Tales of a Recovering Nice Guy
Today’s piece is the last in a series on recovery that includes me,, , , , and . Each of us wrote about what recovery means to us and how our life experiences shape that definition.
I’ve always thought the worst thing someone could say about me when I’m not around is, “You know, the thing about Lyle is, he means well.” It’s so pathetic sounding, like I’m trying to be cool or thoughtful or whatever but I’m not quite pulling it off. I’d rather someone hate me. Because at least they’d have a strong opinion.
Actually, that’s not true, I’m terrified that anyone might hate me. The truth is that I want everyone to like me.
And for the most part, people do like me. I’m a pretty chill guy. I rarely raise my voice or speak out of turn. I’m not the type of guy who rocks the boat on purpose. If I ever do rock the boat, I feel awful or get defensive about it because I didn’t intend to.
On the surface, being a nice guy seems like a good way to approach life. But it’s deceptive. And often the opposite of nice—both to myself and those I care about.
The problem is that I didn’t know any of this until recently. I was on a discovery call with a therapist I was considering working with. She charged way too much, but she did recommend that I read the book No More Mr Nice Guy by Dr. Robert Glover. I immediately borrowed the audiobook from the library and finished it in three days.
I wouldn’t say the book is a literary marvel or particularly well-written. It’s blunt and to the point, like it was written by a gruff New Yorker who doesn’t mince words. And while some of those words didn’t resonate, many hit me hard. Here’s a sampling:
Nice Guys seek approval from others.
Uh, yep, that tracks.
Nice Guys avoid conflict.
Yeah, nailed it again.
Nice Guys believe they must hide their perceived flaws and mistakes.
I absolutely hate making mistakes and hate them even more when they affect others.
Nice Guys seek the “right” way to do things.
Did I mention I hate making mistakes? If I just do things right in the first place, then nothing should ever go wrong, right?
Nice Guys repress their feelings.
This has been a huge realization for me over the past year. I often find it difficult to simply say “I feel x” instead of “I feel like x.” In other words, I tend to analyze rather than feel. Working with a somatic coach to tap into my body and emotions more has helped me tremendously on this front.
Nice Guys often try to be different from their fathers.
Oof, that one stung when I heard it. I’ve written about my Dad a fair amount, especially since he passed away nearly three years ago. Most of it is generally positive because he was a good man that many people loved. Yet he could sometimes be a lot for me. He always said what was on his mind—whether or not you wanted to hear it—and I didn’t like how he acted towards my mom at times. So what did I end up doing? The opposite. I’m more apt to see the merits of both sides of a situation or issue and I go out of my way to respect and listen to the women in my life.
Nice Guys are often more comfortable relating to women than men.
This one is obviously related to the previous one. If I didn’t relate to my dad, and even rejected some of his behaviors, then perhaps it’s unsurprising that I wouldn’t seek out many male friends. It’s not that I’ve never had male friends, but I’ve certainly let those relationships atrophy more than others in my life. I do have to pat myself on the back here, though, since I’ve made an effort to reconnect with some of my male friends and have even made new male friends before I ever came across this book.
Nice Guys have difficulty making their needs a priority.
Being a chill, go-with-the-flow type of guy means I end up doing things that wouldn’t be my first choice. That’s okay sometimes since we all need to compromise occasionally in our relationships, but I’ve made an almost unconscious habit of doing this way too often.
Nice Guys often make their partner their emotional center.
This one is closely related to the previous one too. Part of the reason I’m a go-with-the-flow type of guy, I’ve realized, is that I often default to going along with whatever my wife Allison wants because it’s easier. If I were to assert my needs, that might risk a confrontation, which would be uncomfortable, so instead, I choose not to do it.
As I listened to the book, I felt disheartened to learn how deep Nice Guyness goes. I felt seen. But that also meant I felt seen—faults and all. Mostly faults. And that felt like shame. I went inward and quiet, my mind racing, thinking about how long I’d embodied these tendencies.
Nice Guyness is sneaky because it appears in small, seemingly trivial situations all the time. Here’s a recent example:
We often spend time at Allison’s parent’s cabin in Mi Wuk Village, a small town in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. In fact, we just got back from there yesterday. At some point, she and my stepdaughter Sara formed a tradition of stopping at Taco Bell on the way home (as a dietitian, Allison might be mortified that I’m sharing this). Here’s the thing, though: I don’t particularly like Taco Bell. I mean, it’s fine. I’d much rather go somewhere like Chipotle, though. Yet, despite my dislike of Taco Bell, the most I would do is maybe give them a hard time about it and mention it’s not my favorite. But otherwise, I’d just go along with it and begrudgingly eat my lackluster tacos.
Addressing my Nice Guyness doesn’t mean becoming an asshole. It means being decisive and assertive. If I couldn’t stand up for how I felt about Taco Bell, then imagine how difficult larger issues could be for me.
There’s a difference between being nice and being kind. It’s kind to let people know where you truly stand. It’s kind to yourself to know where you truly stand and stick up for yourself. Truth is of the utmost importance.
Before we went on a cabin trip last month, I took more ownership of my feelings and desires. Allison knew about the Taco Bell thing already, so I tried out being more up-front and truthful with some other things. She commonly makes taco salad at the cabin and I let her know that I prefer my ground turkey to be warm in it. I swear my Nice Guyness isn’t only related to food! I also told her how I wanted to hike around Pinecrest Lake on a specific day and time since it was the least stressful time for me to be off the grid from work.
Sticking up for myself felt empowering. And, by the way, Allison loved it.
More recently, I shared how I wanted to try a new morning routine where we do a somatic check-in and a ten-minute meditation together. We’ve done it most mornings and have found it to be a great way to start our days with time set aside to feel connected.
It’s not like my inner Nice Guy has completely disappeared. I’ve fallen into my old shadowy pattern at times and have gone deep into shame again.
Before this most recent cabin trip, I nearly canceled all my work meetings while we were in the midst of an important proposal process because Allison had an expectation that we’d both be totally unplugged for the week. I had mentioned the trip to my coworkers but didn’t bring up the possibility of being completely offline. I didn’t want to derail the proposal plan, so I just didn’t mention it. This was a situation where my Nice Guyness showed up in both my relationship and my work. And as a result, it left Allison feeling like I was putting my work before her. In this case, she helped me recognize my inner Nice Guy. We were able to work through it together and had a great week together (and I felt good about how I showed up for work).
Part of recovery is naming whatever the thing is that you’re recovering from. It’s one of the reasons why it’s common for people at AA meetings to say, “My name is so-and-so, and I’m an alcoholic.” They’re routinely reminded of the very thing they’re working on recovering from. When Allison and I were on a hike the other day, I prefaced something I said with, “This is probably coming from my inner Nice Guy.” And that alone helped me see him more clearly and it softened the conversation that transpired afterwards.
Recovery can be slow and painful at times. My inner Nice Guy has been ingrained in me for decades and he comes back all too frequently. He will always be with me. But each time he shows up, I go a little less deeply into shame. It feels like an unfolding where my awareness of him increases a little bit with each unfold. He’s my shadow slowly having the light shone on him.
He means well. But he hasn’t been serving me well.
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