Raise your hand if you recently said yes to something you really wanted to say no to. C’mon, get ‘em up there. This is the season when everyone seems stretched to the max, what with holiday celebrations, school responsibilities, and end-of-the-year deadlines at work.
Just the other day, my regular power walking mate had to cancel our nightly exercise, citing a nephew’s birthday party (for which she had taken on the responsibility of decorations and gift bags because the parents wouldn’t do it), an impending overnight trip from Mexico to the States for which she needed to prepare, and holiday travel preparations to visit family out of town.
The same gal is already working long hours at her family’s business, for which she gave up a high-paying power job elsewhere to help out for a few years. With a four year old of her own, a husband who wasn’t raised to parent the way many modern men do, and a week running on too little sleep, my amiga was hanging by a slender thread.
I understood my friend’s need to unload something from her overcrowded plate. I used to be more of a people pleaser, but it hit the fan last year, and I decided to start taking care of myself first, instead of catering to everyone else’s needs.
It often happens this way: you’re nice, nice, nice until you have a meltdown and realize how far away from your own priorities you have drifted.
The Consequences of Being Too Nice
Being nice sounds like a wonderful thing, and it is, until you become too nice. For many people, the down-slide to doormat status is an insidious journey, until one day, they turn around and find everyone is taking advantage of their generosity. Kindness, as the old saying goes, is often taken for weakness. When you’re too nice, you wind up being overloaded at work or being subtly bullied into taking on volunteer projects you don’t have time for. When being too passive becomes a habit, your own needs can not be met because you’re spending all your energy making everyone else happy.
Within the family unit, being overly nice can make you the default care person that everyone relies on to assist with senior parents or babysit relatives’ kids. If you’re from a dysfunctional family, according to Karl Melvin, an Irish psychotherapist who specializes in dealing with toxic relationships, you may find yourself made a scapegoat for anything that goes wrong, or forced to keep secrets between family members as a sort of UN peacekeeper for your siblings.
Personal relationships outside the family can suffer as well when you’re overly accommodating. You may find yourself constantly seething inside because your partner always chooses the restaurant when you go out, or your date constantly reschedules with no regard for your calendar. Perhaps you’re always in the “friend zone,” deemed “too nice” or “too good” for people with whom you’d like to be romantically involved.
In a more dangerous scenario, as a people pleaser, you can make yourself ripe for attracting toxic people—emotionally manipulative, needy, and backstabbing “frenemies,” who are continually embroiled in drama and financial peccadilloes. Over time, you may develop codependent tendencies, where you subconsciously seek out uneven or abusive relationships as a pattern.
Other disadvantages of being too nice include:
- Your kids may wind up modeling their behavior on yours, thereby becoming people pleasers themselves.
- People may distrust you, thinking you have ulterior motives behind your excessive kindness.
- You can become dissatisfied with relationships because you have unrealistic expectations that other people will be equally accommodating of your desires.
- You can lose out financially, seeing other people take plum promotions at the office or getting better credit card terms because they’re willing to stand up for themselves.
- You may engage in unhealthy self-soothing behaviors, like consuming too much alcohol or overeating, which can become addictive.
- You may develop physical ailments related to pent-up stress, such as high blood pressure, weight gain from excessive cortisol levels, or adrenal/thyroid fatigue.
Where Does All This Niceness Come From?
The roots of people pleasing often lie in early childhood. Kids learn to fend off chaos or avoid conflict by making other peoples’ needs more important than their own. In dysfunctional families, being overly accommodating can be a survival mechanism that continues into adulthood, even when it’s no longer needed.
Some people who are too nice also get an inner reward for their efforts and like the way that doing for others all the time, even at their own expense, makes them feel good (at least initially). People pleasers tend to revel in being the go-to person for the boss, and they like the virtuous reputation it brings.
Still others have a high need for control, stemming from inconsistencies in childhood, or crisis situations where they lost control as adults (abusive relationships, cancer, death of a loved one, job loss, etc.).
Today’s media don’t always help. Women still feel pressure to be all things to everyone, to be the perfect career woman/parent/partner, although they intellectually understand the impossibility of that aspiration. Few women of a certain age have received any training in how to be appropriately assertive, so they lack the skills they need to put themselves first. Throw in society’s current emphasis on being positive no matter what, and you have the perfect cocktail for being too nice.
How to Stop Being Too Nice and Start Being More Assertive: 10 Ways to Say No
It’s never too late, however, to start learning how to be more assertive. Being assertive doesn’t mean you need to be mean; it simply means mastering the ideal blend of kindness and firmness. If you think you’ve become a little too nice, here are some tips to put your life more in balance:
- Start small. Practice saying no in situations that don’t have a big impact on your life, such as sending back unacceptable food at restaurants or squelching overzealous department store salespeople.
- Rehearse ahead of time if you need to confront someone who typically bullies or takes advantage of you. Stay calm during the actual conversation, and don’t let the other person derail your resolution to stick up for yourself.
- Use email for things like PTA or coworker conversations, if talking on the phone or in person makes you so nervous that you lose your will. Email gives you time to frame your argument and choose your words carefully. Use a “compliment sandwich” when you have to give bad news by placing it in between two pieces of more positive commentary. Example: “I really admire how well you are doing pulling this rummage sale together. Unfortunately, I have a prior commitment and cannot work at the sale this weekend. I have next weekend free, if you need a hand sending thank you notes to all the sponsors, or compiling a final report.”
- Don’t feel the need to explain all the time. In many instances, a simple, “No, sorry, I can’t” should do. Let that domineering classroom mom think you’re too busy to make sugar-free, low-fat vegan treats for the soccer game, when in reality, you plan to spend the evening in your pajamas catching up on back seasons of “House of Cards.” When pressed, don’t give your power away by babbling. Look at your watch, say “I gotta run!” and promise to send an email later.
- Set boundaries and stick to them. A boundary is a line you won’t cross, or one you won’t let someone else cross with you. Examples of boundaries include not answering your phone after 9 o’clock p.m., or not working on the weekends your kids are with you. The minute you become wishy-washy about your boundaries, they’re no longer boundaries, and you’re back to square one.
- End toxic relationships. Take a tough stand on your relationships with narcissists, drama queens, and energy vampires. Ask yourself how much you value the relationship and how much the relationship is affecting your health and well being. If someone has harmed or hurt you before, chances are they’ll do it again, if you keep letting them. Sometimes your best defense is severing the relationship altogether.
- Channel your kindness with more intention, as in the rummage sale scenario above. Rather than responding everywhere with blanket yeses, choose special activities where you can truly make a difference. It might be better and more satisfying to give all your volunteer time to one charity or an elderly neighbor than to be worn thin by an hour here, an hour there.
- Release the need to be perfect. Does it really matter that your reading club thinks you’re the ideal housewife, or is it better to spend the time you would have given to scouring your house attending your kid’s swim meet? Base your priorities on what you want for yourself, not what you want other people to think of you.
- Learn the art of self-love. Schedule some time each week to pamper yourself, even if it means saying no to someone else to do it. Indulge in a bubble bath, a pedicure, an extra-long workout, or coffee at your favorite café. And watch the negative self-talk; it’s very easy for your words to become your actions.
- Get professional help if you struggle with people pleasing or its medical consequences. You may need to explore why you’re given to people pleasing in the first place. Even a few sessions with a therapist can steer you in the right direction and give you opportunities to practice your newfound assertiveness in a safe setting.
Expect some backlash on your first foray out of doormat territory. People typically don’t like to see others around them change. It may force them to reassess their own behavior or make things less convenient for them. Know too that you may have a tendency at first to overcompensate for your previous excessive niceness. This is a common reaction when people first discover the power that comes with standing up for themselves. Over time, you’ll find the perfect middle ground, where you can assert your needs without coming off like a shrew. Your days as a doormat will be over!