Eager to please, some women suffer from a little-known syndrome wherein they are so keen to keep everyone in their lives happy, to do so at the expense of their own needs. Here, Beverly Engel, author of The Nice Girl Syndrome: Stop Being Manipulated and Abused – and Start Standing Up for Yourself, explains why being too nice isn’t the way to go.
Q: What is the Nice Girl Syndrome?
A: It’s the idea that certain women have a very difficult time speaking up for themselves and letting other people know that they don’t like the way they’re being treated. They stay in abusive relationships too long, they allow people to talk them into things they don’t want to do, and they’re easily manipulated. What I’ve discovered is that there’s a little bit of nice girl in every woman.
Q: Where does this need to please come from?
A: It comes from several areas. First, we’re biologically predisposed to being nice. Women are supposed to be good mothers, we have a tendency to allow behaviours because we want to avoid conflict to protect children. We have a chemical called oxytocin, that gets released both when we connect with people and also when we’re in danger, that calms us down and gets us to cooperate and gather together as women rather than fighting or fleeing as men have. Culturally, we’re still being taught to be nice, pleasant and sweet – that women are supposed to be polite and not rock the boat. We also have the situation where women have been abused as a child, and where they’ve learned the lesson really strongly that you don’t stand up for yourself because that puts you in danger. And we have familial beliefs that get passed down in families, where the mother may model nice girl behaviour. A young girl might see that her mother puts up with neglectful or abusive behaviour. The young girl might see that her mother prefers the boys and makes them special meals or waits on them more. Women also have kind of an inherent knowledge that men are more physically powerful than women, and it wasn’t that long ago that girls and women were the property of fathers and husbands and they had to be nice. If they weren’t, they really were in danger. I think we carry that memory with us.
Q: Is this syndrome most significant in our relationships with men, or do women who feel the need to please do so with everyone in their lives?
A: There are different types of nice girls. There are some for whom it really comes out in their relationships with men, and others who really need to be nice to everybody. They’re the ones that get talked into everything, and they listen to everyone’s problems for hours and hours, and who always get asked to bring a certain dish to the party. They’re always over-giving.
Q: What are the contemporary payoffs for being a nice girl?
A: Acceptance and love. People like them, and they don’t have to deal with conflict. Nice girls are very afraid of conflict. It’s very uncomfortable for them. A number of years ago, there was a book called Odd Girl Out, and the author went to high schools and interviewed young girls. The thing that came out of those interviews is that girls really believe it doesn’t do any good to confront a situation, even with their best friends. Their strong belief was that talking about a situation actually made it worse, that if they went to a friend with a problem that the friend would be hurt and then the friend would stop talking to them. Many girls don’t know how to handle conflict and want to avoid it at all costs.
Q: So how do we get out of this?
A: We need to teach young girls about conflict resolution, and that conflict is an important part of life. They have to understand that if they don’t speak up about problems, there’s no way they can solve the problems. Conflict is an opportunity to resolve the problem, and there’s a strong payoff in speaking up. We need to be good role models for our daughters, and raise them to be assertive and powerful and strong. We need to show them that women can be strong and accepted and liked at the same time. Grown women who are already in a situation where they’re in the Nice Girl Syndrome need to get my book! I have a program in the book that walks them through how to get out of it. Or they need to go into therapy or a support group. It’s tougher to do on your own.
Q: Can you give us an example of some of the exercises that might help someone who’s too nice?
A: One is really simple, and it’s an old assertiveness training exercise. Two women stand together; one is going to represent “no” and the other is going to represent “yes.” I have the one who’s going to represent no think about something she would like to say no to, and I have the one who’s going to represent yes think of something she’d like to say yes to, like “yes, I’m going to finish school.” Then they just take turns – one saying no while the other says yes. Then they switch. I ask them to pay attention to their body, how they feel when they say no and when they say yes. I also have women take some time to walk around the house saying “no.” A lot of women don’t know how to say it, and a lot of women have told me how much better they feel when they get comfortable saying “no.”