Act 1, Scene 1:
Mother: “Sally, give that toy back to your younger sister, she was playing with it first” .
Sally: “But I want to play with it!”
Mother: “Sally, don’t be selfish, no one will like you if you’re selfish. Give the toy back right now.”
This is an example of how we socialize our children. We shame them for their self interested desires and teach them to seek approval from others. This is well intentioned, but has negative unintended consequences. When the strategy is successful, it produces adults that have trouble acting in their own self interest. When the strategy fails, it produces the bad boys and bad girls of the world.
Consider the position Sally is in. She is presented with a choice of suppressing her desire and gaining her mothers approval, or continuing with her desire and facing rejection. If she keeps choosing her own desires first, she will be considered a bad girl. It’s a heart wrenching choice: loose the vitality that comes with embracing her desires or loose the love and support of those around her. It’s a lose/lose proposition.
I’m a recovering nice guy. Like most people, I choose to go the nice route and learned to stuff my desires and seek approval. To be nice means to conform to others expectations and to consider our own desires last, if at all. The desires don’t go away though, they stay there hidden or sheepishly expressed. This is what I call the disease of niceness. It’s a disease because we’ve socialized people to suppress acting in their own interest; what other animal does that? Desire is where our vitality comes from, and suppressing our desires greatly limits our ability to be happy and successful.
The pressure to be nice is applied to girls and boys, but especially to girls. They are supposed to be sugar and spice and everything nice; to not be nice is to not be feminine, or so society wants us to believe.
Those who go the other way and choose to be bad little girls and bad little boys grow up to become the adult bad girls and bad boys. It’s no accident that we don’t call them bad women and bad men; they are still caught up in that rebellious childhood dynamic. They’ve learned to forgo the approval of others in favor of embracing their own desires.
The appeal of the bad girls and bad boys to some of us “nice” people is that they’ve retained the vitality that comes with self interested desire; we are attracted to that because we want our own vitality back. The downside is that those bad boys and bad girls have turned away from acting with conscience; you’ll feel their desires, but yours will not be considered, except perhaps as a way to manipulate you.
As a recovering nice guy, I know what it means to be too nice. Too nice is too boring. In my niceness I’ve been on the receiving end of rejection from women more times than I can count; and they were right to reject me for that. I’ve also rejected women for being too nice. Who wants nice if it means someone who suppresses their desires? I want to feel a women’s desire! I think we all want that in a partner.
To have the disease of niceness or to be a bad boy or bad girl means to still be a child. The choice presented in childhood is a false choice. We can keep our self interested desires AND have consideration for how our actions affect others. The golden rule – to treat others as we want to be treated – is sage advice that has been around for thousands of years and is thought to be in some form in almost every ethical tradition. If we can find a way to socialize the next generation to following the golden rule AND retaining self interested desire we will raise a generation more able to live fulfilling lives. It’s no easy task, but our future may depend on it. The first step is to create that for ourselves.
To have genuine self love, we must transcend the good/bad dynamic. When I was in nice guy mode I was seeking approval rather than fulfillment. This is now the key for me to recognize when I’ve been re-infected with the nice guy disease. People seeking self actualization seek fulfillment rather than approval. Approval is good to have, but a self actualized person knows you can’t get approval from all the people all the time. They don’t need it and they don’t seek it because they already approve of themselves; that is self love in action.
When I’m was in approval seeking mode, it’s like I wanted some sky god (or earth mother) to show up and tell me that it’s OK to go for what I want. I wanted an external source of unconditional love so that I could start loving myself. I now know that waiting for external love means waiting forever; it’s never going to happen.
I realized that loving myself was not about meeting some external standard of beauty, intelligence, accomplishment, or any other criteria. I’ve seen plenty of beautiful, intelligent and accomplished people that still need the approval of others. I had to love myself enough to believe I deserved fulfillment, without qualifications. If I wanted it I had to give it to myself. A voice inside began to say:
“YOU ARE THE PERSON YOU’VE BEEN WAITING FOR! YOU ARE THE ONE WHO NEEDS TO LOVE YOU ENOUGH FIRST! You are the only one who can decide that you deserve fulfillment in your life. It will NEVER come from the outside because that’s not how it works. It never worked that way and it never will; not for you; not for anyone.’
It’s cliché because it’s true: we can’t completely love another until we first love ourselves. The love that’s shared between two people when neither has self love is all mixed up with insecurity and the need for approval. It’s not that fulfilling, even if it does feel better than being alone. To be fulfilling, love needs to come from someone who already loves themselves. If I don’t love myself, then I don’t embrace my own fulfillment, so how could I fully support my partners fulfillment? Seeking approval for helping someone does not feel quite the same to the partner; more burden than treasure.
Niceness is a thin veneer, a facade that insulates us from genuine intimacy with others. It covers over and hides our true feelings. Niceness and authenticity cannot co-exist at the same time because being nice requires twisting who we are to fit others expectations. Don’t be nice, instead be kind.
When we are afflicted with niceness, we think of our own desires as a burden, and we don’t want to burden others, so we keep them to ourselves.
Act 3, Scene 5:
“What do you want to do for dinner tonight honey?”
“Oh, I don’t care, whatever you want dear.”
Our desires are only a burden if we expect their fulfillment without consideration for other’s desires; the bad boy/girl scenario.
As long as we are acting with conscience, our desires are a gift, not a burden. Don’t deny the gift of your desires with those you love. Share your desires, for it’s desires that forms the notes of the beautiful music you can make together with others.
Don’t love your neighbor more than yourself. Don’t love yourself and trash your neighbor. Love thy neighbor as thyself.