How Emotionally Intelligent People Cultivate the Power of Skilled Niceness
Nice people are supportive, caring, considerate, empathetic, loving. They’re who you want by your side on life’s journey, the ones with open hearts and tamed egos. Nice people are a blessing. However, without developing relevant skills, nice people are hindered by a fundamental flaw — people pleasing.
People pleasers overextend themselves, they give and keep giving, at the expense of themselves. Being gracious and giving is the highest form of human connection, a powerful, life-affirming force. Like all forces, balance is necessary. No one can consistently give without recuperation, or the support of others.
Before we continue, an unexpected plot twist — there’s no such thing as a nice person. I’d argue all humans are inherently good. Qualities such as love, compassion, and empathy are the core of humanity. These qualities are synonymous with “nice people,” but they’re not mutually exclusive. Each of us has the choice, every day, to act with kindness.
For the purpose of this article, a “nice person” is someone who displays these qualities in abundance, but struggles with balance. Someone with plenty of compassion for others, but little for themselves. Someone who regularly puts the needs of others ahead of their own. As you’re reading this article, I’ll assume this is you.
Niceness as a label, not an act
On the surface, the solution looks easy. You may be aware you need to take more time for yourself, with stress and burnout making caring for others a difficulty. So why is it so difficult? A barrier between intellectual understanding and action is an imbalanced perception of kindness. I refer to this as “the prison of niceness,” when a natural tendency to care for others leads to self-neglect.
To understand this, let’s examine the beliefs you hold about yourself. We all develop beliefs throughout different stages of life. Some serve us, but due to the negativity bias of the mind, most restrict us. Common examples of limiting beliefs include “I’m not good enough,” “I’m not worthy of love,” “I’ll never fit in.” Beliefs can be summarised with a label — incapable, unlovable, imposter.
Without conscious exploration, we see these labels as truth, inseparable from who we are. These labels form our self-image. The prison of niceness is hard to escape due to the deceptive nature of labels. When becoming aware of a label such as incapable, there’s clear motivation to change. But nice, friendly, happy? These terms can be just as damaging.
The prison of niceness
Anger, jealousy, resentment, frustration… None of these universal emotions are considered nice. This is an issue. If the label “nice” is attached to your self-image, dissonance is caused when experiencing emotions sitting outside of your concept of self-image. A belief — “nice people don’t get angry” — leads to repression, denial or guilt.
Carl Rogers, the influential humanistic psychologist, notes the importance of self-acceptance in On Becoming A Person. Rogers uses the term incongruence to describe “a discrepancy between the actual experience of the organism and the self-picture of the individual insofar as it represents that experience.” In this example, the actual experience is anger. The self-picture is “nice person.”
Part of becoming a person, of self-actualizing, is leading a life of congruence (or authenticity). It’s easy to see how incongruence leads to people pleasing. A people pleaser will reject their own needs and desires, believing “the needs of others are more important than my own” or “I don’t want to let people down.” Behaviour is adjusted accordingly.
A life spent pleasing others is damaging. Many traits of a meaningful life — alignment with values, self-acceptance, authenticity — aren’t compatible with people pleasing. Personal values contradict others’ needs, daily. Rather than healthy balance or compromise, people pleasing sacrifices personal desire.
This is where skilled niceness comes in. It’s the ability to be loving, caring, and compassionate — without losing oneself in the act. It’s the balance of self-compassion, and compassion for others. Of respecting one’s own boundaries. Of discerning when to give, and when to step back. It’s niceness as authentic expression, not a label. It’s a self-image better matched to reality.
I’ve personally fell for the above traps; I was concerned at upsetting others, and I believed putting others’ first was a sign of being nice. I lost myself in the act of giving. As my self-awareness and self-compassion increased, I realised this behaviour was damaging. When training as a coach, I learned the value of boundary setting.
Boundary setting is frequently misunderstood — by nice people. The motivation isn’t to exclude others, stop caring, building barriers around the heart while exclaiming “it’s me against the world!.” With skilled niceness, boundary setting is a way to care more, be more inclusive, more open-hearted. Conscious boundary setting is done with compassion and honesty.
Honesty is essential when assessing how much you can truly give. For example, I require above-average alone time. I need at least one full day in the week to reflect, journal, process, or just be. Generally, I socialise twice in the week, and have one busier social day over the weekend. I spent a long time resisting my zest for solitude, identifying with the label “boring,” saying yes more than I was comfortable and pushing through low energy. Only with honesty did I accept my level of social energy, and align my schedule accordingly.
It’s one step to take honest self-assessment and realise the need for more alone time. But what if, one Wednesday evening, your social health bar is low and you have plans to read, drink tea and spoon-feed yourself peanut butter, and a friend invites you to socialise? Honesty is also required to say no with clarity and compassion.
Skilled kindness cultivates quality giving
We need each other to flourish. Serving others is an essential ingredient of a fulfilling life, an expression of the heart, a loving act. However, focusing on quantity of giving leads to burnout, stress, frustration. At worst, a lack of healthy boundaries leads to resentment, blame, or a sense of losing control of your own life.
By cultivating skilled niceness, we take responsibility for our boundaries, take control of our lives, and preserve our energy with compassion and honesty. In doing this, we sow the seeds for quality giving. This is unconditional giving, provided with joy, not obligation.
Being fully present, and engaging in quality giving, is a rarity in this world. And that makes it the nicest gift we can give.