Flash Essay: The Consequences of being “Nice”

When I was growing up, there was an admonition: “If you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all.” This came mainly from my father, who arguably was an extremely decent person, and one who followed his own advice. I don’t recall him ever talking badly about anyone. My mother had her own version of the “Don’t trash people” philosophy, which was, “Rise above it! Educated people have more interesting things to talk about than other people’s business.” The result of these familial messages was grave: when it came to saying anything unflattering about others, I had no voice.

In a perfect world it’s true that talking negatively about other people is a bad thing, and in that world, people who refuse to do so would be part of the “enlightened.” But we don’t live in a perfect world and the result of training your children not to share their innermost feelings (and assessments) with a few trusted people renders those children vulnerable and emotional disconnected. I know of what I speak.

Of course, as life would have it, I married a man with a strong opinion about everything and everyone he had ever encountered. What I didn’t know then that I know now is that my husband developed that strong opinion as a survival technique. He grew up in a highly dysfunctional family and figuring out early that he was different from his parents and their bad habits was critical to getting him up and out of that household as soon as possible. He learned to observe, to think critically, to trust his assessment and to act accordingly. He continues to have a lightning sharp perception about people who are less than honest, aka unsafe, and he distances himself as quickly as possible from those people. I, on the other hand, have had to learn those skills the hard way.

I have put myself into danger on more than one occasion, either physically or emotionally, because of that lack of discernment. I have trusted people I shouldn’t have trusted and not trusted a few I should have, including my husband, generally because I thought he was being too harsh in his assessment. Luckily, I didn’t do anything so profoundly naïve or stupid that the consequence was devastating, but I’ve had a few close calls. And I wholeheartedly believe this can be traced right back to those admonitions not to speak badly of others.

Maybe a true saint doesn’t need to follow this advice, but for the rest of us humans, it is critical to trust a few people and tell them exactly what you think, whether those assessments are positive or negative, most especially if they are negative. Otherwise, you are a sitting duck for every con artist on the planet, not to mention psycho- and sociopaths. But just assume for a moment that you are lucky and don’t run into too many of those antisocial characters in your life. Even if you don’t, this lack of sharing has other serious consequences. The main one is creating a person who is missing out on true emotional intimacy.

What causes closeness among human beings? I would say at least one major factor is shared experience of the world. That shared perception breaks down emotional barriers and creates bonds. Those bonds are essential not only for emotional well-being, but also for physical well-being. We who are bonded watch out for each other; we help each other. If we don’t share our feelings and perceptions with those in our inner circle, then from a biological point of view, we’re putting ourselves out of the circle and are therefore more at risk. Less connection equals less help with survival. But how does that translate into real life terms?

I was probably forty years old before I understood that my “above it all” mentality fostered by my family of origin had severely thwarted my ability to be emotionally intimate. My husband and I had already been married thirteen years by that time and were fighting tooth and nail quite often, primarily because of our different approaches to life. His was down and dirty and connected and mine was up and pristine and disconnected. Now, I naturally thought my approach was superior to his because it “looked” better, but the truth was that at some point it finally occurred to me that my approach was killing me. I had no voice. I had few skills to critically assess others, and, as a result, I had very few people who truly “knew” me. My husband did because he’d push and pull and finally drag the truth out of me, but most other people didn’t have that level of patience. And I didn’t have emotional permission to know how I really felt about any number of issues.

And then I started writing. I wrote fiction and nonfiction and letters and journal entries and a few poems, and with each page that I wrote, I became a little clearer about how I felt. And as I became clearer about how I felt, I started listening to others who were close to me and decided to focus on their honesty versus the fact that they were talking “ugly” about others. And when I did that, I began to see the validity of their perception and could check mine with theirs and see who came closest to seeing the world and its people the way I did. You would have thought this is what I would have done at 3 or 4 years old, but alas, I had to do this 40 years into my life.  So, what have I learned from this?

Mothers don’t let your kids grow up without voices. Give them permission to say what and how they feel even if it’s negative, and encourage them to trust their perceptions. In the book Blink, it says that we all know instantly if someone is lying or telling the truth; if they are safe or unsafe. That ability comes from our reptilian brain, which aids in our survival. But, unfortunately, “nice” society trains us to distrust those instincts and listen more to words than to watch for actions. My parents did teach me that actions speak louder than words. They just didn’t encourage me to use words to talk about those actions. My parents were good people who believed they were teaching me the right way to behave, and they did a good job in most aspects of my life. But they underestimated how literally I might take their words when it came to real sharing. Who knew I would take such lessons so much to heart?

Now I have learned to look, discern and then act accordingly. I have even developed a voice. In my case, it has taken half a lifetime. My own children were miles ahead of me at age five. But who’s counting? We all have our own pace. I am catching up as fast as I can.

4 thoughts on “Flash Essay: The Consequences of being “Nice””

  1. Oh, Len, the details of how we learned to be this “nice” are different but the results are pretty much the same. I, too, had some close calls because I didn’t trust my instincts that said, “This person is not nice,” “This is a chancy situation,” or whatever. My life partner is like your husband in that he has strong reactions and opinions and they often grate on my “nice nerve.” He’s not always right, and I’m not always wrong, but I will definitely be paying more attention to his snap judgments. Thanks for an eye-opening post.

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