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An Epidemic of Nice People
by James Rapson, M.S., LMFT
co-author, Anxious To Please

Imagine a condition that affects a huge portion of the population, a condition that causes severe anxiety and depression, cripples self-esteem, and undermines and destroys marriages. The people described here are not drug addicts, schizophrenics,
or U.S. Senators. They're Nice People.

Lots of people are nice. We live in a world that encourages niceness, even enforces it. A person needs to know how to follow rules, play well with others, and rub folks the right way in order to succeed.

But those who are chronically nice - Nice People - go further than this. They can't quite help themselves. They are nice whether it's called for or not. They are nice when being ignored or even insulted. They are nice when they want someone (okay, everyone) to like them. They navigate their world by accommodating and acquiescing, by obsessing about what other people are thinking of them.

Meet Joe, a successful game designer, and his wife, Sally. Joe hints to Sally he would like to get away with his buddy Carl for a weekend of fly-fishing.  She says it would be great for him to do that, though the next three weekends are not convenient because of Angela's soccer matches, and she doesn't want him to schedule anything for later in the summer.

Joe is frustrated and resentful, but doesn't acknowledge this to himself and acts agreeably toward her. On Friday, Sally informs him that her two best friends have invited her to go camping, and that it's really important for her to go. Joe helps her pack, and kisses her goodbye.

Three days after Sally returns, Joe mentions that he too wants to get his weekend away. Sally asks him why he doesn't just do it?  She says she is tired of his wimpiness and wishes he would take charge of his own life. Joe apologizes for not being more assertive. Joe is a Nice Guy.

Joe feels confused and emasculated because he doesn't know how to get the love and respect he needs from his wife. Sally is similarly frustrated, wishing Joe knew how to advocate for himself and not wilt in her presence. But now, they are both feeling the need for Joe to locate his sense of self in a way that neither can quite conceive.

Features of Chronic Niceness can be seen in a number of conditions that are familiar topics of talk shows and self-help magazines: codependency, obsessive/compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, relationship/sex addiction, and so on.  The category of "Chronically Nice" would include such symptoms as:

a.    Apologize frequently, or for things they are not responsible for

b.    Often don't know what they want

c.    Have difficulty sustaining the erotic vitality of romantic relationships

d.    Take what is given instead of asking for what they want

e.    Are often preoccupied with what other people think of them

f.     Their emotional state mirrors their partner's (if the partner isn't happy, they aren't happy)

g.    Are almost always in a state of unsatisfied longing

Conventional approaches to Chronic Niceness have focused on the  development of assertiveness skills and techniques, such as saying "no," learning how to argue,  initiating in the bedroom, etc. And while these techniques can indeed be useful, they stop short of addressing the underlying force that drives the relational behavior of Nice People: anxiety. 

Nice People carry within them a deep-seated anxiety that undermines  their ability to stand up for themselves, to hold up their end in a conflict, to let  go of an unhealthy relationship, even to be able to know what they think or  feel. This anxiety reflects a foundational insecurity, one that has at least some origin in early childhood. Attachment theory gives us a name for this kind of insecurity: anxious attachment (also known as ambivalent or resistant attachment).

Anxiously attached children tend to be clingy, ingratiating, and very  difficult to comfort once they become upset. Anxiously attached adults are, well, Nice People. They are appeasing, overly concerned with what others think, and often are preoccupied with ideations of romantic ecstasy. Bottom line: the Nice Person is an anxious person.

The persistent anxiety of Nice People comes from a primitive fear that they will be unloved, unwanted, rejected, abandoned. Recent research shows that this anxiety may dwell not only in the psyche but also in the neurology of someone who is anxiously attached. As daunting as this may seem, it can be enormously useful to be aware of the influence of body chemistry and reinforced neural pathways - biological forces which perpetuate anxious thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. 

The Nice Person is also an angry person. But it is unlikely that the  Nice Person is aware of his or her anger, having spent a lifetime hiding it from themselves  and others. Nice People cannot bear the idea that they might be angry, aggressive, or vengeful because it would mean that they aren't nice.

This disowned anger usually manifests as passive-aggressive behavior, a ubiquitous feature of Nice Person relationships. This behavior arouses anger, resentment and often contempt from the partner, with the unintended result of reinforcing the Nice Person's fear of being rejected. Unconscious of their passive-aggression, the Nice Person feels victimized by the exchange and stores up more unexpressed anger and resentment.

People who are chronically nice can develop strength, serenity, and resilience.  As they transform themselves, they discover that their most important relationships begin to transform as well. Important areas for growth include:

a.    Learning to increase awareness of anxiety in thoughts, emotions, body and behavior

b.    Developing the internal space necessary to hold difficult emotions without reflexive action

c.    Practicing more skillful expression of buried anger

d.    Exploring the implications of chronic niceness as it affects relationships with family and partners

Regardless of background, age, or gender, each Nice Person who endeavors to transform their life must draw on one indispensable asset: compassion. The rejection that the Nice Person fears is occurring every day inside of themselves. They reject their own neediness, anger, and weakness; they hate their feelings of vulnerability and despair. By recognizing and embracing  these painfully conflicted emotions, the Nice Person is pioneering a path of discovery, uncovering the possibility of an abiding security in a place they had  never thought to look: within themselves. 

© James Rapson, M.S., LMFT.  All rights reserved.  

james rapsonMeet James Rapson, co-author, Anxious To Please 7 Revolutionary Practices for the Chronically Nice

James Rapson is a veteran therapist who brings hard-won personal insight along with his clinical experience and scholarship. The journey of healing and growth in his own life has been greatly amplified by the courageous men and women with whom he has the privilege to work.
   Mr. Rapson is a clinical member of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, as well as the Center for Object Relations in Seattle. He is also an original member of the U.S. Association of Body Psychotherapists.
   Passionate about the art and craft of fatherhood, James is the founder of Group of Dads, which offers classes, workshops and groups for fathers. He has had the magnificent fortune of raising two young men who have that rare blend of being warm, gracious, masculine, and very kind, though not at all nice, much to their father’s delight.
   James’ collaboration with Craig English has led to more than just the creation of Anxious to Please. Together they are developing and teaching related workshops and classes at an array of venues. They have also paired to invent a workshop that explores fictional character development from the perspective of cutting-edge psychological theory.

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