Suffering From My “Too Nice” Complex and Learning How to Say “No”
I have always been what people might call “too nice.”
You might ask, but how can someone be too nice?
A person can go from being “nice” to “too nice” in one easy step: when they sacrifice their personal desires or comfort in an effort to make someone else not feel bad, to their own detriment.
Still confused? Let me give you an example, something that happens to me so often that it’s terrifying.
Imagine the older guy (as in, at least twice you age) at Starbucks or at the bus stop, the one who starts making conversation with you when you least expect it. You ignore him, right? Or you tell him politely that you don’t want to talk. Or maybe you tell him to fuck off.
Well, that’s not what I do.
I smile and laugh. I humor the conversation as best I can, all the while trying to mask my anguish at feeling forced into an uncomfortable interaction with a stranger.
But oh, it gets worse. My “too nice” impulses don’t end there.
I go so far as to try to continue the conversation after it hits a lull. Instead of turning back to my iPhone or my book like any normal person would, I smile sweetly and ask the stranger questions about themselves. Are you having a good day? Where are you off to? Oh, so where do you live? What do you do?
It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense when I’m doing it, and it doesn’t make sense as I write about it. But I still do it, and I hate it.
I don’t enjoy the attention. I rarely, if ever, enjoy the conversation. In fact, I hate and resent every second of it.
But some part of me, a part that yearns to be kind and friendly and over-accommodating, doesn’t want this stranger, this creepy older guy in Starbucks or at the bus stop, to feel bad. I want them to feel like someone cares. Why else would they be eliciting conversation with a stranger? They must be so lonely, my mind insists. Who am I to turn away from this lonely soul?
The part of my brain that says this, that insists I carry on these conversations and pretend to enjoy them, is wrong, wrong, ever so wrong. And not only is it wrong, but it’s dangerous, and I will tell you why in a moment.
Thinking about it, I don’t really like the term “too nice.” Everything I’ve written so far can be read with an implication that I am some sort of angel on Earth, floating around coffee shops and bus stops with the desire to do nothing but spread love and joy to the miserable members of humankind.
But that’s not who I am. I am morose and a recluse. When I’m not at work, I rarely leave my bedroom in my apartment. I spend a great deal of time reading books on existentialism and believe that life holds no intrinsic meaning and that it is usually sad.
So what is it about me that has resulted in this “too nice” complex when it comes to strangers?
Years of psycho-analyzation of myself has led me to believe that it’s a combination of low self-esteem and the rules of etiquette that were pounded into my head throughout childhood. When I was a kid, politeness was practically Godliness. With my mother, it seemed like being prim and polite were the best things a person could be. This is something that didn’t translate as much to my home life, but in public, I was a walking doll, dressed by my mother in clearance dresses from Saks 5th Avenue that ranged in styles from Barbie doll to Jackie O. I was naturally shy and usually quiet, but never missed an opportunity to say “please” or “thank you.” This, along with my love of books and writing, won me a lot of points among the teachers and administrators in elementary school (though, as I’m sure you can guess, not so many with my peers).
Then there’s the self-esteem thing, which is where I’m going to really open up.
When a strange man talks to me, my mind does not compute that he might want something from me (as in, sex). I am very aware that this happens to other women all the time, but part of my brain is convinced that no man would look at me and desire sexual gratification from my body.
I feel, physically, very alien and different from most females. I am very underweight, and I don’t possess most of the physical qualities, like breasts and hips and curves, that most men seem to desire in a woman’s body. This doesn’t mean that I never feel sexy – I feel sexy when I’m with my boyfriend, and I sometimes feel sexy when I look in the mirror before getting in the shower, when I tousle my hair a bit and pout for my reflection. But when I’m out in the world, even if I feel confident and think that I look cute or pretty or even sexy that day, I am convinced that a glance at my body is incapable of triggering the desire in men that other women seem to trigger.
The rational part of my brain, the part that is writing this memoir, knows how ridiculous that is. However, it’s not the rational part that indulges the conversations of these strange men, and it is not the rational part that has gotten me into danger on multiple occasions because of them.
I’ve had dozens upon dozens of interactions with strangers that have ended innocently. Sometimes they end with me giving a guy a fake phone number (really, I couldn’t say no), adding them on Facebook at their insistance (and painfully ignoring the subsequent messages), or usually they just end with a wave and a polite goodbye when it’s time for me to get off the bus. However, enough have ended badly and could have ended much worse that my rational mind has learned that I need to be more assertive (teach that to my faulty instinctual mind, please).
One night, less than two years ago, I was hanging out alone at the mall after a job interview. I was in the Apple store and Facebooking with some friends about how well it had gone, when I heard the guy standing next to me listening to the most incredible remix of Owl City’s “Fireflies” (I know, I know). I couldn’t help but turn to him and ask, “Who did that remix? I need it for my iPod!” He replied, “Me. It’s my song.”
Fast forward a few hours later and we’re both in my living room. I didn’t really want this to happen, but I didn’t know how to steer away from it once we started chatting. It just happened. I was wary, of course – in fact, in my head, I was positively freaking out. I was not attracted to him, I wasn’t interested in hooking up with him, and I had no idea how it had gotten this far. As we were walking to my apartment, I convinced myself that he was just a friendly guy and that he didn’t want anything from me but someone to hang out with and pass around a joint. When we got to my place and he started caressing my thigh, I had to face that I was wrong and that I had made a big mistake.
I never indicated that I was interested in him sexually or romantically, but I also never indicated that I wasn’t. I chatted with him about friends and jobs and all kinds of casual things, laughed at his jokes and agreed to smoke with him (at my apartment, because I knew my roommates were home). To him, this was enough to make a move.
I turned him down in the nicest way I could, and I got lucky – he didn’t force himself on me, which happens to so many women. He then begged me to let him hang around my place, or let him sleep on my couch, and I eventually had my roommate make up some elaborate lie for why he had to leave. Because I was “too nice” to say “Dude, I am not comfortable in this situation, please leave immediately.” When he did leave, my roommate had to leave as well, and texted me to say he saw the guy loitering outside our building. Every noise that night took on new significance. I didn’t sleep well.
Two days later, I walked out of my shower one afternoon, wrapped in a towel, and found the guy in my bedroom. Lying in my roommate’s bed. Saying he had brought ecstasy and wanted to do it with me.
Again, my roommate (who found him outside our apartment while I was showering and let him in because he thought I had invited him) helped get me out of the situation, and I never saw the guy again. I told him that he couldn’t just come over without letting me know, and that I couldn’t hang out that day and wasn’t interested in taking his drugs. That was a big deal for me. Even saying those simple, sugar-coated things in the face of such an extreme and horrifying situation took a lot out of me.
While there is a lot of blame to be put on this guy and others for some of their actions, that’s not what I want to focus on in this article. If you want to read some powerful pieces on sexism and street harassment and how much guys suck for making women feel uncomfortable, there are lots of other articles on this website that will satisfy those needs. With this memoir, I don’t want to focus on assigning blame, and not on myself, either. I’ve been the victim of countless acts of harassment that I’ve smiled at and humored because I didn’t want to make a stranger feel bad. I am not about victim-blaming. What I am about is reflection, and changing the way I think and act to make sure that I don’t find myself “stuck” in an uncomfortable situation or any situation I don’t wish to be in because of my “too nice” complex.
Over time, I’ve gotten better. Today, I would never let a strange guy come to my apartment if I didn’t want him there. However, I have a long way to go, and I am still suffering consequences of previous acts of “too nice,” specifically through an elderly man to whom I gave a fake phone number three years ago, who in the past year found me again and has taken to watching and sometimes following me and making me incredibly uncomfortable around the area where I work (though I recently quit that job, so I’m hoping I never see him again).
It’s hard for me not to fake a laugh and smile through my discomfort in these situations, but I’m learning. I’m trying to rewire my brain. Hopefully one day I’ll be over this for good, and will be able to ignore the stranger on the bus or tell the asshole guy on the street to “fuck off” when it’s appropriate. I’m getting there.
Written by Rhiannon Payne