Do you think of yourself as a nice person?
How’s that working out for you?
My guess is, probably not as well as it should be. Many people who walk into my office for the first time think of themselves as “nice” people, and over time it often becomes apparent that these nice people have a lot of trouble wanting things for themselves and suffer terribly as a result. For these patients, and for so many of us, wanting something just because we want it -- money, sex, real estate, respect -- can stir some conflicts inside of us. Some of us solve these conflicts by attempting to shut down the desires that feed them. But when someone out there in the world guilelessly wants things “just because,” heaven help them if they actually end up getting what they desire. On any given day, you can find dozens of articles trashing high achievers like Steve Jobs, LeBron James, and Madonna, usually because they are supposedly too self-absorbed, too selfish, too narcissistic, etc.
Meanwhile, our day-to-day conflicts and denials around wanting things can be so profound that we don’t even allow ourselves to know what we want. For instance, when my patient Tom* walked into my office for the first time several years ago, he wore a strange smirk as he lamented his lack of professional opportunities, and he described himself as a victim of a series of unfortunate circumstances. He also reported that his father had been distant but his mother had “always been there” for him. As he spoke, Tom seemed unusually interested in my personal reactions, and he bore all the traits of a pathologically "nice" guy. When I noted aloud that he seemed preoccupied with the ways I might be judging him, Tom was both taken aback with my directness and fascinated with what I had seen.
Tom’s concerns regarding being judged remained a focus of the analysis for quite some time during the four years we worked together. He eventually discovered that he had disowned and projected many of his own self-judgments onto other people, and that he might have been experiencing the world as an exaggeratedly hostile place for the last 30-odd years. His worries about being harshly judged and rejected had led him to be overly accommodating, and he often silently resented these apparently needy people whom he felt so compelled to accommodate. His explorations of his excessive compliance eventually led him to revisit his oversimplified understanding of his early family relationships, and he came to realize that as a young child he had learned to accommodate his mother’s overwhelming need for reassurance and support, while denying his own need for nurturance and guidance. He also recognized that his father, faced with the same overwhelming neediness from Tom’s mother, had checked out of the marriage by investing his emotional life into his work, leaving Tom essentially alone with his mother. After spending a long series of sessions working through his anger toward his parents for encouraging him to be an adultified child at too young an age, Tom eventually let go of his righteous indignation and found ways to mourn the loss of the relationship he would never have with his parents. Only then did Tom’s needs and desires consciously emerge, and this therapeutic experience led to radical professional and personal transformations in his life.
At the outset of the treatment, Tom had complained that although he was happy that he and his girlfriend always got along and never fought, he was dismayed by his budding recognition of a sense of “deadness” in their relationship. Over time, it became clear Tom had been so focused on tending to his girlfriend’s needs that he had forgotten about his own life, friends, and hobbies. Tom eventually could not tolerate the lifelessness of this relationship and ended it, and through our analysis, an uncanny resemblance emerged between Tom’s role in this doomed relationship and his role as accommodator and emotional caretaker during childhood. He had nurtured his girlfriend to the detriment of his own life, under the illusion that his life would take up too much room in their relationship. Through further analysis, it became evident to Tom that he had managed to repeat this pattern by unconsciously assuming the role of caretaker in many of his personal and professional relationships.
After many false starts, Tom eventually found a partner who was open to the newfound emotional presence he had been experimenting with, and who was herself emotionally open and direct. Through a series of disagreements, negotiation and reconciliation with his new partner, Tom began to experience a much more expansive sense of who he was and what kind of connection was possible for him. By the end of treatment, Tom had made several ambitious leaps forward in his career, and he expressed a newfound optimism about his future with his fiancée. He had located the strivings and desires that had formerly generated great anxiety and denial within himself, and he had found ways to expand by accepting these essential parts of himself that he had previously found so loathsome in others.
Like Tom, many of us defend against our needs and ambitions with a belief that it is inappropriate to ask for things we might not get, and that it is at best tasteless to be seen as someone who chases after such things. Instead, many of us decide to know ourselves as nice people who should not want so much, and like Tom, we take on a persona of selfless accommodation, while believing that kind people are eventually rewarded for their kindness, somehow. As a result, we often only know that despite our best efforts to be generous and accommodating, at the end of the day we end up feeling deeply unsatisfied.
You certainly know a Nice Guy (NG) in your life, and in fact you may even be one yourself. I see a lot of NGs in my psychoanalytic practice, and in fact, I used to be a much nicer guy myself. NGs make plenty of space for other people to expand, and they simultaneously resent the people who allow themselves to take up that space, and even expand beyond it – people like Steve Jobs, LeBron James, Madonna, various CEOs, and so forth. These people are shamelessly open with themselves about whatever they are hungry for at any moment, however inappropriate it might seem to others. To the NG, all this hunger and striving can seem a bit gauche, and it seems much more appropriate to keep such strivings under wraps.
While it may seem more appropriate to compromise and accommodate to the needs of others, if it goes on too long, excessive accommodation carries powerful resentment along with it. And if you hang out with an NG long enough, you will see a few indignant outbursts that will remind you that no one is actually that nice.
When our default setting is accommodation, we restrict our own potential by robbing ourselves of any room to try things out, make a few mistakes, improve, and thereby expand. And if we find that we are preventing ourselves from taking up as much space as we care to, therapeutic exploration may enable us to make an uncomfortable but essential discovery that we are often the architects of our own house of suffering.
*to protect patient confidentiality, all names and identifying details have been changed.