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Nikki Newman: Are You Too Nice For Your Own Good?

Being nice is often seen as a sign of weakness and I have a real problem with that.  But what should you do if it’s just your nature to be that way?

‘You have a nice face; the kids will take advantage of you,’ It was 8am on my first day of a new teaching job in a tough high school.  After leaning back in her chair and taking a long look at me, these were the less than helpful words that came from the mouth of one of my new colleagues, a long-standing member of the English Department. This most definitely was not a compliment.

Sure enough, the kids were a problem for me. Not all of them of course, but enough of them. It was a difficult place to work: teachers leaving left, right and center, condemned mobile classrooms still being used –  I think I got most of them – and hardly any hint of support from leadership. Not good.  But still, this comment did make me wonder if there was some truth to the statement.  I just hadn’t thought of it before.  Well not since my days being bullied by those meaty-fisted-loud-mouthed girls at school. Did I have an air of ‘nice-ness’ that preceded and undermined anything I did?  And what the hell could I do about it?

Is it possible to be too nice?  Is that a bit like being too sensitive? Or too quiet? We hear these things so much more than ‘too unkind’, ‘too insensitive’, or ‘too loud’.  Why can’t it be that way round instead?

Not that I don’t completely lose my rag sometimes. Not that I am incapable of being not nice. I just have an inner gauge that means I don’t very often do those things.  They’re not my first and most natural course of action.  I was always a peacemaker in my family and I err on the side of quietude and placation.

I can do bitchy, I can do scathing, I can do opinionated, I can do assertive, I can do angry.  The problem is, when I do any of these things – even the most positive of them, assertiveness – people are invariably so shocked that it reverberates for much longer than it should because it’s such a surprise.  Which in turn makes me feel rotten and apologetic, even if I’ve said or done nothing more than the next person for whom it’s more ‘in character’.

I did a creative evening course earlier this year.  In the early classes, the tutor was quick to label us while she worked on learning our names.  For example, there was the ‘cool dude’ with his long hair and quirky style.  To my horror I was referred to as ‘sweet lady’.  What’s wrong with that you may ask?  I have no objection to being called sweet.  I am glad if that’s one of my characteristics.  Thank you.  But this label came from a woman I was already full of admiration for and she was younger than me.  This came before she had learned my name.  I suddenly felt like a sweet old lady who had misread the room number and shuffled into the wrong class. Had I brought nothing else to these first couple of lessons than ‘sweetness’? I was mortified. Honestly, I think I’d have preferred ‘Exhausted with dark circles under her eyes lady’.

Seriously though, I get fed up with people just thinking I’m nice.  I don’t think it does me any favors where business is concerned either.  I don’t want any trouble.  I don’t want anyone else to go to any trouble.  I don’t want to cause any trouble.  So I’m agreeable, don’t rock the boat.  And I do get frustrated by my own nature sometimes.

But I’m learning to ask for what I want and need.  I’m learning to say what I mean, I just need to be able to do that across the board.  The challenge is to do that with the people I find most intimidating, not just the ones I feel comfortable with.

What I don’t want is to have to change the person I am in order to get some kind of respect from those who are more bullish than me.

Interestingly, over the duration of the above course, something changed in the way the tutor perceived me.  During the last class, she turned to me in front of a group of other students and said ‘Nikki kicks ass’. Quite a turnaround.  What happened? I’m not exactly sure but it restored my faith in my way of being.

I had attended every session, worked my butt off and consistently produced my best because I loved what I was doing. I had also taken a gamble on one project and completely opened myself up in order to achieve the most honest ‘authentic’ outcome. It felt great to be rewarded for taking this gamble.  It felt great that I had graduated from ‘sweet lady’ to someone with, well, a bit of edge.  And I didn’t have to get loud to do it.

But still I struggle with the worry that people take advantage of me or don’t consider my feelings or needs because superficially they perceive me as just ‘nice Nikki’ and that somewhere along the lines that means ‘weak Nikki’.

But what about all of you out there? Are you too nice for your own good? Does it hold you back in life? Or do you wear your niceness with pride? I’d love to hear your comments…

Nikki Newman, 36, from England, currently lives in Qatar, where she moved this year due to her husband’s work. A former teacher and proud mother of 7-year-old Oliver, she’s currently focusing on settling her family into their new lives, while also pursuing her passion for painting. To see Nikki’s work please go to: www.nikkinewmanart.com .

5 Comments

  1. Jen

    June 23, 2011 at 8:54 am

    Oh my, I could have written this. I am frequently told that I am “too nice” in my day-to-day work life. I am trying to be more assertive so I can be friendly but forceful when I need to be.

    I just don’t see the need to be abrasive when I speak to others unless they truly start acting abusive to me. I cringe when I hear people act terrible to each other. I think a lot of times in the professional realm, people confuse being bitchy with being assertive. I think there’s a way to be friendly and firm.

    I really identify with this line: “What I don’t want is to have to change the person I am in order to get some kind of respect from those who are more bullish than me.”

    I’m trying to work on just being OK with being “too nice” – there are worse things to be.

  2. Nikki Newman

    June 23, 2011 at 9:08 am

    Couldn’t agree more, Jen! The bitchy thing is so true – that is not assertiveness. Neither is acting like a spoiled brat. I nearly called this piece ‘Reclaiming Niceness’ – let’s start the movement! 😀

  3. Rachel

    June 23, 2011 at 7:54 pm

    Nikki,
    I absolutely loved this column! I laughed outloud so many times! There are so many sections I’d love to repost here and comment on, but my favorite is probably,
    “I suddenly felt like a sweet old lady who had misread the room number and shuffled into the wrong class. Had I brought nothing else to these first couple of lessons than ‘sweetness’? I was mortified. Honestly, I think I’d have preferred ‘Exhausted with dark circles under her eyes lady’.” HA HA HA!

    I do know what you mean. After years of being “too nice,” I realized that I was actually being used a lot. Now the pendulum has swung the other way and I have a tendancy to be harsh because I am always trying to protect myself and not get stepped on. It’s difficult for me to find a good balance.

    I think for women it is especially difficult because we tend to be viewed in three different lights: nice, good girl; tempting, provocative slut; or mean bitch. If you really listen to how people talk about women, they are usually referred to in these categories.

    You were spot on with this post! Nicely done!

  4. Rene Syler

    June 23, 2011 at 8:05 pm

    @Rachel: I was just going to say this. I think part of the problem is that we as women have been conditioned to “be nice” and when we’re not (as in being assertive to protect our interests) we become “assertive, frigid bitch. No one would ever accuse a man of that.. and it’s quite infuriating. Good thing is that with age, comes the F-U attitude. Go, ladies go! Er, I mean, bitches

  5. Claire

    June 25, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    Yep I’m too nice – I feel the angst over being labelled as ‘nice’. Hey in American movies the nice guy / woman always provails – and the bad guy gets his come-uppance -if only life were always like that, the amount of movie scenarios I’ve run over in my mind when i was too nice and could have given a really witty rebuff etc. In the real world it seems to be the mad, bad, rich and sad that have the power – with a few exceptions – I want to be the exception and walk the way of the ‘nice’ guy / gal xx

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