It’s hard to believe that it’s possible to be too nice. Nice is – well, it’s nice. It greases the wheels of everyday life. Nice friends are pleasant to be with. Nice colleagues cooperate to get things done. In its guise of Agreeableness, it is one of the Big Five of psychology: “a tendency to be compassionate and cooperative”. Compassion – oh, yes. How lovely it is to receive compassion when one is sick, sad or tired.

Yet, counterintuitive as it may seem, it is possible to be “too nice”. In therapy, I see the fruits of strict upbringings, authoritarian cultural norms, or excessive attention to “politeness” playing out in gentle personalities left defenceless in a tough and occasionally dangerous world. Sometimes the outcomes are submissiveness, timidity, silenced voices, or, at its least endearing, lack of frankness. In my experience, the problem most often plays itself out in the lives of women, young and old, though men and boys are far from immune.

With tongue slightly in cheek, I call it the Too Nice Syndrome. At the pointy end of the Too Nice Syndrome, there can be tragic consequences.

Women of all ages can recount instances of being groped, molested, leered at or having unwanted attention, yet remaining “polite”, sometimes to their serious detriment. In the best-selling book, Gift of Fear, the author Gavin de Becker urges women to act on their gut instinct and be rude if necessary to get away from a predator. In one such situation, a woman who was meeting for the first time a man she had met on line, was talked out of the planned coffee and into his car to go to a “cool place worthy of you”. She found it hard to refuse nicely, hesitated to escape from his car when he stopped for a red light because she didn’t want to be rude, and was sexually assaulted.

In another girl-next-door example the teenager’s drunken boyfriend raped her while “friends” looked on. She was literally unable to speak, though she wanted to shout out, “No! Stop!”.

Afterwards, she did not challenge him or their so-called friends. Frustrated with herself, she realised she had been trained to be nice, to only speak politely, to be compliant and not make waves. She had no experience speaking up in justifiable anger, or in using powerful words to defend herself or to hold others to account. In other words, to be “not so nice”. She was literally “speechless”.

The explosive disclosures of awful behaviour by Harvey Weinstein, leading to his fall from the pinnacle of Hollywood is linked to this, as dozens of glamourous women found themselves unable to speak up against one of the most powerful men in a powerful industry.
Since then more and more powerful, famous men have been accused of sexually predatory acts, including Australia’s Don Burke. And women have described how they stayed silent and were kept silent, not least because of the realistic apprehension that either they would not be heard or believed, and that more powerful voices could turn against them.

As a sex and relationship therapist, with a deep interest in communication, I see almost every day examples of how the Too Nice Syndrome distorts healthy, confident, open communication. to the detriment of the relationships.

Fortunately not all consequences are as ugly as the ones described above. In a future blog, I will talk about how to detect signs of TNS in yourself and others and what to do about it.

TNS silences the individual’s voice asking for legitimate needs, and one of the first steps in therapy is to coach that emerging voice, as it learns that the world doesn’t collapse when it speaks its truth. In couples, partners often find a new intimacy when they learn ways to be loving yet real. 

In a future blog, I will talk about how to detect signs of TNS in yourself and others and what to do about it.

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