Relationship Tips

Why Being Nice Can Be Problematic in Relationships and How To Choose Kindness Instead

Photo: Getty Images/ Plume Creative
When I ask my clients why they don’t share what they really think and feel with their colleagues, family members, partners, and friends, most people say some version of “because I don’t want to be mean” or “I don’t want to hurt them.” Somewhere along the way many of us started to buy into the cultural norm that we should avoid tough conversations in the name of being nice. But in my practice, I work with people to differente between niceness vs. kindness in relationships because niceness (being pleasing and agreeable) actually harms us and our connections, while kindness (the quality of caring about other people, even if caring doesn’t generate positive feelings) supports us in living freely in ourselves and connecting authentically to others. The distinction may seem subtle, but it is significant.

Being nice is about ensuring we protect ourselves from discomfort—the underlying motive is that if we pad ourselves with protection by being pleasant and “easy” for others, then we never have to deal with disappointing them, experiencing friction in the relationship, and the malaise that comes with it. One misconception about being a people-pleaser (those engaging in compulsory niceness, going along to get along, saying yes when they mean no) is that we do it to make sure not to disappoint others.

Any connection that is destabilized by truth is one that needs more of it.

In reality, people-pleasing is about avoiding our own negative emotions that arise in the presence of another who doesn’t get what they want from us. It’s about not wanting to threaten relational security by being true to ourselves. Niceness is therefore a self-motivated behavior that is aimed at being liked and keeping ourselves in positive regard with others so that we don’t have to face negative emotions. However, the full truth is, it doesn’t get rid of the discomfort in our bodies, it just delays it. We may feel “better” saying yes when we mean no in front of our friend, but when we are going to that party we really didn’t want to go to the next day, that’s when the negative emotions (remorse, regret, exhaustion) arise.

Where niceness is self-motivated, kindness is motivated by caring for someone else. Caring for another means being clear and direct, even if what is shared isn’t necessarily easy or comfortable to hear. If you reveal a belief or feeling that is self-possessed and conflict ensues, you didn’t cause the rupture in the relationship—you revealed the crack.

Any connection that is destabilized by truth (i.e., a moment of raw kindness over niceness) is one that needs more of it. Once the crack is revealed, the true work of authentic togetherness can begin. Just because something was unspoken in the relationship, doesn’t mean it wasn’t felt and contributed to the distance—we must make the implicit explicit in order to be truly close.

Sometimes what we want to hear (nice) is not what we need to hear (kind). Just like medicine, it doesn’t taste good when it goes down, but ultimately it makes us better.

5 steps to living out the value of kindness, rather than niceness

Step 1: Build awareness of what’s happening on the inside versus what’s being expressed on the outside

Are you aligning what you’re thinking and feeling internally with what you’re saying and doing? For example, do you notice you say yes automatically but then feel overwhelmed about completing your commitment? Do you notice you smile when you feel terrible? Do you nod along when really you disagree? Do you feel misunderstood and don’t speak up? These are examples of situations when you may be choosing niceness over authenticity and being known.

Greg McKeown, public speaker and author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, offers the practice of a “slow yes and a quick no.” When we say yes to everyone else, we say no to ourselves. While saying no may be new, and therefore hard, pausing creates space for you to get in touch with what you think and feel, before providing an automatic and inauthentic response that you’ll resent later.

Step 2: Monitor resentment

One way to notice if you’re being nice instead of kind is to build awareness of resentment. Are you often feeling like you give more than you get? Rolling your eyes at the requests of others but smiling to their face? Talking about them but not to them? Feeling like you don’t matter as much to others as they matter to you?

These are all signals from your intuitive guide, letting you know that you may be giving from a place of emptiness, hoping someone notices and fills your cup, rather than giving from a place of fullness.

Listen to these messages, pause on them, recognizing that they are letting you know that you’ve gone beyond your limit. Just because you have the capacity to give, doesn’t mean you have to.

Step 3: Understand where your commitment to niceness comes from

If you’ve lived a life governed by niceties, you may be easily swayed to leave your experience and join the experience of another. You may have an identity the predisposes you to this programming (like, for instance, being a member of a marginalized group), or you may have grown up in an environment where you had to defer to others and deny your own experience in order to maintain attachment and receive love.

While this may have been (or still be) necessary to maintain relational safety, too much giving and going along to get along makes us lose clarity of what we think and feel. Living in line with the demands of others without checking in with the self is paving a path to feeling disconnected from your core and your relationships. Reexamining the core beliefs that no longer serve you with curiosity allows you to develop a different relationship with them: noticing them and how they helped you secure approval and acceptance, but not always giving them the keys to be in the driver’s seat of your life anymore.

Step 4: Anticipate and prepare for difficult conversations

When we anticipate friction in our interactions, we feel heightened emotions in our bodies and can therefore lose contact with our rational thoughts. This is called amygdala hijacking–when emotions override the brain’s ability to respond rationally. Instead, get to know your thoughts and feelings beforehand—practice saying them aloud or to a friend, familiarizing yourself with a new way of expression.

While these new words may sound “mean,” remember that when you take a position, it is an act of kindness, as it frees others up to do the same. For example, if you share that you’re feeling disrespected by another, it allows the other person to consider their actions and make choices about how they want to treat you. Not only does this help the other person meet your needs, but it also may make them consider how they show up in other relationships, furthering their growth. If you are remaining silent about your dissatisfactions, you are helping to maintain a dynamic that doesn’t serve you. Consider how relieving it is to you when someone else states their preference or needs, so you don’t have to do the relational guesswork. When you are clear, you are kind.

Step 5: Reframe the goal from being liked to being respected

While there is nothing wrong with wanting to be liked, when it is our primary goal, we may trade what sounds good to someone else for what feels bad inside ourselves. When we make others feel good, but we feel bad, this is unkind to them and to us. Consider the difference between being liked, often rooted in an interest to seek approval, and being respected, which comes from living in line with your values and from being a person of integrity. It takes time to reframe the belief that nice is “good” and honesty that creates disharmony is “bad.” Give yourself space to get acquainted with a new way of thinking.

As you consider choosing respect over likability, take a moment to consider what you value (honesty, authenticity, clarity, perhaps) instead of what you’re valued for. Are you living your life in alignment with these values? What needs to shift to support you in being in harmony with yourself, instead of focusing on being in harmony with everyone else? When this is hard, it can be helpful to look to figures in the world and in our lives who we respect, because of their commitment to their purpose and doing what they set out to do, regardless of their likability.

Listen out for the voices who invite your negative emotions and do not consider diversity of thought as problematic, they will be good people with whom to practice directness and clarity.

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