By Karen Ehman
The act of being nice has been asked of us since we were tots. Who of us doesn’t remember our parents telling us to “play nice” with our siblings or our kindergarten teacher correcting a misbehaving student, chiding them, “That’s not very nice!”? Being nice is expected of schoolyard kids, adult citizens (well, maybe not on social media!), and especially of Jesus-loving Christians. But is nice what we are commanded to be in Scripture?
A quick online search of the three translations I use most often when studying and teaching the Bible—the ESV, CSB, and NIV versions—yielded not one solitary result when searching for the word nice. You can find some related words such as kind, gentle, or loving. But nice, it appears, has left the church building.
Now this doesn’t mean that an aspect of being nice is not commendable. Of course, we don’t want to be rude. Insensitive. Downright nasty. Nice as it relates to being polite and tactful is certainly behavior we should exemplify. But when our nice goes off the rails, we adopt a persona that ushers in much grief.
Let’s just think about Jesus for a moment. Would he be characterized as a “nice guy”? Our perfect Savior—who was fully God and fully man—came to earth to show us the way to live. Did he, by his behavior, show us that the most crucial thing we should be known for is being nice?
Sharon Hodde Miller, author of the book Nice: Why We Love to Be Liked and How God Calls Us to More, put it this way:
Jesus was loving. He was gracious. He was forgiving. He was kind. But he was not nice. He was a man who would leave the 99 sheep to rescue the one, but he was also totally unafraid of offending people. Jesus understood the difference between graciousness and personal compromise, between speaking truth and needlessly alienating people. Rather than wear a shiny veneer, he became the embodiment of rugged love. This, not niceness, is what we are called to.
The Nice Guy—or Girl
Our desire to be known as a nice guy—or rather a nice girl—urges us to keep the peace at all costs and to rarely let our true feelings show, because such behavior will please others. But is nice what we should be aiming for? And, when we achieve the status of “Nicest Person of the Year,” what is it doing to our relationships as well as to our own mental, spiritual, and even physical health?
Elevating the desire to be nice at all costs sparks some interesting happenings in our brains. There are studies that indicate that something unpleasant happens in our minds when we disagree with another person or fail to do what a superior is asking us to, whether it is an outright request or just a subtle suggestion we gather from their behavior.
In the 1950s, social psychologist Solomon Asch conducted an extensive research study as part of the Asch Conformity Experiments. These experiments had as their goal observing and documenting what happens to an individual when he or she either goes along with, or against, what their peers think.
Participants were placed in a brain scanner and then read a series of statements they were told were either from students who were their peers or educators who were their professors. It was anticipated that the experiment participants would be reluctant to disagree with a professor since they were in a position of authority. Surprisingly, it made no difference if the person who made the statement was a peer or a prof. The results showed that the participants experienced similar discomfort when disagreeing with a classmate.
Brain scans showed a network of brain regions were notably active during the rare moments “people pleasers” would disagree. The medial prefrontal cortex, which mediates decision-making, and the anterior insula, involved in the experience of social emotions, bodily sensations, among others, showed more activity than other regions. Previous studies have linked these regions to the experience of cognitive dissonance, or the uncomfortable feeling of holding two contradictory beliefs. In other words, those who dislike to disagree tend to experience worse cognitive dissonance when confronted with beliefs they don’t agree with compared to their peers. The researchers suspect this is accompanied by heightened mental stress and discomfort. This suggests sensitivity to mental stress is linked to an increased vulnerability to influence.
This research—and other similar experiments I found—concludes that often we go along to get along, being overly nice, simply to avoid mental stress. However, what we often don’t realize is that our being extremely nice—taking on too many responsibilities or voicing an untruth that might come back to haunt us later—may cause us greater mental stress in the future than it would in the present moment if we would just be honest with our thoughts and feelings.
Have you ever volunteered to stay late to clean up from an activity at your child’s school or at church, thinking it was the right and nice thing to do? However, the event was on a day when you had a crazy busy evening, with kids to get in bed, piles of laundry that had stacked up, and a big project at work the next morning for which you were still preparing. Your being nice by offering to be on the cleanup crew completely threw off your evening routine, causing you to stay up late to finish the laundry and prepare for your work project which mentally stressed you out. Regardless, you agreed to take on the task in order to avoid the mental conflict you would’ve experienced if you’d stayed silent while knowing there was a need and that others expected you to jump in and meet it.
What other nice responses have cost you peace of mind? Did you offer to keep your friend’s puppy for the weekend, even though you are not an animal lover and are slightly allergic to pet dander? However, you knew she was having difficulty finding someone and so you thought the nice thing to do was to offer. Now you will spend your weekend off stuck at home and sneezing. But you will retain your “super nice friend” status, which to you is more important than avoiding the mental stress and constant wheezing you’ll get by acting as a pet hotel.
My friend Meredith recently gave the keynote message at a virtual conference I attended. She echoed what researchers have found when in her talk she said, “Our brains are hardwired to protect ourselves from things that might hurt us and gravitate towards things that create positive feelings for us.” So, we make a blink response, choosing what at first feels pleasant and positive because it will maintain our status of being known as nice, not realizing the future mental tension that lies ahead.
Mental tension is not the only cost we incur by being known as a perpetually nice person. We forfeit our time, which is one of our most important commodities. All of our offers of help, our periods of pitching in and rolling up our sleeves to tackle the task, or our failure to be honest about our current availability when someone wants to talk—they all fill our precious time with actions that retain our reputation as nice but that prevent us from real work we should be doing or leisure time we might have enjoyed.
Craving the title of nice has other consequences relationally. We may think it elevates ourselves in the eyes of others. Perhaps it has, when it comes to people needing our assistance or wanting us to agree with them. But it can cost us relationally with our own families. I’ve seen firsthand how being too nice—almost becoming a doormat for friends, fellow church members, coworkers, and others—can do just that.
Our mental peace of mind. Our time. Maybe even our family relationships. Yes, the price of nice is costly. We suffer when we make it our ultimate goal. Sharon Hodde Miller put it perfectly when she wrote, “Niceness is like any good or neutral thing, which becomes a broken thing when it becomes an ultimate thing.”
Okay. I’m convinced now. Nice should not be our utmost aspiration. So, just what is a sweet, accommodating Jesus-loving girl supposed to do?
Putting Up Parameters
Letting others know by our actions that we’ve enacted clear and measurable boundaries is important in dealing with the disease to please. These barriers and guardrails alert others to exactly what type of behavior we will welcome, tolerate, or refuse to allow.
Remember, not everyone will be happy about the boundaries you put in place. However, it is done both for your mental and physical health and for their benefit as well. Dr. Henry Cloud, in his book Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No To Take Control of Your Life, describes it this way:
When we begin to set boundaries with people we love, a really hard thing happens: they hurt. They may feel a hole where you used to plug up their aloneness, their disorganization, or their financial irresponsibility. Whatever it is, they will feel a loss. If you love them, this will be difficult for you to watch. But, when you are dealing with someone who is hurting, remember that your boundaries are both necessary for you and helpful for them. If you have been enabling them to be irresponsible, your limit setting may nudge them toward responsibility.
Boundaries are actually a blessing. Put them in place and watch them work. Your relationships will be healthier in the long run. Of equal importance is having internal parameters in our own mind; restrictions we will adhere to that can prevent us from going overboard with the nice that is wreaking havoc on our peace of mind, our schedules, and our family’s lives.
Adapted from When Making Others Happy Is Making You Miserable: How to Break the Pattern of People Pleasing and Confidently Live Your Life by Karen Ehman. Click here to learn more about this book.
Bestselling author and recovering people pleaser Karen Ehman offers stories and helpful tools from her own life to equip you with practical and biblical advice on how to break free from the pleasing game and reclaim your peace and purpose.
Feeling overwhelmed, burned out, and pulled in too many directions by the needs of others? If you wish you had a little more freedom and margin in your daily schedule, this is the book for you.
Karen Ehman is a Proverbs 31 Ministries speaker, a New York Times bestselling author, and a writer for Encouragement for Today, an online devotional that reaches over 4 million people daily. She has written seventeen books including Keep It Shut, Pressing Pause, and Keep Showing Up. Her passion is to help women to live their priorities as they reflect the gospel to a watching world. Married to her college sweetheart, Todd, the mother of three, and mom-in-law of two, she enjoys antique hunting, cheering for the Detroit Tigers, and feeding the many people who gather around her mid-century dining table for a taste of Mama Karen's cooking. Connect with her at karenehman.com.