Sometimes it feels like Nice is a Dirty Word.

Being polite is this really tricky thing for me.

On one hand, I know that I struggle with being polite, even when I mean to be. There’s lots of little things that even after ages of studying, I miss. And those little things end up having big consequences as to how I’m taken. I miss a signal to stop, I’m “over bearing;” I miss that I’m supposed to say something/contribute, and I’m “Unfriendly.”

As a kid, I would try (when brave enough) to mimic the “playful” teasing I observed between my peers, and miss that it had slipped over that vague line of playful. I was shocked and hurt to hear my mother mention my on occasion “bullying” kids who were trying to be my friends. But the rest of the time, I was too “shy,” too “drawn into my own world.” It seemed as though there was no way to reach a happy medium in between, the one where other kids would presumably like me.

I’ve gotten, I think, a little closer to a manageable compromise. I’ve decided against listening constantly and desperately to the coaching and pleading, and generally try to be nice, opting to withdraw rather than risk it.

There are exceptions, of course. I tend to have a highly developed sense of right and wrong, and sometimes there’s just a little too much *wrong* in the world. Then I seem to slip up.

Let me give you an example. Recently, I was visiting my Aunt in NYC. She married a guy who has done pretty well in contracting, and so yes, there’s a good bit of a class difference. In any case, we were having  conversation with my sister and step aunt, nd she started going on and on about how great “The Secret” was. She was recommending it to my sister.  After a while, I couldn’t handle it any more.

I stated that actually, a lot of people who are facing various oppression (Like classism, racism, or ableism around Mental Health Issues) find the culture around subscribing to The Secret to be very hurtful. Too often, people whose issues face against more than the white middle class abled “mainstream” are said to have not worked hard enough at it for the “Laws of Attraction” to have worked. The Secret in too many circles is used to both deny privilege and to blame oppressed peoples for their continued struggles.

That’s not to say that there aren’t people for whom it works and is mega helpful. But to hear it go un-critiqued when recommended to my sister- who like me comes from a different economic class and who has her own disabilities- was not something I could handle. I Had to say something.

I later found out that she thought I hated her, in part from this and in part because of not interacting otherwise as she expected. Which isn’t true- I love my aunt very much, I just get frustrated by what I see as obvious class differences and how they effect how we see the world.

In any case, I end up feeling as though I’m too mean.

Online, it’s a little bit different. Somehow, I feel as though I’m a little too nice compared to some of my friends and fellow advocates. Maybe it’s who I spend time with. I often feel like there’s so much of my conditioning from childhood of trying to fit in, to dodge some of the less than wonderful experiences of “treatment” that makes me try to be nice all the time. To educate instead of protecting my boundaries.

Most of the people I know in Social Justice circles know that it’s not an oppressed person’s duty or reason for being to educate those who hold privilege over them. It isn’t, for example, an Autistic’s (or other person with disabilities’) job to live as a “self narrating zoo exhibit” as Jim Sinclair would say. It is the oppressor’s duty to get educated, not the oppressed’s to educate.

But I cannot bring myself to not educate. Trying to establish boundaries like some of my friends have is something that leaves me feeling torn.  And I know that it is okay for me to educate people, but sometimes I worry it makes me seem too *nice* when compared to some of my friends. And I don’t mean nice in a kind person way. I mean nice in a too compliant way.

Nice in a way that would make people I love and respect look down on me as feeding into my own oppression. Or, perhaps, in a way that belies how deeply ableism has infiltrated my thinking. There’s a lot of things I keep stumbling across when I go to examine my thoughts that remind me how much of life as someone who- in my case- is an Autistic and has MH issues ends up being about compliance in order to survive.

How much of my desire to be kind is based on my beliefs, and how much is based on the feelings that I need to be “nice” in order to be worthy of surviving, of getting the supports I need?

I’m not going to stop being kind, or educating people.  I will admit I can get s little sharp- for me- on my tumblr, but that’s tumblr and a lot of it is reblogging other, sharper people’s comments. But I’m not going to deny that drawing the line between being kind and being compliant is difficult.

But then again, undoing the things we have internalized is never easy.


Sorry if this isn’t at my usual standards. I just needed, for myself, to write this.

This has been republished at Shift Journal.

8 thoughts on “Sometimes it feels like Nice is a Dirty Word.

  1. I know you said you’d rather I not comment but…don’t you mean

    “I’m not going to deny that drawing the line between being kind and being compliant IS difficult, rather than ISN’T difficult?

    I hope my editorial comment doesn’t trigger you…….and for what it’s worth………I think you’re a GREAT writer and advocate, regardless of……..well………you know. I still have a lot of respect for what you’re doing.

    Is email contact (for advocacy purposes only) still going to upset/trigger you? I have a few links to share…..concerning MH advocacy.

  2. I had people recommend “The Secret” to me when I was going through a really really bad anxiety/depression patch last fall (going away to college made my anxiety levels skyrocket). I still get the free emails every day and I read them sometimes, hoping that there’ll be actual good advice. But it’s all about *thinking* your way out of things and positive thinking and whatnot. Positive thinking didn’t do shit for me. You know what did? Medication. Which is not to say that positive thinking isn’t a good idea. I just think that *thinking* your way out of depression and whatnot is a helluva lot easier said than done.

    • I’m not on board with meds for everyone, but it’s totally true that it’s the appropriate answer for a number of people. (Then again, I had horrible experiences with meds as a kid/young teen…) But yeah, thinking your way out of depression- or other MH issues like concentration issues, compulsions, nxiet disorders, etc- is easier said than done for sure.

      I’m a little amused that the secret episode is what everyone is latching on to about this post…. 🙂 my point was more about being “nice” or “kind” and how that presents different levels and types of difficulty and conflict for me. But I personally believe in that idea about art/creative work where a work isn’t complete until the viewer sees it and takes what *they* need from it, and I guess that this part is what a lot of people have needed from it.

  3. This post sounded all too familiar to me.

    How much of my desire to be kind is based on my beliefs, and how much is based on the feelings that I need to be “nice” in order to be worthy of surviving, of getting the supports I need?

    *nods* I know what you mean. In my case, it doesn’t necessarily manifest through continuing being willing to educate (I’ve actually had to start just not engaging with some people, in the interests of emotional regulation 😐 ). But, particularly with the combination of disability-related stuff and growing up in an emotionally abusive situation, I fall back on “nice” to the point of getting read as a doormat sometimes. There is also my almost exaggerated version of a culturally appropriate “when in doubt, go for stiffly polite” thing–when, being autistic, I frequently don’t know how to respond otherwise–which does not go over well at all in Greater London.

    I mean, there is already a bit of a problem with assorted Southerners getting read as pushovers/fakes/”maybe not so bright in ways that are valued” by people who were raised differently, just because of the styles of politeness learned. Throw in some confounding factors as mentioned above, and yeah. I do feel like maybe that’s not always the way I want to behave, at all–especially when I find myself feeling like it’s my responsibility to try to smooth over any kind of difficult interaction or situation. Figuring out that I do have a right just not to engage with people who are behaving disrespectfully (including relatives!) is actually a big step there.

  4. Pingback: Sometimes it feels like Nice is a Dirty Word. | Neurodiversity

  5. Wow Savannah this is such a good post! I don’t think I ever finished reading it when you originally posted it. I think (well, I don’t know what other people would say, but I think) I’m pretty nice. I usually think I like the way I do stuff better than the way most of my friends do stuff because they can alienate people a lot faster than I do. But I also worry that there’s something not healthy about it because some clearly asshole person without disabilities can completely destroy me just by saying I’m not patient enough or what I’m talking about doesn’t make sense. Which doesn’t happen to my less nice friends.

    • Yeah, I’ve definitely had some similar feelings, especially when it comes to comparing myself with some of my “less nice” friends. One one hand,, being nice doesn’t alienate people. on the other, we shouldn’t have to be nice all the time, nor should it be held over us that if we aren’t nice, we will lose people’s attentions. I don’t know.

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