Recently, I’ve noticed a theme coming up in my conversations with friends and clients — we’re all sick of being nice. By being nice, I mean doing the emotional labor to make sure our message is coming through in a pleasant way, while also scanning our conversation partners to make sure they’re not feeling misunderstood, offended, or disempowered. Being nice is a complex dance of thinking of what you want to say + crafting it so that it sounds nice + making sure the other person is feeling okay about what you have to say + readjusting on the fly if they are not okay. It’s a dynamic that takes so much more effort, intuition, and mental energy than just thinking of what you want to say and saying it.
Why is this happening now? My take is that it’s a byproduct of complex trauma from the pandemic. We’ve all had to expend so much more mental energy to get through this (reconfiguring work and childcare, worrying about getting sick, spending 24/7 with our families, etc) while losing access to so many of the things that allow our nervous systems to return to a calm baseline (connections with friends and family, activities outside the home, alone time, etc). Since all of this leaves us with less mental and emotional energy, we’ve been rethinking where we should spend our energy, and where it’s necessary to put up boundaries so we can protect and conserve the energy we do have.
And one of those boundaries seems to be around being nice.
But this can often be hard, especially for women, because there’s a social cost to it, or we feel guilty. And most of us like to make sure people feel heard, validated and understood.
But I think we need to reframe this. For those times when we don’t have the energy to do the extra emotional labor of being nice, I’d like to propose an alternative that’s still in line with the value of helping people (including yourself!) feel heard, validated and understood, but doesn’t take nearly the mental gymnastics of being nice.
You can be kind.
What’s the difference? Well, let me present to you — Mother Teresa.
I think we can all agree that Mother Teresa did some amazing things to help the poor. She created hospitals, orphanages, soup kitchens, and homes for the dying. She spent her life doing her best to help those who otherwise would not have had access to health care, food, and a place to die with dignity.
I remember watching the news when she died in 1997. There was a panel of journalists who were talking about her achievements, and all she did for the poor, when one of them interjected, “But you know, Mother Teresa was, rather famously, an asshole.” All the other journalists stopped and stared. The first journalist continued, “I mean, she did miraculous things in her lifetime, but she was notoriously difficult. She would fight for what she thought was right, tooth and nail, and she could be quite hard-headed and difficult about it.”
Mother Teresa was kind, but not nice.
There are other examples of folks who are kind, but not nice. I think Anthony Bourdain and the character of Roy Kent from Ted Lasso also fit the bill. They’re not nice people, and could be described as assholes, but they both have such obviously kind and caring hearts. I think the reason I particularly love the Mother Teresa example is because we don’t have many role models of women who are kind, but not nice.
So when I notice that I need to create a boundary around my emotional labor, when I notice that it would take more energy than I have at the moment to think about what I want to say and figure out how to be “nice” about it rather than just saying it, I find myself repeating this mantra in my head:
“Mother Teresa was an asshole. Mother Teresa was an asshole. Mother Teresa was an asshole.”
And then I just do or say the thing. In the end, it doesn’t matter if I’m nice about it, as long as I know that it comes from a place of kindness or compassion, either for myself or others. Sometimes, there’s backlash and people seem a bit shocked that I’m so straightforward and uncompromising, but after a lifetime of people-pleasing, I’m practicing not caring how other people view me. It’s much more important that I prioritize compassion for myself and others over tone-policing my own words and actions.
I invite you to imagine a life where you are kind but not nice. Where you do and say what you want, when you want, and live from a heart-centred place where you’re free from worrying about anyone else’s opinion of you. Because remember, what other people think of you is none of your business.
“Before we can be with one another we have to learn to grieve with one another” – Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
I’ve been thinking a lot about this quote by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. At the time, he was speaking about the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but I’ve been thinking about it in terms of the fracturing in our Western society in the last few decades, the widening of the ideological divide and the vilification of those on the other end of the ideological spectrum that’s happening on both sides.
I’ve realized it’s not productive for me to go down the rabbit hole of thinking about all the ways the people I disagree with are wrong or incorrect. I could list myriad ways that I think pro-lifers are wrong or that gerrymandering is a calculated, racist effort to destroy democratic safeguards. You may or may not agree with me — I’m sure there are some of you out there who are just as certain of their differing opinions as I am of mine. The problem is, that type of thinking doesn’t get us any closer to understanding each other. In fact, it does the opposite and only makes me feel more entrenched in my “rightness.”
It’s not productive for me to ask what’s wrong with those who I disagree with, but it is helpful for me to ask what they are grieving.
What is it that makes them feel sad or outraged?
What is it that makes them feel misunderstood or dismissed?
What is it that is changing in their world that they’re not ready for, that feels like it’s being forced upon them with no way to stop it?
I know for me I feel sad and outraged by watching systems of oppression in action. I feel misunderstood and dismissed by daily misogynistic microaggressions. I am watching the world change from one that respects experts as sources of information to one that respects social media as sources of information and I feel like there’s nothing I can do about it, and that I don’t know how to stop it.
So you see, I am grieving. This is the substance of my grief.
And I also know that those with whom I vehemently disagree are grieving, too. They could answer all of those questions in ways that are just as meaningful to them as my answers are to me.
If we’re going to try to be with one another, if we’re going to try to find a way back to mutual understanding, we have to start with learning about each other’s grief.
This is the root of compassion. This is the root of understanding.
Now, I’m not suggesting that I should lose my opinions and give up my ethics. Quite the contrary, I’m not willing to compromise or acquiesce to things that, in my opinion, are morally wrong. But I am willing to ask of those who disagree with me —
How are you suffering?
What would make you feel more understood?
What are you unhappy with in your life that feels out of your control?
What are you grieving?
And I am willing to acknowledge that although I may not agree with the substance of it, their grief is just as valid as mine. I’m not the grief police, I don’t get to decide what’s worthy or not.
So, before we write someone off as “brainwashed by the other side” let’s understand what they are grieving, and then listen to them from a place of compassion and awareness, because one thing I know is that when people truly see the humanity in another being, they don’t wish that being to suffer, no matter how different they are from you and me.
The other day, my mentor asked me, “Are you proud of yourself?”
I had just finished running my new course, Unconventional Tools for Healing, for the first time and was telling her how pleased I was to get some really lovely feedback from the participants.
I stopped for a moment and reflected on her question. I answered honestly, and felt myself holding back tears as I responded:
“I don’t think I know how to be proud of myself.”
The first time I ever remember hearing, “I’m proud of you” from any of my family members was in an email from my father after I’d finished cancer treatment. I’d been writing a blog throughout my treatment and he responded to one of my posts, telling me he was proud of me.
I cried big, wet tears for about 20 minutes. I didn’t realize how long I’d been waiting to hear that from him.
The insidious fallout for children of emotionally immature or abusive parents is that we often don’t learn what it feels like to take a moment to be proud of ourselves. If we’re hyperfocused and hypervigilant on being the good girl or boy and keeping all the plates spinning in the air, we never learn to stop and take stock of what we’ve achieved.
That moment of feeling pride is important. It’s a moment of rest, reflection and integration before starting the next task.
But in the day in and day out nature of extreme emotional caretaking, there is no rest and there is no moment to reflect.
If this is what “normal” was for you as a child, then stopping, reflecting, and being proud of what you’ve achieved can feel uncomfortable and perhaps even a little anxiety provoking. There’s no awareness of the importance of resting and feeling proud of your achievements before taking on the next challenge.
Here are some signs that you might never have learned how to rest and integrate:
You feel anxious of uncomfortable when you have nothing to do. Your brain wants to know, “what’s next?” and you quickly find something to busy yourself. (This can also manifest as ADHD.)
You think that your achievements are just the bare minimum of what you were supposed to do. I finished chemo? Well, I had cancer I was supposed to. I launched a successful online course? Well, I was supposed to, that’s what you do when you have your own business.
You think that all of the success you’ve achieved might be because of a fluke and not because you worked hard and deserved it. The good things that happen to you are courtesy of chance. The bad things that happen to you are your responsibility.
You don’t think your needs matter or are worth taking into account and this includes your need for rest and integration.
You feel that you are not enough. You feel like you have to go above and beyond every time and that nothing you do is ever quite good enough.
You think that you are too much and you need to work on toning it down.
You believe that if you take time to rest, you will be chastised for being lazy, needy or selfish.
If any of these feel familiar, then please let me be the first to tell you:
Rest, my child.
You deserve to rest.
You deserve to take time for yourself to reset, realign, and heal.
You deserve time only for yourself, with no responsibilities for anyone or anything else.
And furthermore, I am proud of you. Even if you don’t feel like you’ve lived a life that’s anything special or you’ve done anything particularly praise worthy, I am proud of you.
I am proud of you because you have made it this far through some pretty tough shit. You’ve survived some things that probably temporarily broke you, and you’ve picked yourself up and put the pieces back together.
When I was 25 years old, I attended my first meditation training. At the time, I was struggling with how to have a relationship with my mom. My mom was a malignant narcissist, although I didn’t know that label or diagnosis back then. Back then, I was a young woman trying to figure out how to have a decent relationship with mom – so I could have someone in my life who could support me, love me, and help me figure out the turbulent transitions of young adulthood.
I hadn’t yet realized that my mom was unable to do these things for me due to her mental health issues, and I was still trying to think of ways that I could repair or improve our relationship. I felt a huge weight of “fixing” our relationship on my shoulders. If only I could figure out the right approach, maybe we could become closer and have the type of relationship I needed.
After class one day I asked my meditation teacher, B. Allan Wallace, if I could speak to him about a difficult relationship in my life and get his advice. He listened as I explained my situation. I think he knew, even more than I did, that there was no way to have this woman in my life in any way that wasn’t damaging or toxic.
He told me that sometimes the only way to have a relationship with someone was to do so energetically. To send them compassion from afar rather than trying to work out how to be together in real life. He told me that there was a way of healing my relationship with my mom that didn’t involve finding the right approach for ways to repair or improve anything.
He introduced me to the idea of Mettā, which is often translated as “loving kindness.” He showed me how I could send this prayer, this energy, towards my mom as a way of having a relationship with her.
Mettā goes like this:
“May you find happiness and the causes of happiness.
May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.”
He taught me how to bring my mom to my mind and send her this prayer. He said that this was a valuable, important and effective way for me to have a relationship with her.
And so, I did.
The amazing thing about this practice was that it immediately shifted my thoughts about how I didn’t want to give up having my mother in my life, to realizing that this was a way that I could that would bring me no harm. It gave me a sense of agency in a situation that had seemed dire and hopeless only moments before.
“May you find happiness and the causes of happiness.
May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.”
I sent her the prayer often. I sent it to her when I felt furious and crushed by the hurtful, eviscerating words she said to me. I sent it to her when I felt deep sadness that I didn’t have the type of mother I saw my friends have. I sent it to her when my mother’s friends called me, demanding that I tell them what she had done to deserve such “horrible treatment” from her daughter. I sent it to her when I desperately wanted her in my life and didn’t know how to fix that.
Slowly, I started to heal.
I realized that I could separate from her and still have compassion. And that was indeed a type of relationship. My teacher was right, sometimes, it’s the only one we can have with someone.
Compassion is unique in that it can exist in the same moment as almost any other emotion. I can be angry and have compassion for the reasons the other person was mean to me. I can be traumatized and have compassion for the suffering that must have happened for them to know no other way than to hurt me. I can feel rage against the systems of social oppression that have convinced people it’s okay to think of other people as less than, incompetent or undeserving and still have compassion for the immense fear of losing egoic power that drives that behavior.
I still rage and cry and fight against all of this. And at the same time, I have compassion. It’s a weird paradox.
But then again, being a spiritual being having a human experience is a weird paradox.
I’ve continued to keep this practice as part of my daily life as a way to feel connected, held and interwoven with my fellow souls. Yesterday, I was at the market and the man working at the register looked especially tired. I felt the weight of his life in that moment. I looked at him and exchanged the usual pleasantries, but in my mind, I was sending him the energy of Mettā:
“May you find happiness and the causes of happiness.
May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.”
I do this when I pass people walking down the street, whether they are smiling or looking sad. I send it to people I read about in the news or on social media. I send it to the people I see intentionally instigating fear, divisiveness and hatred in our society today. (That last one is a challenge, but when I dig deep I know that all humans do deserve to find happiness and be free from suffering. Much of their hateful behavior comes from a misdirected attempt to alleviate their own suffering, I know.)
So, I have a request. I’d like to invite you to join me. Find at least one person per day to whom you can send Mettā. Look them straight in the eyes and think to yourself, “Hello, my fellow human traveler. I see your messy humanity, just as I see my own. May you find happiness and the causes of happiness. May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.”
Let me know how it goes. I can only imagine a world where everyone sends this energy to everyone else they meet every day. I don’t know exactly what that world would be like, but I know it would have to be a more loving, understanding and compassionate place.
We all have “inner critics” — that voice in our head that’s less than supportive, doubting, and sometimes even mean.
Our inner critic feeds off of self-doubt, imposter syndrome and shame. This is often an echo of the way that we were spoken to as children or a reflection of the value system we grew up in, like valuing hard work or piousness and thereby shaming “laziness” or “bad behavior.”
The main problem with the inner critic is that it keeps us from having a healthy version of the most important relationship we’ll ever have — the relationship with ourselves.
When we can learn to be our own cheerleaders, wise mentors, and caregivers, it makes life so much more pleasant. When we develop inner mentors and inner caregivers, we improve our relationship with ourself and see dramatic changes in how we interact with the world.
How do we convince the inner critic that they are wrong and that we truly are worthy, wonderful human beings?
One of the ways we can improve our relationship with ourselves is by consistently demonstrating our love and care for ourselves and by asking others to help us, too.
This is just like you’d do with a romantic partner – relationships need to be looked after and tended on a daily basis, and the one you have with yourself is no exception.
One way we can work on our relationship with ourselves is through our “love languages.” We each have a ranking of which love languages makes us feel most loved, valued and appreciated. The five love languages are Words of Affirmation, Acts of Service, Receiving Gifts, Quality Time, and Physical Touch.
(Mine are: “receiving gifts”, “words of affirmation” and “acts of service”)
Once you have found your love language profile, here’s what you can do to improve your relationship with yourself.
Find your top 2 love languages and do (or pay someone to do) at least 2 things per week for yourself. For example, buy yourself a small gift (“receiving gifts”), use a grocery delivery app (“acts of service”), get a massage (“physical touch”). Make note of the ones that bring you the most joy so you can do them again!
ASK for others to do things for you in your love language. For example, ask a friend to tell you 3 reasons they value your friendship (“words of affirmation”), ask a friend to surprise you with a gift sometime in the next week (“receiving gifts”), or ask your partner to do the dishes every night this week (“acts of service”).
This may feel weird to ask at first, but we have to get used to asking for what will make us feel loved. Plus, studies show that taking care of others increases people’s happiness. So we’re actually making THEM happier by asking!
Once you’ve made it a habit to buy yourself flowers every Sunday like Lizzo or get a massage each week no matter what, you will be well on your way to learning how to value yourself and understand that you deserve to be treated well and are deserving of all the love.
Lately, I’ve been working on unhooking from praise and criticism in how I evaluate myself and my work. I’ve been examining my own unhealthy relationship to praise and how I’ve chased “gold star stickers” as validation for most of my life.
This started in elementary school when I would get praise for doing well academically. There’s a meme that made the rounds a few years ago that was so spot on for me, it made me cringe in recognition.
Oh yes, all of the above. 100%
The challenges that “gifted and talented” kids face later in life can be explained by Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset vs fixed mindset. A growth mindset is where you believe intelligence is malleable and can develop and grow over time. A fixed mindset is one where you believe intelligence is fixed and static. It turns out that when we praise kids for specific abilities or achievements (“That was a great essay!”, “You’re so smart!” or “You’re such a good athlete!”) as opposed to attributes or intrinsic qualities (“Wow! I’m impressed at how hard you worked on that!” or “That was tough but I’m proud of how you stuck with it.”) we inadvertently stunt their growth mindset and drive them towards a fixed mindset.
Ability-based praise leads kids to believe that labels like “you’re so smart” are true for them and these attributes quickly become part of their self-identity. While this doesn’t seem bad at first glance, when we attach too strongly to something as part of our identity/ego, we then become terrified of it being stripped away. This causes us to default to a fixed mindset in order to preserve our precious identity and we learn to fear the inevitable failures that come as part and parcel of a healthy growth mindset. If trying something and failing becomes something that threatens who we think we are, then failure becomes a painful ego distortion rather than a normal part of learning and growing. The result is that the kids who were praised for abilities are much less likely to want to try challenging tasks than the kids who are praised for attributes, and are more often up for a new challenge.
As one of the “gifted and talented kids” my parents praised me up, down and sideways for my academic achievements. They bragged about it to friends. They told me I had such a bright future ahead of me as a result. They pulled me out of one school and put me into another to better match my intellectual prowess. It quickly became part of my identity and a great source of my self-esteem.
However, the problem with self-esteem is this — what happens when we can no longer do esteemable things? What happens when for some reason or another, we can’t perform at the level that we’ve come to expect?
Let me tell you, it feels like crap.
It feels like shame.
It feels like existential failure.
This became suddenly and abundantly clear to me when I lost a good deal of my cognitive function due to “chemo brain” almost overnight. My memory, information processing abilities, recall, vocabulary, and other markers of intelligence were all severely impacted by chemotherapy and I found myself unable to be the “smart kid” anymore. How could I be the smart kid when I couldn’t even process what someone was saying to me, let alone remember any information that would help me craft a response?
Common words eluded me. Facts and figures and ideas that I’d known by heart were murky at best. And my auditory processing was shot — if someone said something to me verbally rather than writing it down, I had no memory of it. Which made me feel like an idiot when I couldn’t remember something they’d said to me mere hours before. “Don’t you remember? We JUST talked about this, Megan.”
It was a huge slap in the face. And while I’ve recovered a good deal of my cognitive abilities, they’re still not what they used to be. But that sudden loss allowed me to look at my core identity as “the smart one” and how deeply it had been ingrained in my sense of self and ego. Only then could I look at whether that served me or not, and make some conscious decisions about what I wanted my self-concept to be.
So, what’s the antidote to this relentless quest for the gold star fix? And what does it have to do with British reality TV?
I realized after chemo brain hit me hard that I needed to shift my identity to be about attributes rather than abilities. For example, I have a thirst for knowledge and a love of learning rather than “I’m smart.” Or, I am compassionate, curious and open-minded about those in my life rather than “I’m a nice person.” Can I love reading and not be smart? Sure can! Can I be compassionate with someone’s suffering and still have good boundaries and say no? You betcha.
During the pandemic, I’ve been binge watching two British reality TV competitions: “The Great British Bake Off” and “The Great Pottery Throwdown.” These shows touch me in a way that I couldn’t quite name until one recent episode of “Pottery Throwdown.” One of the contestants, Roz, was asked to do a task that was way out of her wheelhouse. She finished the task but came in last in the judging. As she’s speaking to the judges about coming in last she says she’s embarrassed. Keith, one of the judges, looks at her with tears in his eyes and says, “Never feel embarrassed, Roz.”
What he’s saying to Roz here is that she should be proud of herself, she should be proud of her attributes of persistence, resilience and grit rather than be embarrassed about her abilities (or lack thereof) at this specific task. You can see the interaction here:
My love of these British reality competitions comes from the culture on these shows of being proud of trying your best, going out of your comfort zone, and being resilient and gritty. These are valued more on these shows than whether you came first or last. It’s not about the gold star or the winner’s ribbon, that’s just icing on the cake. (Yes, I made a baking pun, just for you my fellow GBBO fans.) The core values of these shows are about how extraordinary it is for people to show up with uncertainty, put in the effort, and try something new without knowing how it will turn out.
No wonder I love these shows, they’re models of growth mindset that I desperately need. They feed the part of me that wants to see this in action, the part of me that wants to soak up all of these examples of how to value attributes rather than abilities like a sponge so I can turn around and do the same for myself and others.
Here’s my challenge for you this week — try to think of a time when someone praised you for your attributes rather than your abilities. What did they say? How did it feel?
If you can think of one, please comment on this post or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me about it. Like I said, I need more models and ideas for how I can do this more for myself.