I’m a nice guy. Ask anyone who knows me. It’s true. I’m the kind of guy who’ll hold the door of a store open for a woman with a stroller, even if I’m just passing by, with no intention of going into the place myself. It’s a reflex, not even something I think about. I’m pathological about helping tourists with directions–I have to force myself not to ask it they need any help. When I see a guy with a fat wallet in his back pocket, I discreetly mention to him that the wallet is practically an invitation for a pick-pocket.
I’ve been consumed with being nice since I was a kid, because I come from a family of nice guys. The first time I became aware of this was in high school. I thought my friend Phil Provost’s older brother, who was two years older than us, was cooler than cool. One day a friend of mine, some fink, I can’t remember who, reported back to me that Phil’s brother complained about me, “All he ever says about people is, ‘Is he nice?, Are they nice?'” I felt humiliated. As if I was so shallow, so desperate for approval, that being nice was the ultimate characteristic a person could have.
The problem I’ve had with being nice is separating my true nice guy self from the one that is put-on. What I mean by that is that from a young age, I bought into the fantasy that if I’m nice enough to people, I will get my needs met. It’s a classic passive-aggressive stance–the futile attempt to get from the outside world what you can only do for yourself. So I would be extra nice, extra good, and when it wasn’t reciprocated, I would then allow myself to fly into a rage. It didn’t matter if I directed that rage at someone or, more often, at myself. I was being nice only to treated nicely in return.
Now that I’m on my way to being grown, I’ve come to recognize the difference between my genuine niceness and the kind that is a set-up. When I’m nice because it makes me feel good, no more, no less than that, then I’m being myself. When I’m being nice to get something back, I get in trouble. When I held the door open for the woman with the stroller yesterday, I did it without thinking, just as, without thinking, I immediately focused on her response. She didn’t say “Thank you.” But instead of being angry, unappreciated, snubbed, I was just happy that I did something nice that I wanted to do.