'Let's face it Jo Ellen, you're a loser magnet.' Encouraging words from my sister a number of years ago, after another short-lived relationship bit the dust.
It's not as though the meagre procession of men in my life really were losers – they were mostly successful, functional guys. It was just that they seemed to encourage the worst excesses of niceness in me so they ended up looking horrible and I ended up, once again, relationshipless.
Excesses of niceness?
What I did was I actually made it OK for them to behave badly. I accommodated and adapted my own behaviour to suit what they wanted, never setting clear boundaries, never verbalising my own needs, never saying what I'd like to do.
There was even a time when it seemed easier, and less painful, to take myself out of the running in terms of relationships than to once again be with the same kind of man who took advantage of my niceness because I didn't much ask for anything for myself. As a matter of fact, I asked for so little to make sure I didn't get rejected, that I kind of became the invisible woman – and who wants to be with an invisible woman?
Now, the irony here was that in my business persona, no one would have described me as nice. Fair, considerate, understanding, yes; but most assuredly not nice. I was (and still am, I might add) direct, clear, confident and definitely visible.
It came to break point a few years ago just around Christmas/New Year when I'd finally had enough. My good will went and I ended the year and the current relationship simultaneously. The loser magnet said, "It's time to become de-magnetised!" Thus was born The Nice Factor course, which in turn became The Nice Factor Book.
As soon as I began talking about this niceness issue, my friends clamoured to tell me their experiences.
"My husband gets annoyed when I disagree, so it seems easier to simply say yes, than cause an argument."
"When I don't want to do something for the umpteenth time (like the school run) my head says no, but my mouth says yes, and I end up doing it anyway."
"I'll be seen as too pushy and besides, politeness is important."
"My parents always expect me for Sunday lunch; I couldn't possibly disappoint them."
"I'd rather be in a relationship than out of one, so if that means keeping the peace rather than stirring things up, I'll keep quite about what's bothering me."
"Sometimes I feel as though I apologise simply for breathing; I say sorry whether I mean it or not."
The thing about all this is that nice people think it's normal; that they don't really have a choice about whether to be nice or not. That's exactly what I thought – this is just how I am.
However, I realised that I wasn't born nice (which infants are?), but I had become that way through a slow process of parental and teacher expectations, humiliation avoidance and habit. Somewhere along the way I had made choices about whether to be nice or not, till pretty soon it didn't feel like choice at all – it felt like me, as though I had always been like this.
So, how did I become less magnetised? I knew that if I had adapted my behaviour to become too nice, I could un-become it too. I had it in me, since I was all right when it came to work. But I also discovered that some people are great in their personal lives and not at work; or great at work but not in their personal lives; some are really lousy at both, and when it comes to parents, it's a whole different ball game!
I had to understand and deal with the feelings that got in the way of me changing my behaviour. See, I imagined such dire consequences, that I took my imaginings as real and acted accordingly. I was so afraid of what might happen (I'd offend, I wouldn't be liked, I'd make someone angry, I'd get told off, I'd be rejected) that I'd do anything to make sure it didn't.
I couldn't stop my feelings, but I could do things differently so that I didn't feel cut off from my true self, inclinations and impulses. I realised that being happier meant that my outer behaviour needed to match up better with my inner world of thoughts and feelings. I needed to choose new ways of behaving, get out there and practise them and regain a sense of humour so my life could be a lot more fun and a lot less nice.
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Jo Ellen and Robin run Impact Factory a training company who provide Assertiveness Training, Public Speaking, Presentation Skills, Communications Training, Leadership Development and Executive Coaching for Individuals.
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