I read the first chapter of a self-help book yesterday and it shattered my view of the world. Now, I’ve read plenty of self-help books in my day. It’s a hobby of mine, I suppose. Books on being a better writer, musician, building confidence, charisma, how to have better conversations, study more effectively. The list goes on. I always enjoy them and I mostly get some kind of insight or inspiration out of them but none of them have ever been an impetus for profound revelations or changes. That is, until yesterday.
A few months ago, I put a book on my impossibly large and ever-growing list of books I want to read called “No More Mr. Nice Guy!” by Robert Glover. I have no recollection of where I heard of this book but it was on my list and at the start of my spring break I was compelled to read it.
I bought it and made my way to a little coffee shop on a beautiful, sunny Portland afternoon. I sat down with my decaf Americano and opened to the first page. It started like most other self-help books with silly anecdotal stories about “Allan, the marketing executive with a loving wife and two children” or “John, the web developer who is struggling to find a loving partner”. The difference with this book was that I saw myself in these silly anecdotal stories. A lot of myself. This book is about me.
The book began to describe qualities of the stereotypical “nice guy” and the problems they cause. All me. A few pages later, the author coins the term “Nice Guy Syndrome” and reveals that the book offers activities and insights on how to recover.
Recover. He used the word recover. The way an addict needs to recover. With support groups and internet forums and all that. Many of the things that make me who I am and some of what I thought were my best qualities are the direct cause of some deep and seemingly unmovable problems I’ve been desperately trying to solve.
This realization was earth shattering. It’s like I’ve been trying to figure out why I’m constantly falling over and finally realized the water I’ve been drinking to improve my overall health was actually whiskey. I’ve been putting so much energy into causing the very problems I’ve been trying to solve.
The book slowly slipped out of my hands onto the table in front of me and I started crying in the middle of the coffee shop.
My name is James – and I’m a recovering nice guy.
This is an issue I’ve been dealing with for my entire life but within the last year, I’ve been slowly identifying and naming the problem. It started with a Thai boxing fight I had last spring. I got knocked out by a guy I should’ve easily beaten. After the fight, my coach told me that while I made plenty of technical mistakes in the fight worth fixing, my biggest mistake was being too nice.
I chalked it up to something I didn’t need to correct. I went back to the gym and practiced all the other things I did wrong and completely ignored what my coach called my biggest mistake. Maybe being nice cost me the fight but I didn’t think for a second that it was a mistake.
Last autumn, I was in a relationship that was completely falling apart. Being at home with her was often the darkest part of my day. Even so, I did everything I could think of to make it work. Usually, I was able to take out my frustrations during my daily Thai boxing workouts.
During one of my mid-week training sessions, we were doing some light sparring. After each round, we changed partners and I eventually found myself paired up with a new guy. I’d never met him before. It was his first time training at our gym and while he had some Thai boxing experience, there was a very obvious difference in our skill levels.
Whenever I’m sparring with someone new, I always make sure I’m extra slow and gentle and light. It’s partially for the sake of whoever I’m working with but it’s mostly because I’m not very trusting of new training partners. With the wrong partner, a nice, fun sparring session can turn into an all out war. These things can escalate quickly and the best way I’ve found to avoid that is simply make it clear I’m not trying to win.
The bell rang, the round started and I moved towards him, smooth and slow. I noticed immediately that he was moving much faster than me but I can usually get people to slow down by maintaining my calm, methodical pace. I threw a super slow motion jab-cross combination at him, as if to say, “Don’t worry, little fella! I’m not trying to knock your head off! We can be friends!”
He jumped backwards as though he were trying to dodge a Muhammad Ali punch and threw a really fast front kick at my face. And it hit me. I just fed him a kind and gentle combination as a peace offering and he kicked me in the face as fast as he could.
Moving at light-speed while I was moving at a glacial pace made this exchange completely unrealistic and ridiculous – it would never work if we were moving at the same speed – but even more than that, trying to hit someone in the face with the bottom of your grimy foot is probably the most disrespectful thing you can do in Thai boxing. I would never do it to a training partner.
The second his foot hit my face, I dropped my hands and said, “If you do that again, we’re going to have a serious problem.”
“I didn’t hit you hard, sir. I could’ve kicked you much harder.”
He called me sir. I wanted to slap him in the face. “I don’t care how light it was. If your foot touches my face again, we have a problem.”
I went back to my calm, methodical pace and he went back to his wild, spastic, lightening pace. After another minute of him fighting for the world championship and me moving as slow as I could, I stopped again.
“Slow down, man. Can’t you see how much slower I’m going here? Just relax.”
“I’m pulling my punches, sir. If I were actually trying, you’d be laying on the floor right now,” he said.
“I’m sure. Just slow it down,” I responded.
I went back to my slow, methodical pace and he made no adjustments to his speed. I was able to move around and make him look pretty bad without hitting him fast or hard. At one point, as he was throwing a flurry of strikes, I slowly reached out with one hand and swept his feet out from under him with my foot (It was awesome). As he was falling on his face, he threw a completely desperate, bar-room-brawl, haymaker punch. It was hard and it was fast. Luckily, I blocked it, but I’m pretty sure if it hit me, it would’ve really hurt. I was angry.
As he stood up, I said, “Ok, we’re done. You’d better walk away right now.”
One of my teammates saw this. He quickly stepped between us and pushed the new guy away as he was trying to explain himself. After the new guy walked away and things settled down a bit, my teammate came over me to said, “Man. You are way too nice.”
I finally agreed. I’m too nice. I’ve spent a lot of my life being insecure. Weak. Fragile. Hurt. And I’ve worked so hard to turn myself into a fighter to eliminate these feelings and cope with these insecurities. I’ve spent years training as hard as I could to make sure I never get pushed around again.
And when I actually had an arrogant bully in front of me, trying to push me around, I let him. I did nothing. I gave away all of my authority. I let it happen without a single consequence. I let him take away my confidence. I let him turn me back into that weak, insecure, fragile kid. I let him take away my years of training and hard work. Because I’m nice.
It is incredibly important to me to be respectful and kind. It is always my highest priority. But I think my coach was right – It’s my biggest mistake. When I get kicked in the face, respect and kindness should become less important than protecting my dignity, confidence, pride, self-respect. I shouldn’t have tried so hard to get that kid to slow down, I should’ve given him one warning and then kicked his ass. I still regret it.
On my way home, I started realizing that I’ve been letting myself get pushed around in so many aspects of my life. And I’d had enough. When I got home, before I even put my bag down, I looked at my girlfriend and said, “I think I’m getting taken advantage of here and I’m putting way more effort into saving this relationship than you are. I’m going to stop trying so hard. If you want this to work, you’re going to need to try a lot harder.”
Our five-year relationship ended less than a month later. I moved out and spent tons of time figuring out what went wrong. I did everything right. I tried so hard. I gave her everything I had. I couldn’t understand what happened.
And yesterday, I found myself crying in the middle of a coffee shop because I finally saw the problem. I’m one of those nice-guys-finish-last guys and it’s been absolutely sabotaging my life.
The issue is not that I’m too nice or my behaviors are inherently destructive. The problem is my reasons for these behaviors. Of course, it’s multi-faceted and complicated but at the core, I’m a “nice guy” because I don’t want to rock the boat, I don’t want to cause anyone trouble, I want everyone around me to be comfortable. The painful part is the reason I want those things. It’s because I desperately and pathologically seek acceptance and approval and love.
Somewhere in my life, I developed an undying belief that pleasing everyone around me would allow me to get the acceptance and approval and love I so desperately need. The result is a constant and relentless attempt to live up to pretend expectations that I assume other people have.
I got knocked out in my Thai boxing fight because I was more focused on getting the acceptance, approval and love of everyone there, including my opponent, than I was on my own performance.
Obviously, this isn’t working for me. I have a lot of changes to make and I’m going to need lots of help to make them. I don’t necessarily know who or what I’m going to transform into but I know this for sure: If you ever front kick me in the face, I’m going to kick your ass.