“You’re just such a nice guy.”
That was the number one compliment I received throughout high school (especially from the ladies). At the time, with a dorky smile, skinny jeans and an emo fringe, I would say “thanks” and hope my voice wouldn’t break.
Like most people, I took it as a compliment (I mean, I guess). To be fair, they always meant it as a compliment. To be nice, according to the dictionary, is to be “pleasant”, “polite”, or “agreeable”. Okay. Thanks.
But as I got older, I began to question this wonderful character trait. I questioned whether being “polite” or “nice”, instead of truthful and good, was actually a good thing. To me, being a “nice guy” had connotations of weakness, of being a doormat – hence the saying, “Nice guys finish last”.
Surely that is just semantics though, right? Well, not necessarily.
Being nice is not always good. Take it from me, a very nice guy (according to the ladies).
The Nice Guy Persona
By the time I reached my early 20s (I can say that now that I’m 25), I started to see behind the scenes, to go beneath the surface, beyond my behaviour, into my motivations and beliefs. I came to realise that I had a need for approval. And it didn’t stop after I left the teen years. Even as an adult, I needed people to like me. I craved acknowledgement and validation. And so, I was very, very nice. I would be extremely polite, seek to never offend, and I would hide my flaws to make sure the persona of “nice” was maintained.
I didn’t respect my own needs, feelings or wants; I didn’t even know what they were. I just ignored them, or minimised them, because there was always someone else’s needs which were more important. I would give of myself for others until there was nothing left, then give some more, and need nothing in return.
On the outside, I was a “good person”, or a “good Christian”, but on the inside I was dysfunctional. I had low self-esteem, and so many warped and twisted perceptions about who I was, and who I was expected to be – as an adult, and as a man.
This is a Problem
Eventually I woke up to myself, and realised that the person that I’d become was a hypocrite. I was being fundamentally dishonest, since I was not really the nice person I pretended to be, and I was not really living the life that I was telling others to live. Rather than “such a nice guy”, I was basically lying to myself, and everyone in my life.
In being a “nice guy”, I ended up getting burned by others, burned out by stress, deeply frustrated and resentful, and extremely anxious.
So after everything in my life had fallen apart (for the hundredth time), I decided to get my poop in a pile and deal with the skeletons in my closet.
Why was I living in this same old cycle of drama and frustration? What is really going on here?
While on that journey, I found a diagnosis for my problem. I was introduced to a peculiar sounding book with a cheesy title: No More Mr Nice Guy, by Robert Glover.
At first, I was sceptical of some macho sounding crap. But what I read there truly cut me to the heart, then ripped it out of my chest and diced it into a stir fry.
The Nice Guy Syndrome
Dr Glover made the case that I was suffering from an anxiety disorder called the “Nice Guy Syndrome”. The nice guy syndrome is a set of beliefs that many men hold today about themselves and the world around them that are fundamentally false and harmful, especially to themselves and their close relationships.
At its core, the nice guy syndrome is a desperate need for approval. The way this is sought is by being nice – by seeking to please others, avoiding conflict, and seeking to never “burden” anyone else with their needs. The hope is that in return, the man will have his needs met, he will be loved, he will never be shamed, and will have a happy life.
Sounds innocent enough. Good in theory, but at its core it is a recipe for disaster – anger, resentment, disappointment, disillusionment, anxiety and depression.
While reading this book and going through counselling, I had a core assumption about myself completely shattered, an assumption I’d held for most of my life – that I was naturally shy, naturally a nice guy, and naturally prone to depression and anxiety from things completely out of my control. I was “born this way”.
Yet Dr Glover helpfully argues that this disorder is a learned behaviour and belief system – not genetic and not a personality type – that usually begins in childhood, and becomes further entrenched throughout a man’s life.
Beginning with a chaotic or traumatic childhood, continuing with anti-male messages in the media, and finished by failed relationships, the nice guy syndrome is a worldview, a set of beliefs about self and others, that acts as an operating system for life, and with every failed relationship, it serves as further proof for the need to be nice, to pretend to be perfect, and to be needless.
It hurts my pride to admit it, but this was my entire life narrative. I was a nice guy. I grew up in a chaotic home where the needs of others were desperate and always took priority. I was the middle child between two very troubled siblings, whose problems were always “code red”, while mine were just minor. I learned to always avoid the spotlight of attention, to never create a fuss or ask for anything. I learned to neglect and ignore my own needs, because the needs of others were always more urgent.
I grew up digesting anti-male sentiments from feminism, in the movies and the media, that being a confident man (or a man in general) was something to be ashamed of, instead of celebrated and honoured. In a nutshell, I learned how to be passive, how to be timid, and how to develop a strong shame and guilt complex.
This book shattered my assumptions and really hit me for six. But the great thing about the bitter truth was that, if this was indeed a learned set of beliefs and behaviours, then I could unlearn them. And therefore, I had hope.
Dr Glover’s call for nice guys is to pursue authenticity – to be yourself, respect who you are, and learn to value your own needs.
While I was reading it, I was also discovering a fresh picture in the Bible of my true identity as God’s child. As a follower of Jesus, there was no room for low self-esteem, for shame, for self-hatred. Not if I was God’s prized possession, given dignity and purpose, made in his image.
No, that kind of toxic shame was coming from somewhere else. This book helped me on my long journey of overhauling all the skeletons in my mental closet.
As a Christian, I wouldn’t fully agree with everything Dr Glover recommends, particularly some of his approaches to sex. And parts of the book are a little crude. But taking it with a grain of salt, it was a blessing in my life.
A Recovering Nice Guy
So now, about 18 months later, I’m a “recovering nice guy”. I’m learning to value and respect myself for who I am, warts and all, not for being a “nice guy”.
I’m learning to stop pretending, trying to impress, or needing approval to be who I am.
I’m learning to approach relationships as an emotionally healthy person, and define them how I want them to be, with the right boundaries and structures. Some relationships have become healthier, others – toxic ones – have had to end, and new ones have started, that are healthy and mutually uplifting.
I’m learning to value and accept my needs, and actively take care of myself.
I’m learning to empower others to fix their own problems, rather than try to fix it for them.
I’m learning to have the courage to be authentic to who I am, and who God made me to be, not who I think people want me to be.
Above all, I’m learning to see myself as God sees me through Jesus – loved, forgiven, accepted, and covered by grace when I make mistakes, and fail.
Healthy people don’t need a doctor. Sick people do. Nice guys don’t need a saviour. Real guys do. Being real is so much better than being nice.
Grace for Failures is the blog of Carlin Doyle, to encourage and inspire those who have gotten life wrong for a long time, and want to try and do things a little differently. Click here for more info, and here for more posts.
*Afterthought – I’m reading a similar sounding book at the moment, called No More Christian Nice Guy by Paul Coughlin, about the role of Christian culture in promoting this “nice guy syndrome”. He highlights how stereotypes of Jesus Christ as soft, effeminate and “nice” have created a culture of passive men. But thankfully, as a Christian himself, the author doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. He then highlights the real Jesus of the Gospels. He communicates a view of Biblical masculinity that his holistic, real, and faithful to the teaching of the Bible – one that embraces strength, courage and integrity. So far it is fantastic, but I haven’t finished it yet.