Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Nice Guy Syndrome: it's not what you think

by Sofia Squittieri, Writing Intern
Elia Kazan—film and theatre director as well as producer, writer and actor—said, “I used to spend most of my time training to be a nice guy so people would like me.” The acting community recognizes him as one of the masters of what is called “The Method.” Method actors need to have a high degree of self-knowledge and criticism. Kazan has this. When he says “I,” he means “we.” We want people to like us. I imagine everyone feels this—some much more intensely than others.

Dr. Glover—a psychotherapist who specializes in this area—states, “If I can hide my flaws and become what I think others want me to be then I will be loved, get my needs met, and have a problem-free life.” This is how he describes the “Nice Guy Syndrome”—this behavior taken to the limits. All of us, as “Nice Guys,” rarely express ourselves sincerely. We repress what we really feel so that we don’t upset the other “nice guys.” We don’t ask for what we want, or know how to say “no.” We avoid tense situations, and conflict. These behaviors live in us.  But why is this considered unhealthy behavior? “Nice Guys” forgo autonomy and agency, swallow their emotions, feelings, and even principles. This way of being promotes stress, and reduces self-esteem. Those consequences are undeniably unhealthy. 

But not everyone believes this behavior is unhealthy. Avoiding confrontation and “people-pleasing” can definitely have positive results: l000 Twitter followers, hot dates, or free drinks. And this positivity is as superficial as it sounds. It could equate to “frenemies” and no real social life which might fill that emptiness we feel inside.

Furthermore, dramatist Harold Pinter—Nobel-prize winner—wrote a play called A Night Out in which its main character, Albert, is an exaggerated version of Dr. Glover’s “nice guy.” I’d call him a “really nice guy.” He is repressed, and alienated by his mother, who he could under no circumstance displease. He ends up liberating all of his repressed feelings with a prostitute in her flat, nearly killing her and believing he killed his mother—his hidden and unconscious wish. As we all know, theatre—as well as film—reflects human conflict and imitates reality, to the extreme. Pleasing the other–taken to the extreme—could have fatal consequences.

In one real case, “Sarah” suffered the fatal consequences of the Nice Guy Syndrome. She worked as a lawyer in a top-tier Sydney firm. Attempting to please everyone left her drowning in her own work—as well as her colleagues’ work. “Experiencing negative feelings . . . made [her] overeat.” She gained weight. As a self-confessed people-pleaser, she underwent treatment. This testimony best illustrates and proves that Elia Kazan was right: being thenice guy” can be harmful.

It seems contradictory that the search for a problem-free life compels us to behave this way. Psychologists say that this comportment ends up in pleasing no-one because we will never please the other, who will always demand more and more. And we’ll never satisfy ourselves because we are trying to please the other. There’s no point in acting as “the nice guy,” unless it is to achieve a particular aim in a particular moment in one’s life. But it is very difficult to say “no” and to express feelings without being afraid of the other’s response.

Lawrence Sullivan, master chief of a major petrol firm, answered to an interview about how he had achieved his success. He said that he never did anything he did not really want to, and did not think of trying to please anyone. However, the unconscious mind is more powerful than the conscious, and what we think is not always what our inner-self expresses (often the opposite). Accompanying the interview was a photograph of him. He wore an ambitious suit and his posture was clearly the result of an intensive study of his anatomy. His wearing of the suit was not a comfort decision, but an attempt to present a good image—to please the readerstrategy. This proves that no-one escapes from trying to like or please. No socialized man escapes society.

Elia Kazan put it into words, but he spoke for us. We try--hard, even when the effects are harmful to ourselves. The effort each of us makes varies. It could be represented through a continuum. This means that to a greater or lesser extent, we all care about pleasing.


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