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No More Ms. Nice Guy!

Confessions of a recovering people pleaser

My name is Nancy, and I'm a recovering Nice Person. I grew up Nice. Born into a Nice family to Nice parents who raised four Nice children. We are certified, bona fide, capital-N Nice. Terminally Nice.

I'm so nice I apologize to bugs before I kill them. When I'm in a merge-traffic situation, I don't know whom to be nice to first: the driver who wants me to let him in, or the one behind me who doesn't want me to. I've often pulled over to let the whole line of cars go by so I can be nice to everyone.

Sometimes being nice is grueling. If someone wakes me up at 3 A.M. asking if I'm Ed's Towing, I immediately apologize for not being Ed, then offer to look up Ed's number in the phone book for him.

Nice people always return a store clerk's "Have a nice day!" with a big smile and a "You too!" Even if the clerk's rude, and we don't want her to have a nice day. Of course, un-nice feelings like that make Nice people feel terribly guilty.

Nice people feel guilty a lot. They can't say "no," even to things they really, really don't want to do, because they feel guilty. First, they feel guilty for not wanting to do the thing, then they feel guilty because if they say "no," the person who asked for the favor will have to go through the trouble of calling someone else.

You can easily recognize Nice people. Take Peggy, a Nice person from California, who admits she has two bottled water coolers in her kitchen, not because she's thirsty, but because she couldn't say "no" to either water company when they called. She calls herself a telemarketer's dream. "I'm afraid they'll say bad things about me when I hang up if I don't buy their product," she says.

Brenda Waggoner, a licensed Christian counselor and author of The Velveteen Woman, says the majority of women she counsels are plagued with this "disease to please." At the root of every people-pleasing Nice person is a deep-seated insecurity. We don't believe we're loved, or capable of being loved, just as we are. We fear rejection above everything. We believe if we act a certain way, become all things to all people, say "yes" to everything, and smile, everyone will love us.

For Christians, the disease to please adds another dimension, says Waggoner. "The core desire is to please God and follow , 'Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought.' But we twist it just a bit without realizing it. Instead, we interpret it as saying, 'You don't really count—everybody else does. So do what makes others happy.'"

So we Nice people volunteer to drive a carload of five year olds on a field trip in the morning, then rush home to bring homemade soup to our three elderly neighbors at noon. We spend our afternoons doing research for our child's term paper and baking cookies for our hubby to take to work. After dinner we either make phone calls, baby blankets, or tiny quiches, not because we want to, but only because we think that's what Nice people should do. We want desperately to make everyone happy—and to have everyone like us.

I remember spending the better part of a year trying to force a woman in my community to like me after I'd accidentally offended her. Despite my efforts, no amount of smiling, waving, or baking cookies for her would get her to change her mind about me. To be honest, I never liked the woman in the first place and wasn't interested in a friendship with her. I just couldn't handle the thought that someone didn't think of me as a Nice person.

Eventually I saw how pathetic I'd become, how willing I was to demean myself solely for the approval of another person. It's one thing to humble yourself as a servant; it's quite another to reduce yourself to doing anything just to be thought of as nice.

The truth is, niceness isn't nice. It isn't genuine. It's narcissistic and dishonest. It's other-centered actions with self-centered motives. "I'm nice so you'll like me." That's not nice; that's sick.

Thankfully, there's an antidote to the disease to please. According to Bible teacher and author Steve Brown, it begins with understanding that Jesus didn't die to make us nice; he died to make us his.

Think about it: If I'm convinced I'm accepted and loved deeply by God, that he chose me for adoption as his child, then I don't have to seek the approval of others. "If God is for us, who can be against us?" the apostle Paul points out in . That's all I ever wanted from my niceness anyway—to be secure in someone's approval.

I'd love to tell you I've had a dramatic turning point where I decided God's approval was enough, but I don't remember the first time I ever said "no" to a request. For me, it's been a gradual process. The more secure I've become in God's love, the less frantic I am to earn others' approval. Plus, with practice I've learned saying "no" to working in the nursery won't kill me. However, the resentment and anxiety I feel because of my people-pleasing choices might. And if it doesn't kill me, it will definitely do harm to others and me.

If you think you may have contracted the disease to please, here are strategies to get you on the road to recovery.

Seek approval from God.

Niceness is rooted in the desire for approval. However, if I'm in Christ, I already have God's approval. The cure for the disease to please is found in the Lord's love and acceptance. The key is to keep reminding myself that his approval never depends on what I do or don't do, but solely on what Christ did for me, and to keep telling myself that until I believe it completely. That frees me to say "no" without the fear of judgment when asked to do something.

My friend Tara says her recovery from being a people pleaser began when she realized she'd spread herself so thin by trying to please everyone that she wasn't pleasing anyone. "It became painful to say 'yes' and then do the job poorly," she says. "It's much worse to commit to something and not follow through than to not do something in the first place. Now I know my role in life isn't to make everyone happy. God's happy with me just because I'm his."

Stop explaining yourself.

"It's impossible to live your life in a way that will win everyone's approval," writes Donna Partow in Living in Absolute Freedom. "That can be either a bondage or the most freeing truth you've ever heard." She says trying to please everyone is rooted in fear of what people will think. As a recovering Nice person, she says a sure-fire method of rooting out such fear is to stop trying to justify yourself. Say "yes" or say "no." You don't have to give a reason.

Remember what Jesus did.

"Jesus always honored the Father, but he often displeased people, yet without sin," says counselor Brenda Waggoner. "When we look at Jesus' life, we see healthy personal boundaries. People clamored after him, yet sometimes he pushed off in a boat to get away." She suggests studying the Scriptures to see the way Christ balanced his life between service and rest, and to learn from his example.

Ask: "Am I the only one?"

I heard a speaker once comment that before she agrees to do anything she asks herself, "Am I the only one who can do this?" She shared how she's the only one who can be her husband's wife or her child's mother. But, when it comes to other things, if there's someone else capable of doing it, she feels free to say "no" without guilt, or "yes" with genuine delight.

Lisa from Ohio has a similar guideline: When in doubt, don't. She says saying "no" was scary at first because she didn't know what the person's reaction would be. "But it was a relief to get it out," she says. As an unexpected bonus, people actually respected her. She says, "People have learned I won't bend into demands easily anymore."

Take a breath … and just do it.

"The hardest 'no' you'll ever say is the first," says Lori in California. "I felt as if I broke a law—I felt ashamed," she says. "But when the world didn't collapse, I actually felt a freedom I'd never known."

She adds, "Now I say 'yes' when I feel led. There are some things you want to say 'yes' to because they're a joy."

When it comes to serving with joy, that pleases the Father. When we please him, what more do we need?

Portions of this article were adapted from Move Over, Victoria—I Know the Real Secret (WaterBrook Press). © 2000 by Nancy Kennedy. Nancy, a speaker and author of six books, including When He Doesn't Believe (WaterBrook Press), lives with her family in Florida. Visit her website at www.nancykennedybooks.net.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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