If someone called either of my daughters a “shameless hussy,” I would tell them to immediately shut their sh*t down, put up some boundaries, and cease all contact.
But someone recently called me a “shameless hussy,” and I’m still politely corresponding with him.
I have “Nice Girl Syndrome,” or at least, I did.
I’ve worked for years to heal this generational disease, with one specific intentionality: to avoid passing it down to my children.
But sometimes—maybe because this world is exhausting for women, or maybe because I’m just tired of it all—the “Nice Girl Syndrome” comes out of remission and spreads throughout my body and mind, reminding me of the dangers of being perceived as un-nice.
Although my emotions pleaded with me to block and delete the shameless hussy guy, my nice girl won. Women and girls are supposed to be smiling, accommodating, nurturing, and helpful. Our gender is expected to be agreeable, a breath of fresh air, a comfort.
Females are culturally valued when they are nice.
We are deemed a potential threat when we are authentic, powerful, or truthful. If anything of the sort attempts to emerge, we are taught in our youth to compress, edit, fix, or airbrush it—to present ourselves using just the right tone, at just the right time, in just the right way.
As the corrective instructions amplify in our teen years, our subconscious terror grows with the fear that we will be seen as harsh or abrasive, or even worse, we may be deemed crazy or dramatic.
The “Nice Girl Syndrome” training surrounds us. It comes from our parents; it comes from our teachers, our friends’ parents, our books, and our movies.
As we grow to become women, we learn to pause to consider how everything we say might be received, interpreted, or responded to—especially when dealing with men.
When dating, the female instruction manual dictates that we always be seen as fun and playful, and that we avoid bringing up serious, heartfelt topics, lest we scare men away.
Don’t talk about politics.
Don’t discuss money.
Don’t argue with him over anything.
“I’ll be the coach, and you’ll be the player,” said one man I dated briefly, and yet not briefly enough.
Who cares, I have to ask myself, if some random person calls you emotional, or says you’re overreacting, or rolls his eyes? He’s a stranger and you do not need his approval on anything.
My brain knows it doesn’t matter, but my body feels differently. Inside my stomach, a pit gathers—like a ball of dust captured by a vacuum. It’s dirty. A collection of unsavory and unclean particles of harsh thoughts gather up and bound into a canister inside me. These revolting bits aren’t to be shown to anyone.
Hidden in the pit of my stomach, I try to present only the clean, nice version of me—just as I was trained to do. Once the instructions of our parents or the rules of a dating book nestle inside us, the nice girl becomes the narrative and the voice inside our head.
As children and as teenagers, this training helps us earn the praise and approval we so craved. But when we grow up and become adults—with the lion’s share of cultural responsibilities of children, plus jobs and emotional loads—it becomes a malignant syndrome.
When we find out that we still have the whispering voices of the nice girl, even as we hold the heavy load responsibilities of adult women, we can diagnose ourselves with “Nice Girl Syndrome.”
We are living in fear. “Nice Girl Syndrome” is more than just about being liked or being seen as pleasant. It’s about safety. We are taught that our voices, unless moderated and controlled, could get us dumped, assaulted, fired, mocked, dismissed, rejected, or shunned. And so, we learn to control, tighten, and shrink.
We invalidate our opinions or feelings in order to gain social acceptance, muting and gaslighting ourselves every step of the way.
We choose softness or kindness in our messaging or presentation while editing ourselves to be nice, even at the cost of being effective.
In my late 30s, I was navigating a difficult scenario with a teacher who was a grave mismatch with my kindergarten child. I carefully approached the teacher to create strategies that might help my five-year-old. My words were edited and my tone controlled, as the voice of my mother kept reminding me to be sure not to offend her. The teacher wasn’t offended, but I got nowhere with my limp, nice girl approach to request change.
When no results materialized, I polled dozens of friends and former teachers, searching for validation within each conversation that it was okay to cause a scene (aka, to write an email to ask her for a meeting with the principal).
I was sure I must be making a big deal out of it. I felt I had no right to ask for more, lest I be deemed demanding or hysterical, and I blamed my young child for being the difficult one.
The difficult one was me: edited so tightly that I generated no efficacy.
I spent more energy fighting with myself than I ever did with anyone else. It took me two internally tortured months to meet with the principal.
I felt “Nice Girl Syndrome” well up inside me. Overriding it meant dismissing years of conditioning of what it is to be a woman.
I had low skills on how to navigate a difficult situation, as being a nice girl trains us to repress ourselves, but never teaches us how to advocate for ourselves.
On the other hand, males in our culture are raised to be leaders. This means having opinions, navigating challenging decisions, gathering information, and generating confident stances on what to do, who to speak to, or how to approach a conversation.
For boys and men, there is no such thing as stepping out of line, as it is seen as being assertive. There is no such thing as being too talkative, too loud, or too much of anything.
In our culture, teenage boys are encouraged to solve problems, which means we give them a lot of practice and space to use their voices. But to our teenage girls, we just silently tell them, “Don’t. Don’t practice a skillset you will never need.”
Boys are taught to be game changers, girls are taught to be cheerleaders.
Many women have the experience of turning 35 or 40 and finding the f*ck it bucket, where we no longer care about what other people think. Like a baby deer learning how to walk, we clumsily and awkwardly learn how to speak.
We regress to the mindset of a teenager, unsure of our words or how someone else is going to respond.
We end up in the principal’s office, feeling like a scolded child, even though we are now the parent and the adult. An aunt gives us a scathing look, a brother tells us we’re not fun anymore, a grandfather worries that his young granddaughter doesn’t have proper manners.
Each outbreak of “Nice Girl Syndrome” becomes an opportunity to say, “Not this time.” It’s a chance to remember that our voices have validity and purpose—a call to action in a world that cries for justice and equality. A call that we are both hearing and answering.
Walking in New York City a few years ago with my teenage daughters, I caught a middle-aged man ogling their breasts. I embodied Medusa, daring him to look me in the eye.
When he felt my stare, he looked at me as if to say, “What are you going to do about it, b*tch?” Finally, he seemed to find his conscience and turn away. He was with his wife and young daughter.
“I can’t believe he was staring at you like that! He’s my age and with a daughter,” I raged. My body filled with adrenaline.
My daughters said, “Mom, we know. This happens all the time—we’re used to it.”
Sometimes, my daughters have decided it’s better to be nice than to cause a scene. They know there is always a cost—always a tradeoff, always a consequence to pay.
To heal ourselves from “Nice Girl Syndrome,” we have to remember that no woman came here to be agreeable. We came here to grow, to find our voices, and to speak our truth. It’s not just a matter of having that right, but of having that duty.
My daughters, and someday their daughters, should not grow up in a world where this is “just how things are.” They should be able to scream across Times Square and tell a man to go f*ck himself.
And so should I.
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