“Nice” Isn’t a Compliment: Letting Go of the Need to Please

Timid girl

“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves even when we risk disappointing others.” ~Brene Brown

When I was in the seventh grade, I moved to a new city and started a new school. I was terrified and filled with anxiety about navigating this new world without a single friend. What if no one liked me?

My first week there, I walked through the cafeteria some when two girls called me over to their table. I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking maybe I would be able to make a friend. I went over smiling my best smile, then they said they wanted to ask me a question.

One of them smiled sweetly and said, “We were just wondering why you walk around with your nose up in the air. Do you think you’re better than everybody else or something?” They sneered and laughed and proceeded to say a few more hateful things to me that I don’t exactly remember.

I was crushed. I had never been bullied before, and I had no idea how to deal with this kind of situation. I would like to say that I gathered my strength, stood up to these mean girls, and told them where they could shove it. But I didn’t.

I felt my face flush with heat and the sting of rejection in my chest. And then I told them I was sorry. For what, I’m not exactly sure, but I sputtered out some awkward apology and waited for them to realize that they had made some sort of mistake, and that I was clearly worth their approval after all. But they just looked at me silently like I had three heads.

This day stands out to me because I remember distinctly feeling that in order to be accepted, I needed to be different. I needed to be careful and do whatever it took to avoid people disliking me. I was well on my way to becoming a chronic people pleaser.

Fast-forward twenty-five years, and I still have a habit of unconsciously putting a great deal of my energy into people pleasing. I keep the boat steady, navigating carefully so as to not make too many waves.

From an early age, I was a hater of conflict and uncomfortable situations, an avoider of angry words.

It’s in my bones to be a peacekeeper. I have always been soft-spoken and decided early that my voice just wasn’t loud enough to compete with all the yelling. I found it easier to smooth things over, and I learned to how to artfully sugarcoat the rough edges of life.

I could easily meld myself into the background of things, to be an observer, a non-participant. This is my comfort zone. I have been the one who doesn’t make waves, who doesn’t cause trouble, who doesn’t make anyone upset.

It’s automatic for me to look for the bright side of things, for the cheer in dark situations. It’s a natural instinct to try to smooth and ease the discomfort of others I am around. And if I can’t smooth it out, I tend to retreat because the thought of jumping into the middle of a conflict is exhausting. Basically, I am the anti-anger.

This way of being has served me well in so many situations. It has made me objective. It has kept me calm and steady. I am acutely perceptive of the moods of people around me in pretty much any situation. I easily absorb the underlying intricacies of interactions. A true introvert in nature, I find more meaning in silence than in a million spoken words.

I am grateful for this part of me, which I tend to keep largely private. I am also very aware that most people see me as a really “nice” person. But as more and more people have mentioned how nice I am, I have also realized that for me, this is not a compliment.

I think about it like this: Is “nice” the legacy I want to leave on this world? Is that what I want to be remembered by someday? That I was “nice”? No. I want more than that.  

Nice is sweet and accommodating and agreeable. Nice is polite. But nice does not describe what we believe in. It does not indicate where our boundaries are.

When I think of people I admire the most, some genuinely fantastic human beings come to mind. But in all honesty, most of them are not particularly “nice” people. They have character and integrity. They are compassionate and kind. But that is not the same thing as nice. Compassion and kindness requires courage and boundaries. Niceness does not.

For example, there is a person I work with that I have the utmost admiration for. She is a strong and confident woman. She exudes a sense of grace and integrity. She is straightforward and authentic and very clear about her boundaries. She stands firmly in her own truth. She seems to have very little concern about receiving approval or validation from others.

She knows who she is and appears completely at ease in her own skin. I am in awe how she seems to move through this world in a way that not only commands respect, but also exudes great compassion and kindness. Now that is what I want to be.

I have learned that to be sincerely kind and compassionate, we must create strong and clear boundaries for ourselves. Otherwise, being “nice” will ultimately lead to resentment, which is the opposite of compassion. 

How do we go about shifting this way of being, when we are so programmed to please? It’s a gradual process that sometimes means unlearning the rules we have internalized about being polite. It’s about relaxing into your own authenticity and allowing the world to feel the full weight of you.

Brené Brown, a personal hero of mine, defines authenticity as “the daily practice of letting go of who we think we are supposed to be and embracing who we are.” We must find ways to release our chronic need to please, and the courage to reveal our real and vulnerable selves.

The first step to reclaiming our own authenticity is to recognize when we are losing sight of it. Are you feeling any resentment? For me, resentment is a red flag. It usually means that I have not been clear about my boundaries in some way. It’s my first sign that I have been using too much of my energy worrying about disappointing others.

Next, take a look at exactly where that resentment is coming from. What boundary have you been unclear about? Is something bothering you about a situation that you have not fully expressed to someone? Have you held your own feelings back in some way, in order to avoid hurting another’s?

We must get clear with ourselves about what’s okay and what is not okay so that we can be clear in communicating that to others. Only we can decide exactly what we are willing to accept in our lives. We can use this formula to create a dialogue with ourselves. Write it out. Be specific. 

1. I feel resentful because….

2. This means I haven’t been clear about something bothering me. Here is the boundary that has been blurred….

3. Here’s what’s okay with me….

4. Here’s what is not okay with me….

Once I work through this process, I usually find that my feelings of resentment and anger are not actually directed at another person. They are toward myself. I feel disappointment in myself for not staying loyal to my own values, for not giving myself the respect that I so freely give out to others.

I have learned that self-respect, boundaries, and compassion all go hand in hand. It is difficult to have one without another. Avoiding or running from tough situations does not set clear boundaries. Although it is often the more comfortable path, it also tends to breed more resentment and shame.

Being authentic takes courage. Learning to wade through the discomfort of setting boundaries takes risk. We risk disapproval. We risk being disliked. But I think the risk is worth it if we ultimately find respect for ourselves.

So join me in striving to reclaim our authenticity. Let’s be brave and real and imperfect. Let’s be compassionate and kind and honest. Because really, aren’t these so much better than the constraints of being “nice”?

About Sarah Powers

Sarah Powers is a licensed professional counselor, writer, photographer, marathon runner, and lover of adventure. She lives in the Oklahoma City area with her amazing husband and her two lovable wiener dogs.

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  • Thanks for sharing. I’ve been resentful towards certain individuals as of late. This article has helped me realize it’s because I’m not living up to my true self.

  • Debbie Belmonte

    Sarah, you are “spot on” about resentment and setting clear boundaries. A lightbulb went off, for me, after reading your insightful article. Thank you for helping all of (us) ladies to seek and discover the true meanings between the words, the answers in the silences that speak volumes. Now I know, for sure, that change begins with my own behavior. Like throwing a pebble into a pond and once a person is willing to take the chance and BE the change…the outward ripples affect everyone/everything else in its wake. (Paying it forward).

    God Bless,

    Debbie B.
    Holly, Mi.

  • CC

    I encountered this problem with a friend. We had always shared our problems with each other to the point it was overwhelming. My friend started giving me the silent treatment, which I didn’t understand so I kept reaching out to her. She then exploded at me telling me that she was moving to a more positive place in her life, that I was a pyschologically sick person that refuses to get help and she was cutting me off. The problem was I was suffering from a severe chronic illness and trauma and was getting help. At this same time, she was dumping on me. As a nice person, I allowed it and reciprocated. But instead of talking about boundaries and setting them in a healthy manner, she built resentment and insulted me in the worst possible way and devastated me beyond belief. I don’t know if the friendship can be repaired, as I can’t have a friend putting me down and calling me mentally ill and projecting her problems and resentment onto me…this all may have been avoided if she just sent me a letter or email or phone call and had a conversation with me. I’m a fan of setting boundaries, but we also have to remember that we cannot expect others to read our minds and we have to give them a chance to react to new boundaries. You cannot set a boundary while at the same time deeply insult the person and make it all about them. (You are this or you are that instead of when you do this it makes me feel, etc). Projecting your resentment onto your friends because you haven’t set boundaries then blindsiding them and being cruel is not authentic or compassionate. I have a lot of deep pain over this happening to me.

  • fragglerock

    Great topic! I enjoyed reading this!

  • sian e lewis

    Yes we are the only ones who can demand we be treated wit respect, although it often takes great courage to do so.

  • Spirit

    This is such a helpful article for me – I hate getting resentful but the article helped me recognise I need to set boundaries. I love other people who set them but struggle to set my own particularly with my in laws – I find it easier with friends.
    Thank you for making me stop and take stock.

  • Resentment is such a huge indicator that I’m not protecting my boundaries and that’s always because I’ve tried to be “nice”. But I think it’s such a bad way to go, because even if you succeed at being “nice”, your resentment and bitterness is TANGIBLE and I think people can sense and feel that. So, so much for being “nice”, right? Thanks for a great post!

  • Andrea

    I love this. This is something my mom was adamant about teaching us: be kind and polite, but not “nice and sweet”. Always stand up for yourself and what you believe in. I’m still working on it, but she has been a wonderful role model.

  • Kathygirl

    Thank you for this post. It could have been me that wrote this because it tells my story so well. I always felt like I had to be a different person rather than who I really was in order to have the approval of others. Everybody has always commented on how “nice” I am. What that means basically is that I agreed with everyone and wasn’t allowed to have an opinion of my own. I wanted everyone’s acceptance and approval, and that meant not having an opinion about anything or agreeing to things that I knew I really didn’t agree with. It also meant that everybody was allowed to say or do whatever they wanted to me, and I was not to have anything to say about it. I was suppose to just stand there and take it and not have anything to say about it. (Talk about building resentment!) That way I could be “accepted” by that person or group of people. It’s so true what you say about boundaries. I have tried to create them in the past but didn’t stick by them. But now in my early 50’s I am finally learning to create boundaries and stick by them. And other people might not like it, but it is too bad. Having boundaries is so important. Because otherwise you become a door mat for other people. I have learned that the only person that needs to approve of me is me. If other people don’t approve of me just the way I am, I don’t want or need them in my life.

  • Queen Maeve

    I know exactly how you feel and you have all of my sympathy. I’ve had similar experiences with different people (best friends, family) since I was a child (I’m 50 now) and just recently experienced it again with my 24 year old nephew. I have a chronic illness too and having someone you thought loved you and was there for you suddenly turn on you only makes the physical and mental pain of that illness that much worse.

    I am sorry, please know you are not alone.

  • margie

    This is so helpful-I am the quintessential people pleaser, if there ever was one. My mother-in-law had a knock-down-drag-out with me years ago and our relationship has never been the same, and the truth as you pointed out, my resentment is over myself for not sticking up for myself and allowing her to treat me with such disrespect and say such hurtful things, while making assumptions of how I feel or think which is always off base! I have been stewing about this as I will be with her in a few short weeks. But I will work through your scenario several times to pinpoint all of “my stuff” and get clear as to how I will respond from now on. I don’t care any more if I “please” her, I care more about her not putting words in my mouth or ideas I don’t have-essentially speaking for me when she really doesn’t know me at all!