When you think of a ‘nice’ person, what pictures come to mind? Do images of a kindly neighbour handing out homemade treats for Halloween, or the individual who lets people cut in front of them at the grocery checkout pop into your head? I’d wager this week’s coffee money that the memory of the individual who pointedly let you know that she was unhappy about this or that was nowhere to be seen. Too bad!
Webster’s on-line dictionary defines ‘nice’ as “pleasing, agreeable, pleasant, kind, well-mannered and well-behaved”. Not surprisingly, the definition doesn’t include such adjectives as assertive and angry. Are ‘nice’ and ‘angry’ mutually exclusive?
What Happened to Anger?
All of us have had the experience of seeing a toddler having a temper tantrum–either as a bystander, parent or family member. The first time I saw my child erupt into a full-blown tantrum, I was astounded at the level of emotion. Physically, his arms and legs were flailing about, his face was beet-red and the the level of sound that exploded from such a small human was breathtaking. Once I got over the shock and embarrassment that this was my child behaving in such a way, I noticed that he wasn’t embarrassed at all. He was simply reacting to not having a perceived need met. Once the storm was over, he went on with his day.
As adults, it’s important that we express our anger in appropriate ways; while at the same time being mindful that anger is a wonderful teacher. Just like my toddler, when one of our needs isn’t being met, a boundary has been crossed, or a value disrespected; a spark of anger lets us know. Also, just like my toddler, we don’t need to feel embarrassed about feeling anger–anymore than we would feel embarrassed about feeling thirsty. Emotions just are–and it’s how we manage them that counts.
Unfortunately, for most of us, as we grew older we didn’t learn how to appropriately deal with our anger. Instead, we developed patterns that run the gamut of having grown-up tantrums to repressing this powerful emotion.
The Problem with Tantrums
Common thinking used to be that “letting it all hang out” when we are angry was ideal as all those bottled-up feelings were bad for our health. However, this isn’t really isn’t the case. Plus, when we spew our anger over those close to us, we damage relationships and harm others. So, swallowing our anger must be better? Right?
The Problem With Repression
While letting our anger explode over others can hurt them, repressing our anger can hurt us. In 1985, Dr. Harriet Lerner first published The Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships. As the title suggests, this book was originally intended to speak to women. However, I suggest that the ideas in the book can apply to everyone.
Dr. Lerner describes the “Nice Lady” (or person) Syndrome–a way to avoid anger and conflict at all costs.
“If we are “Nice People”, how do we behave? In situations that might realistically evoke anger or protest, we stay silent–or become tearful, self-critical, or “hurt”. If we do feel angry, we keep it to ourselves in order to avoid the possibility of open conflict. But it is not just our anger that we keep to ourselves; in addition, we may avoid making clear statements about what we think and feel, when we suspect that such clarity would make another person uncomfortable and expose differences between us.”
Over time, as we continue to swallow our anger we can lose touch with our sense of self (our own thoughts, feelings and wants), increase our levels of guilt and build up a reservoir of anger. This leads to a repression/temper cycle.
“The more we give in and go along, the more our anger builds. The more we intensify our repressive efforts, the more we unconsciously fear a volcanic eruption should we begin to let our anger out. So, the more desperately we repress…and so it goes. When we finally do “blow”, we may then confirm our worst fears that our anger is indeed “irrational” and “destructive.” And other people may write us off as neurotic, while the real issues go unaddressed, and the cycle begins again.”
Anger and Depression
One of the off-shoots of repressed anger is depression. Terrance Real, in his book I Don’t Walk to Talk About It: Overcoming The Secret Legacy of Male Depression suggests that many of the mental and physical challenges encountered by men, have their start in depression. It’s Real’s belief that the anger/depression link plays out differently in men and women. He writes:
“Current research makes it clear that a vulnerability to depression is most probably an inherited biological condition. Any boy or girl, given the right mix of chromosomes, will have a susceptibility to this disease. But in the majority of cases biological vulnerability alone is not enough to bring about the disorder. It is the collision of inherited vulnerability with psychological injury that produces depression. And it is here that issues of gender come into play…..Girls, and later women, tend to internalize pain. They blame themselves and draw distress into themselves. Boys, and later men, tend to externalize pain; they are more likely to feel victimized by others and to discharge distress through action.”
According to Real, this “action” for men shows up in angry outbursts, violence, substance abuse and health problems. Depression is the root cause.
Anger in Relationships
Whenever I encounter a couple who state that they never fight, I become concerned. Anger and the resulting disagreements are part of a healthy partnership (when they are dealt with appropriately). If there are no arguments, then chances are that one, or both, partners are swallowing their anger. They are being “nice”.
But what happens over time? If we follow the ideas set out by Dr. Lerner and Terrance Real, there are a few possibilities:
- Needs aren’t being met. When we are unable to stick up for what we need or value, eventually we may stop trying which decreases the amount of satisfaction we have in our relationship as well as decreasing our quality of life.
- One or both partner is playing the “Nice Person” and may eventually erupt in anger. One example of this scenario is when one partner “out of the blue” tells the other that the relationship is over. There is no buildup, or warning. There is no interest in working on the relationship. They’re done and out the door!
- Substance abuse, emotional or physical violence (to self or other partner) starts to appear in the relationship.
- One or both partners become depressed with the resulting symptoms and behaviours.
It’s OK To Be Nice
Being “nice” isn’t a negative thing. It only becomes a problem when used to avoid conflict by not speaking up for ourselves when our boundaries and values have been crossed or disrespected.
A key to using anger wisely is being aware of when we become angry, pay attention to what it is trying to teach us, appropriately discuss the situation, and then release the energy that anger brings in a healthy way.
I’ll explore how to do these things in an upcoming post. In the meantime, here’s a video about kindness… Enjoy!