I’ve been helping Nice Guys/Girls and people-pleasers recover from this mental illness for nearly 8 years now, not to mention being in recovery myself for more than a decade.
Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about this syndrome. It takes different forms for different people, and there are different types of Nice Guys. No one NG is the same as another, and yet we all have a lot in common.
Today, I’m going to share some of the main symptoms you need to work on to recover from this syndrome – which is nothing less than an addiction to control, comfort and emotional familiarity – the fantasy of a smooth, problem-free life.
–Note, you may not identify with all of these, but if you see yourself in more than half of them, you’re definitely a Nice Guy! (or girl).
This is where you expect behaviours from others without telling them. You sulk and punish them when they break the rules you made up in your head, but still you don’t tell them. “They should just know,” you tell yourself. Covert contracts are a death sentence to any relationship.
Avoidance of confrontation
Anything to prevent or fix emotional conflict between you and others. Whether this involves lying, pretending to not care about something, or using humour and distraction to deflect. Some rare NGs do regularly confront, but do so explosively or with manipulation, leading to unhealthy outcomes. Without healthy confrontations, you can’t build healthy relationships.
Keep it easy-going, right? Maybe being slightly happy, calm or even justifably and mildly frustrated is OK, but everything else is out. No confusion, no anger, no sadness, no disgust, no excitement, no anxiety, no depression. You feel these things but you squash them, stillborn. This leads to emotional breakdowns (explosions known as “pukes”), erratic behaviour, relationship meltdowns, and mental illness.
If honesty will get a bad reaction, or even just might possibly not go exactly the way you’re comfortable with, you reach into your bag of lies and half-truths, or just stay silent. This shames who you really are (creating the Not Good Enough story), while disconnecting you from others and building a fake reputation that will eventually crash down.
No good deed should go unrewarded, right? No point in doing something if no one is around to appreciate it, right? Nice Guys always make sure to collect what they’re owed for being nice. We don’t achieve things or help others just for the joy of doing it… there has to be something external like approval as a reward. This means we often steal the glory from others, like topping someone else’s joke or outperforming our work colleagues.
If it makes someone happy, then it’s automatically considered the right thing to do… even if it requires creating long-term problems or sacrificing your integrity. People-pleasing is any behaviour where the primary motive is to make someone else feel happy and like you more. It makes you fake, disconnected from others, and exhausted. Ironically, we often put more effort into pleasing total strangers or distant associates than our closest friends and partners.
Approval and validation seeking
Almost everything a Nice Guy does is to make someone else validate their existence and tell them that they’re a good little boy (or girl). We become so obsessed with approval from others that we can even take jobs, get married, or move to another country just to make someone think positively of us. If only I had a dollar for every divorce I’ve coached people through where they knew they weren’t a good fit within the first couple of dates! I’d have like $9.
Playing safe to avoid failure or disapproval
Nice Guys usually excel at something… usually something that they find easy and are naturally talented in and don’t even like that much. However, if you put them into a situation where they’re just middle of the pack and not immediately comfortable or excellent, before long they’ll lose interest and quit. Not to mention the repeated pattern of procrastinating on big moves, like starting their own business, due to fear of not winning on their first go.
This is where you change who you are depending on who you’re with. You match and mimic your audience to fit in. You’re rough with your tradie mates, thoughtful and considerate with your artistic colleagues, professional with your boss, and so on. This method-acting approach to socialising usually leaves you unsure as to who you really are, and guarantees nothing but superficial connections.
An ironic term, as people-pleasers rarely achieve excellence. However, identifying as a “perfectionist” becomes a wondering get-out-of-jail-free excuse to procrasinate and avoid difficult activities and tasks. The most likely outcome of being a perfectionist? Average results, being too busy, and never doing anything perfectly.
Avoidance of rejection
Green Light Syndrome is the term I give to someone who is passive and waits for permission or encouragement before going for what they want. This limits the Nice Guy to only receive what is provided and offered freely by others, be it jobs, friendships, relationships, activities… just about everything. This is the quickest path to a life of feeling like you’re missing out.
Prone to manipulation (giving and receiving)
Despite being masterful manipulators (using people-pleasing to control emotions and impressions), Nice Guys are surprisingly prone to being manipulated themselves, and attracting narcissistic types. Most Nice Guys and girls have a miserable pattern of friendships and relationships with chaotic, toxic and manipulative people (with the exceptions of those who only engage in safe relationships with other people-pleasers, or those who struggle to create any types of relationships).
Anger management issues
Nice Guys are terrified of their dark side, and keep it carefully locked up in a cage. But such a beast cannot be contained. Every now and then, it escapes. This means either self-harming behaviour like extreme risk-taking or substance abuse, or harmful behaviour toward others like taking revenge, abuse and violence.
Nice Guys usually only have one outlet for their shame: false humour and obnoxiously ever-present banter. Whenever you hear someone making fun of themselves, you’re usually hearing truly dark thoughts and feelings being presented as light and unimportant. This is a sign that someone secretly hates themselves. And that guy who makes a joke out of everything? Yeah, he has major confidence issues. Take my word for it: he’s a mess on the inside.
Inaccurately negative self-measurement
Nice Guys will dismiss their many achievements and strengths and instead dwell on every little failure, weakness, rejection or uncomfortable moment. They catastrophise and exaggerate this already skewed perspective until they are convinced that they truly suck as a person.
Negative judgment of others
One way to push back on the overwhelming shame, frustration and sadness that comes with being a people-pleaser is to convince yourself that others are worse. We call other people selfish, stupid, mean and – ironically – judgmental, to try to redirect some of the self-hatred outwards. All this does is limit our opportunities to understand and connect with others.
Bingeing on dopamine-inducing substances and activities
It’s not long before the pressure of trying to be perfect, unemotional, lovable and constantly happy takes it’s toll and we need some release. So we reach for alcohol, drugs, porn, video games, and anything else that numbs our mind for a few brief, blissful hours. This creates dependancy and increases stress hormones, leading to an addictive cycle of binge and crash.
Playing the victim (blaming)
And the number one reason most Nice Guys are simultaneously aware of these issues and yet resistant to doing anything about them is the bitter old story of “It’s not my fault and there’s nothing I can do about it!” Nice Guys blame their parents, school bullies, women (or men), society, the government, and just about anything for their “unfair” life. It’s only those who finally say “I’m doing all of this to myself and I could change that” who end up recovering.
This is not even the full list – just a few off the top of my head – but if you want to become confident and authentic, and create healthy relationships or build a career that is true to your passions, these are the barriers you must overcome.
A life you enjoy and becoming a person you’re proud to be is waiting on the other side of these obstacles.
If you want to work on all of these and more, come and have a trial session with my Nice Guy Recovery group. Message me for details. Or, if you don’t want to work with me, I recommend these books:
- No more Mr Nice Guy, by Robert Glover
- Models, by Mark Manson
- Imposter Syndrome, by Harold Hillman
- Radical Honesty, by Brad Blanton
- The Happiness Trap, by Russ Harris
- The Truth, by Neil Strauss