Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Strong and "nice:" not mutually exclusive

by Eva Wash

I’ve just been browsing through a book at the Princeton Public library for a few minutes—it’s entitled The Nice Girl Syndrome: 10 Steps to Empowering Yourself and Ending Abuse by Beverly Engel. As Engel recognizes, women generally like to nurture, we like to be generous with our affection for friends and family, we like to be affirmed for positive qualities. But where do we draw the line with “niceness?” What characterizes a Nice Girl?

Engel explains, “According to the dictionary, synonyms for the word nice include careful, pleasant, subtle, agreeable, likable, delightful, good, admirable, pleasing. These words describe a Nice Girl to a T. In fact, many Nice Girls have an investment in being perceived in all of these ways. But I also think of other words when I think of the word nice, namely, compliant, passive, wishy-washy, and phony.”

I’ve certainly known people in the past—boys, but mostly girls—who are so caught up in trying to please everyone and be liked that you can never really pinpoint any aspect of their personality besides their “niceness.” Often, this singular trait can lead either to people taking her feelings for granted because she never asserts herself or perceiving her as phony or disingenuous. In either case she often becomes a victim, of abusive and negligent treatment, and/or of gossip, mistrust, and manipulation.

To combat such negative consequences of niceness, Engel’s steps include, “Stop Putting Others’ Feelings and Needs ahead of Your Own,” “Stop Believing that Nice People Will Protect You,” “Stop Worrying What Other People Think of You,” “Stop Being Gullible And Naïve,” “Start Standing Up for Your Rights.” All of these attributes, according to Engel, are characteristics of a strong woman and a strong woman isn’t nice.

To a certain extent, I have to disagree with the way in which Engel opposes being strong and nice. I think that at the heart of her proposed steps lies an essential need for feelings of self-worth and self-respect. The typical, healthy woman who fully recognizes her own self-worth will be strong and confident, while at the same time, recognize the worth of others and treat them with the characteristic aspects of nice behavior. She is able to appraise a situation or relationship as harmful or compromising to her mental and physical health. Yet, she does not have to disregard her desire to care for others and give of herself, for this is what enables women to have more emotionally intimate friendships and relationships.

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