being nice

When I first moved to New York, someone I loved broke my heart. Looking back, there should have been signs for me at every turn, but I didn’t see them. Like many endings, it came in stops and stutters with occasional glimmers of hope, rather than an abrupt, merciful amputation. However, for reasons I couldn’t quite understand he continued to ask favors of me. And I granted them.

I found myself often ruminating about how much I resented him, and how inappropriate it was to keep asking; the more I thought about it, the more irritated I became. Later that day my phone dinged with a text. I knew it was him.

Not able to leave it alone, I replied, and sure enough he asked me to meet him to look at his resume. I wanted to refuse, but didn’t. Or couldn’t. We arranged to meet.

Through the course of a few days I examined my behavior with other people. I couldn’t tell them no. Essentially I had implicitly signed a Nice-Nice Contract with the people in my life. In those moments of clarity, I understood not only what it was but why I kept signing it: my self-esteem, which I’d believed to be built on things solely internal, was in fact entirely dependent on other people.

The Nice-Nice Contract was simple:  I would agree to be nice to you, to advise you, to sacrifice for you, to care about you—and in return you would agree to believe that I was wise, compassionate, and excellent as a human being in every way; finally and most importantly, you would like me.

I suppose some part of me believed if I continued to satisfy my contractual obligations to her, she’d start fulfilling hers to me.  It was awful to discover my self-esteem had been built on such a wobbly foundation.

Months later I realized I’d stopped needing “friends” approval to sustain my self-esteem and had torn up all the Nice-Nice Contracts I’d signed with them – these were people, with whom I had little in common to bind us together in genuine friendship. I don’t know if I learned a way to love and value myself without feeding off the love and esteem of anyone else, or was simply so angry about it that I rejected being agreeable at all.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be liked, and I’m not saying I no longer care if I’m liked or not. What I am saying is that in freeing myself from the need to be liked I can more easily let go of the internal discord that occurs when I’m disliked.  To rid myself of the need to sign Nice-Nice Contracts brought me benefits and enabled me to: stop suffering when people don’t like me; become an effective manager; establish genuine friendships; be compassionate and; avoid pent up resentment and uneven responsibility.

People sign Nice-Nice Contracts all the time – it is probably most common for younger people and women. A chronic People Pleaser is someone who can’t stand disappointing others. If you think that’s you, try asking the following questions:

  1. When you disappoint someone, anger them, or cause them in some way to dislike you, does it create disproportionate anxiety for you?
  2. Do you have difficulty enduring even a mild degree of conflict with others?
  3. Do you become obsessed with manipulating how others feel about you?
  4. Are your actions predominantly motivated by how they’ll cause others to view you?

If so, these are reasonable indicators you’re working too hard to be Nice.

What can you do to stop? When disappointing someone is genuinely necessary, I approach it as practice for developing my self-esteem.  And I try to remember that violating the Nice-Nice Contract is actually setting boundaries doesn’t usually lead to being disliked as I once feared, but rather to being respected.

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