Living Beyond the Nice Guy Mask
In her article 7 Lies 'Nice Guys' Will Tell You (And Why You Shouldn't Believe Them), Suzannah Weiss points out this common complaint of Nice Guys: “nice guys get stuck in the friend zone”. She goes on to describe the Nice Guy as "someone who feels entitled to women for his supposed kindness", that a Nice Guy sees himself as superior to other men (especially, men who treat women badly), and that they feel indignation when rejected by women.
I can attest to this truth: I’ve been the Nice Guy. But I grew and learned new ways, and so can you.
* * *
I had met an amazing woman I was so infatuated with that I would bump into walls when thinking of her. After one outing with her I came home to roommates who described me as "glowing". She was amazing, and she thought I was pretty great too.
We were having a great time as friends going out for drinks, flirting with others, getting phone numbers, and just generally being each other's "wing-men". So it was incredibly painful when she responded to my assertion that I wanted to date her with a polite, "I don't know if that would work".
This hurt. Bad. But I genuinely liked her and secretly hoped she would change her mind, so I decided to continue the friendship. This led to more pain. From my journal at the time:
One day, relaxing after a long hike I get to thinking, "gimme a call, so we can hang out tonight". About a minute later the phone rings, and suddenly she's talking to me about a guy she's involved with who's jerking her around. She's crying at one point and I feel for her! I empathize with her pain and want her not to hurt in this way. Of course, because of my feelings I want to hold her and comfort her, not just listen. But she said she didn't think it would work. So at the same time, I'm feeling extremely hurt and sad that she doesn't want more than friendship with me. Nice-guy spot.
If that doesn’t sound like entitlement, consider this statement:
She says she feels like I want to pick a fight with her. She is right. I want her, and I hate her for not wanting me. What am I supposed to do with these two feelings? I would have, I did, willingly give her my heart. How dare she reject me? She drains me of love, listening, time, comfort, and tenderness that I give to her and she seeks love in some twisted a**hole?
What I was missing were two key things: One, what I give is my choice; and two, what she gives is her choice.
* * *
She did not extort my time, listening or tenderness from me. I gave it because I wanted to. I gave it knowing she did not want anything more than friendship from me.
I went through a lengthy process in this friendship, trying to decide whether I should stay or walk away:
It would be immature of me to stop being friendly towards her because I’m hurt that she doesn’t want me back. It would also be immature for me to sit on my emotions and say nothing about them; if I did that they would find an outlet in other more pernicious ways. These are both ways I have reacted to this situation in the past. The only mature thing I can do is tell her how I feel, tell her I can tolerate the disparity between what I feel and what we are, and let live.
And this is key: I could have walked away at that point. It was my right. I could have chosen to set a boundary that honored my own pain and my need for emotional safety.
I didn't. I chose to continue the friendship in the name of personal growth, and with a dash of hope her feelings might change. When they didn’t, the result was resentment and anger on my part.
But when it comes to someone else’s boundaries, resentment and anger are only possible if you believe you have a “right” to that person.
* * *
Things came to a head when I finally decided to honor my own boundary. I had accepted that all-too-pervasive truth in life: you don't always get what you want.
There was no way for us to be together because she wasn't interested, and there was no way I could be her friend if I were to honor the pain I was in and desperately needed to alleviate. I had fallen in love with her, but she didn’t feel the same way.
So we went our separate ways.
Actually, she stormed her separate way. When I told her I could not continue the friendship she yelled, “I can’t believe you won’t be friends with me unless I f*!k you!”
Was it true? Was I just trying to get her to have sex with me? I think I genuinely loved her, and wanted a full relationship with all that entails.
But I also clung to the hope that things would change if she got to know me better, if I just showed enough of my heart. It was emotionally manipulative, and because I was nice I thought she should want me back.
* * *
It was not easy for me, and I spent months untying the knots of what happened. I learned 6 key things that helped me grow beyond the Nice Guy Mask:
1) Learn to feel your feelings, deeply
We don't get a choice to feel only good feelings and not bad ones. If you turn off one you turn off the other, and everything in between. Eventually, feeling becomes second nature, and your tolerance for difficult emotions rises.
Why in the world would you do that? So you can know what matters to you and what doesn't. So you can know what choices to make. This is crucial in matters of the heart, and more so in matters of sex, consent and safety. Feelings are our compass for the uncharted territory of each unique human interaction: feel them. This amounts to re-subjectifying yourself, which I’ll address later.
2) Learn what your wants, needs and boundaries are and respect them
If I had respected my own boundaries sooner I could have spared myself exquisite pain. Would I have been sad and lonely? Yes, but I would also have freed myself up to be available for someone else who actually wanted me.
I eventually realized that my boundary was, "no emotional intimacy if you don't love me". That is a perfectly reasonable boundary for anyone to hold, and if it that means you have to walk away from a friendship, romantic relationship or an encounter that doesn’t suit you then that’s fine. The Nice Guy mask uses emotional manipulation to get what it wants: a better strategy is to learn what you want and what you need, respect the wants and need of others, and grow from each encounter.
3) Speak your truth, and respect that truth.
It really, truly is okay to need love, to want sex, and to express your desire for both. The problem lies not in the expression of wants and needs, but in the entitlement described above and its tendency to make us disregard the physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual boundaries of others. Entitlement towards others equals objectification.
* * *
It can be difficult not to feel shamed by the critiques leveled against men these days. But as men we have to realize that the critiques are coming from people who -individually and as a group - have experienced very real physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual transgressions and often trauma caused by a lack of awareness. That lack of awareness has often resided in males, and we need to wake up to that fact. Anyone different from you has walked miles in shoes and directions you have never had to, and so they have experiences you likely never will.
As men, it's in our best interest to listen carefully to women -and all genders- because we share a singular world. We have to walk the same streets, go to the same schools, work in the same offices, worship in the same places and live in the same families.
In my work, I have heard a number of men express dismay, outrage, shame and grief over the fact that they had no idea what their daughters, sisters, and mothers experienced on a daily basis. But all we ever had to do to know, all we have to do to know, is listen.
* * *
4) Listen deeply to the other person's truth, and respect that truth.
In my example of unrequited love, her boundary was "no sexual intimacy, just friendship". She expressed this first when she said she didn’t think it could work, and she said it again when she walked away for good. It didn’t necessarily take deep listening to get this, but listening deeply will stand you in good stead. Doing so actually means you slow down, and every interaction becomes a relational one, rather than one tailored to your needs.
This deep listening can also happen at physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual levels. There can be a yes or a no at each of these levels in any combination, and they can change over time. Your job is to listen as deeply as you can and respect the answer you hear.
5) Take the higher path, whether you're accepted or rejected
Obviously, when we're rejected it hurts. If we haven't faced our entitlement it can lead to shame and/or anger. These feelings are about you and no one else. They are not someone else's fault. They are no one's fault. You're feeling them and that's okay. Talking with a friend, going for a run, crying, talking to a therapist, doing spiritual practice - these are all ways to begin to digest and process your feelings.
The key is to install the truth that you are unique and worthy of love. A single person's rejection does not change that truth. A thousand people's rejections don't change that truth. Chogyam Trungpa, a Tibetan meditation teacher, once said “You are not greater than anyone, you are not less than anyone, you are not equal to anyone.” Knowing this in your bones is the key to your peace, emotional safety and dignity.
You take the higher path by learning what your boundaries are, listening to other people’s boundaries, and honoring them no matter what. Is it okay for you to have sex without love? Is it okay for you to have love without sex? Do you want it all, or nothing? All of the combinations are valid choices. It's up to you to decide who you will let into your world and how.
If you're accepted, there is still the high road of listening deeply to the other person in every moment.
A "yes" now may be a "no" later. If it's a no, respect it. If it's a "maybe", explore the maybe. What is the other person's hesitation? (That is where an atmosphere of true relationship begins) The maybe could turn into a "no" or a "yes". Remain open to and respect it all. The person will let you know if it changes.
Remaining true to your boundaries and respecting others' boundaries will naturally allow you to work through your entitlement and superiority. You will find that each rejection and each acceptance feels different.
In reality, we don't want just anyone to accept us, we want the one we want to accept us. If you pursue a series of people, you’ll notice you have a range of reactions and experiences when you are accepted or rejected. Notice when someone says yes, and you jump for joy. Notice when someone says yes, but you're only lukewarm. Notice when someone says no, and you don't care that much. Tune into your feelings and let them guide you to the best situation you can find.
* * *
It was difficult to see my entitlement and begin removing the Nice Guy mask:
I take responsibility for the me that is to be. Inasmuch as I can see a new way, I will flee, and cease, and desist from this sick, twisted game of I-am-so-lonely-let-me-feed-off-the-scraps-of-your-attention. I am sick to death of your nasty, ill-wrought game and now I must abandon you, lest I live for fifteen more years with loves that become friends that become enemies of a bitter heart that did not get what it wanted, what at some level it deserved. I am poisoned and bedridden because of you now. But I will rise. I will rise.
This journal entry began a long process of seeing what the Nice Guy façade was all about, a process of relating to women from a more emotionally aware place in which we were both fully sovereign human beings. It was difficult, but more than worth it.
The biggest win was regaining my heart.
The first step in objectifying others is to objectify one’s self. Boys are encouraged to do this from a very young age. As early as six or seven years old, no matter what you are genuinely feeling, you are discouraged from expressing vulnerability, sadness, or pain. I was mocked by my parents for crying at the age of seven. We are encouraged to “man up” and portray an image of toughness, competitiveness and stoicism. As others have noted, by high school emotional language begins to disappear from boys’ vocabularies.
This means that many men learn (and many accept) that their emotional life is irrelevant. For me, that resulted in feeling as if my heart were wrapped in barbed wire and ejected into the outer reaches of sub-zero space, isolated and cold.
I never stopped feeling that pain, until I learned –through meditation- to feel my emotions fully. This process of re-subjectification was painful, scary and very difficult. But, I won back my full humanity, the ability to empathize with others’ experience, my compass for navigating relationships, the possibility of richer relationships, and a sense of peace and contentedness.
Another win was gaining self-knowledge.
By listening carefully to the boundaries of people I wanted to sleep with or enter a relationship with I learned what my own boundaries, wants and needs were. I learned that I didn’t want just anyone to accept me. I learned that respecting peoples’ boundaries made me a more desirable friend, lover, and partner. Overall, I learned that healthy relationship is a continual honoring of oneself and the other person.
A third win was regaining my wholeness.
There is a difference between assertiveness and aggression. Assertiveness respects others and the self. Aggression cares only for the self, not others. When I gave myself the permission to be assertive by speaking my truth I regained my wholeness.
There is an amazing sense of freedom when you consent to fully respecting the boundaries and integrity of others. It allows you to fully express your wants, needs and desires without shame, restraint or reluctance.
I remember the day I finally realized that it was okay for me to say what I wanted, and for the other person to say no, when I realized it didn’t mean anything about my worth. I realized that someone who doesn’t know me can’t possibly be rejecting me, because they don’t know me. They were just going off what they felt (because they were in touch with their hearts and their boundaries). Didn’t I do the same thing? I certainly wasn’t attracted to everyone I came across, so why should someone want me just because I wanted them? The light clicked on and never went off.
The learning didn’t happen overnight. There were years of joyful interactions as well as emotional struggle: rejections, acceptance, amazing relationships, great sex, difficult break-ups, disappointments, etcetera. But being whole and empowered, knowing myself more deeply, and regaining my own heart were more than worth the work.
* * *
The Rolling Stones once sang "You can't always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need." Other people's boundaries are always giving you what you need. They are telling you what is okay and what is not okay with them. Entitlement is when you decide what is best for someone else based on your needs. Growing past the Nice Guy mask means realizing that although you can't always get what you want, you can express your truth and trust that the response you get is the response that matters.
John Tsungme Guy is a meditator, facilitator, activist and therapist in private practice in Seattle. He is committed to mutual awakening from the illusions of privilege and oppression regarding gender, race, class, and religion.
John T. Guy
Counselor, Meditator, Facilitator, Spiritual Activist