Bringing our own lunch for the class field trip meant I had an excuse to convince my mom to buy me a pack of Tiger Pops.
The lollipops were popular in my elementary school at the time, and I’d decided I’d share a few with some classmates and keep the rest for myself. The thought of sharing my treats with others made me happy. I didn’t have friends, and didn’t know how to make any, so why not try to make myself likable?
I showed one classmate the pops during an opportune moment—the teacher wasn’t around. But candy in a school attracts children like squirrels to a bird feeder. Everyone gathered to ask for their share. I’d only wanted to give out a few, but why refuse the others? I couldn’t appear choosy to potential friends.
I gave one to everyone who asked, and was left with none for myself. Everyone gleefully returned to their business, while I sat alone with a hope now gone. With the return of the teacher, and a few stern words, the children gave the unopened pops back, but that did nothing to change the powerless feeling I couldn’t yet identify.
It’s an innocent childhood moment, harmless as a single incident. But it became harmful each time the moment repeated itself—”niceness” quietly calcified within my bones before I could realize how heavily it weighed on my body.
It got heavier each time I did my friend’s homework because she didn’t know how, or maybe just didn’t want to do it at all. Heavier when I allowed a classmate to cheat on her reading test, fully understanding the consequences of my actions, but not wanting her to fail. Heavier when my stuff was moved to a different chair so someone else could sit with their friends at lunch, and I accepted without protest.
Then, as I became accustomed to that weight, it started to feel lighter. Lighter as I tended to the needs of friends, bosses, and teachers who dismissed my voice or would put me down while still expecting support or obedience. Lighter as I kept quiet and agreeable to make my superiors happy, or hang on to the few friendships I managed to make.
Lighter until I forgot that I used to float, untethered to any unwritten obligation I had to others’ comfort.
We visualize niceness as the golden expectation of human behavior—an offspring of toxic positivity. Nice people are viewed as having uncomplicated feelings, or feelings not discolored by any context or history. It’s understood that our duty as nice people is to help others without restraint, give without complaint, and allay any emotion mad or sad. Anything less and we’re disrespectful. Heartless at worst.
So, in turn, we render our own context meaningless. We box away our humanity and turn into a function that serves the needs of the people around us. Nice people are painted as people with pure hearts. In the long run, however, as we continue to give and allow without bounds, we start putting others first at the expense of what we need.
Here are four ways that our niceness stunts our personal growth:
1. It prevent us from developing into who we truly want to be.
As a child, I was frequently complimented for being sweet. Getting that praise felt good. Each time I heard it, I felt I was doing a great job as a person and had to keep it up. As I grew and found friendships difficult to create, I wore niceness like a badge. I wanted lasting relationships with my classmates and neighbors, and everyone liked someone who would give them what they wanted, right?
Niceness may be born from an innate kindness, or a genuine desire to support people in the way that they need. We may start with the intent of meeting our own well-intended desire to make others happy, but when kindness is or becomes the bedfellow of insecurity, unmanaged sensitivity, loneliness, or any other conditions that question our worth, kindness can lose its strength, turning into niceness.
In turn, we become who others need us to be, not who we are.
2. It can make us neglect our fears and issues.
I held onto my badge of “kindness” because it provided me with an identity. It gave me a false hope that someday someone would see my true value as a person. But as I blindly clung to that hope, I failed to see that I had inadvertently stowed away my underlying issues—my fear of being rejected and forgotten, and my struggles with opening up to people.
Niceness may provide short-term satisfaction, but it’s not a sustainable way to solve our problems or get what we need. I gave and allowed to prevent people from disliking or criticizing me and, as a result, sacrificed the chance to unpack, explore, and work on my issues. So they festered and eventually formed scars. I was someone who just couldn’t open up to anyone. Everyone else was important, not me. I would always be invisible.
For years I wore those scars as part of my skin.
As niceness becomes a reflex, it becomes easier to allow someone to push beyond our boundaries than it is to reinforce our boundary net. Untangling the web of pain and fear from our veins is hard. But if we continue to live with niceness on auto pilot, we rob ourselves of the chance to free ourselves from the shadows that haunt us.
3. It increases our tolerance for what we don’t want to tolerate.
If we ignore our issues and continue to allow, we start building a tolerance for the way people treat us. With each comment we let slide, with every time we refuse to say “no,” we are sending out a stronger signal through our bodies that we can take more.
Each time I didn’t stand up for myself, I felt less driven to show any semblance of resistance. I began to accept others’ treatment as “just the way things are.” And if I was going to make it through life as myself, I had to grow a thicker skin. Or, if I broke down, swallow what I was handed.
Other people are responsible for their actions, and there are many reasons why we can’t always push back. In some instances, though, there may be a hard question to consider:
Are we taking an active role in limiting ourselves?
At some point, we must realize that our tolerance for how people handle or manipulate our niceness is our own responsibility.
It can be hard to believe beyond our status quo. So much so that the idea that we deserve better might seem to be revolutionary. But we don’t have to tolerate what we don’t want to tolerate. Once we start questioning established beliefs and reflexes, we can start breaking down our survival habits and building up a life that allows us to live.
4. It takes away our power.
In dealing with tolerance, there also runs the struggle of holding onto personal power. When we tolerate giving and allowing under the guise of our niceness, we hand over our decision-making power. We move according to others’ expectations.
I hadn’t learned the skill of telling someone “no” with intention. That is to say that I didn’t yet know that saying no was necessary to protect myself and tend to my own needs. But I still subconsciously felt the sting of my unmet needs.
Realizing my personal cost of being nice came in a wave of angry flashes. They burned fast and hot, but they never lasted for a sustained period. I was too nice to be an angry person, so I always let it go without letting it out. I made excuses for others’ actions, sometimes blaming myself. I tolerated what was given to me. This left a feeling in my chest—that powerless feeling that I couldn’t identify with words until recently.
Disarmed indignation—that righteous anger that comes when we’ve been wronged and know we should be treated with respect—is often defused by our own niceness. Being nice weakens a response that should push us to push back.
Indignation is a golden anger that preserves our dignity. If we believe the narrative that any form of anger or strong emotion is unproductive, we end up throwing away our power. Over time, we can become bitter, and the resentment can build to an anger that is self-destructive.
Niceness is a concept we like to romanticize. Self-sacrificing is beautiful, it makes us strong, we say. No. It’s an unrealistic ideal that we place on others and ourselves to force the world into a “better state” without doing the work of asking “how” and “why.”
Not that we should give up on being good.
Kindness is a more just way of honoring everyone’s needs—including our own. We should prioritize who needs attention and adjust the approach accordingly. Situations and perspectives change all the time. Sometimes that means putting others first. Sometimes it means putting ourselves first. But the manufactured sugar of niceness should never come at the expense of our own evolution.