accompanies new, risk-taking behavior that touches on a deep human fear—isolation.

One way to assist clients' progress is to identify an occasion when they did act on their inner wisdom, and ask them to describe the event in full detail, focusing on the emotions that accompanied it.
One way to assist clients' progress is to identify an occasion when they did act on their inner wisdom, and ask them to describe the event in full detail, focusing on the emotions that accompanied it. They will very likely talk about anxiety and fear occurring at the onset of the event and a sense of calm or even slight euphoria at its completion. These emotions and the progress through them can be conceptualized as a memory template to be applied to new situations in order to mitigate regression into niceness and facilitate movement into more authentic behavior. The therapist can encourage the client to remember the event and the progress through it when he or she feels paralyzed in new, threatening situations, cautioning that the hoped-for change may require many attempts.

Nice children grow into adults who share a serious deficit—no language for the honest expression of thought in a way that others can receive. As a small test, try helping a client express an honest reaction to a partner's request for a comment on a less-than-flattering new garment. More often than not, I have watched as beads of sweat form, hands flail or are wrung, bodies shift in the chair and gasps of frustration emanate from their wordless mouths, capped with the comment, "This is really hard."
Near-panic sets in at the thought of being honest because they cannot perceive of a way of being honest yet kind.
Near-panic sets in at the thought of being honest because they cannot perceive of a way of being honest yet kind. Beneath the altruistic responses, they often fear being seen as too critical or rude. Emotionally they feel they are destroying someone close to them, whose presence they need if only to maintain their own sense of being accepted. Although everyone makes judgments, large and small all the time, people feel they are "judging" and that they are disentitled to do so because they fear being isolated and judged themselves.

A great deal of anxiety accompanies attempts to express unsayable but honest thoughts and feelings. This is to be expected, so the psychotherapist can be prepared for it and offer empathic support for any attempt the client makes. The therapist can normalize the anxiety as something that occurs any time we undertake to change some familiar part of ourselves, especially when change involves interactions with other people or the forfeiting of some comfort-giving, though debilitating, behavior.

The therapist might ask the client for examples when the client was able to be successful with a new behavior. Extrapolating from those, the therapist can offer and explore examples of sentences that might be used, as if the client is learning a new language, checking to be sure the client can imagine himself saying the words. Together therapist and client can create a language of honesty and authenticity that is delivered with kindness. So, rather than say "that's nice" because he doesn't want to say what he thinks—that his partner looks fat in her new dress—the client can try a new approach. He might think about a conversation he's overheard in which someone else was honestly expressing a critique that was well received. He can attempt to understand the tone that was used and the phrasing. He may practice saying, with a kind tone, things like "I think the dress is a good color for you (if it is) but the cut is not so flattering."

As part of this process, the client must be helped to get a clear understanding of his own feelings, to explore his own reactions to critiques, his feelings of attraction to his partner especially if they have changed, and any other feelings he may bring to such a situation. Ultimately, he may not say exactly what the partner expects to hear but she will know she can depend on him to say what he means (and it may validate what she secretly thinks). Through this process in therapy he will understand much better the extent to which he has silenced himself and the fear and anxiety that have contributed to the silence, and he will become more comfortable putting authentic words into his own mouth.

In summary, the psychotherapist uses the following types of interventions, bearing in mind the need to be a gentle but appropriately challenging and authentic presence.
  • Notice the alarm behaviors alerting to the presence of niceness and its silencing.
  • Explore feelings that underlie the silencing.
  • Delve into the history to identify the events and messages that promoted niceness.
  • Find optional ways of relating that express an authentic position. Using specific situations, identify client strengths and previous success stories.
  • Practice new ways—new language—for expressing the authentic position.

Niceness Fails to Live Up to its Reputation

Children are dependent on adults in their lives for their survival. They have been taught that pleasing adults is important and that displeasing adults brings unpleasant consequences. As therapists we can help clients who retain and act from this fear to learn to say "no," something that is often discouraged in childhood. With the therapist's help, clients can learn to honor their own internal—not internalized and feared—authority. Sometimes that means clients will need support to say "no" to the therapist.

Niceness fails to live up to its reputation. It does not make relationships easier, does not guarantee a stamp of approval nor improve the quality of life.
Niceness fails to live up to its reputation. It does not make relationships easier, does not guarantee a stamp of approval nor improve the quality of life. On the contrary, niceness often causes confusion in relationships because of the dishonesty implicit in suppressing one's authentic thoughts and feelings. Being nice increases one's sense of alienation from oneself, by far the harshest consequence of all. Niceness detracts from one's quality of life by contributing to health and addiction problems that are an outgrowth of stressful internal conflicts. In contrast, any difficulties that occur in achieving the essential honesty of authentic acts and speech are overridden by the internal calm that prevails in its wake.

At the same time, moving out of niceness into authenticity can provoke anxiety, especially before the first benefits have been savored. Attempts by clients to accomplish this change are to be honored. It is a pleasure to witness them moving on in their lives as they stop second-guessing themselves, as they rid themselves of debilitating fear, shame and guilt, and start living openly and with dignity.

When Psychotherapists become Nice!

Finally, I have a caveat. Therapists may realize that they are nice and that niceness is adaptive in their work. It is a requirement of the work that we exercise appropriate caution in making our responses and we are accustomed to withholding our thoughts and opinions as we weigh what is best for our clients. It may also be the case that if a therapist is too cautious it will be perceived that holding back is a good thing to do despite our words to the contrary. Therapists and clients can benefit if the therapist, acting authentically, can be spontaneous and expressive within appropriate therapeutic boundaries.

Never underestimate the impact of the cultural silencing that is niceness on the well-being of your clients. Be aware that its tentacles move insidiously into health and relationships and squeeze out authenticity. The acceptance and encouragement of niceness as a vehicle for relating renders it more destructive than you might imagine. Be aware and resist perpetuating it as you support clients to relate in honest, authentic and meaningful ways that will serve their relationships and themselves well. 

Copyright © 2007 Psychotherapy.net. All rights reserved.
Order CE Test
$15.00 or 1.00 CE Point

CE points are a great way to save if you need multiple CEUs. Get up to 45% discount when you buy packages of 10, 20 or 40 points. Your CE points will be redeemed automatically at checkout. Get CE packages here.

Earn 1.00 Credits
Buy Now
Bios
CE Test
Evelyn Sommers Taking a giant leap out of niceness and into authenticity at the age of 40, Evelyn Sommers left her 20-year marriage and entered graduate school. She completed her PhD in Applied Psychology at the University of Toronto, accumulating experience in challenging internships in a hospital crisis unit and "doing time" at a women's prison where she completed her doctoral research. Work in a variety of occupations prior to graduate school—teaching, business, and social assistance, as well as parenting—enriches her ability to relate to clients. She is a psychotherapist in private practice in Toronto, Canada, and is the author of two books, The Tyranny of Niceness: Unmasking the Need for Approval (Dundurn Press, 2005) and Voices From Within: Women Who Have Broken the Law (University of Toronto Press, 1995). Dr. Sommers can be reached through her website at www.ekslibris.ca.

CE credits: 1

Learning Objectives:

  • Consider perspectives on the relationship between 'niceness' and authenticity.
  • Learn to identify which client issues may be related to the oppressive qualities of being nice.
  • Increase awareness of therapeutic interventions to help clients explore issues underlying their niceness.