No more (Buddhist) Mr. Nice Guy!

no more mr nice guy mugRecently Euan, whom I don’t know, wrote a comment expressing his dismay at a girl turning him down because he was “too nice.” Here’s what he wrote:

I only started meditating in December 2014 and was seeing this girl for a while, we went on a couple of dates, the first went well and the second went ok. We continued messaging each other but she seemed less keen, then today she told me she felt we didn’t click and didn’t want to meet again. She said I paid her too many compliments and was too nice. I’m just so angry because I felt like she was leading me on and we had been speaking for at least two months as I first met her in December but I went home to university and so didn’t see her again until 2 weeks ago where we had the two dates and I thought things seemed to be going well. I just want to know what I’m supposed to think I guess. From what I’ve learned for my short period of meditation is that we should love each other, but when someone tells me they don’t want a relationship because I’m “too nice” it makes me question what I’m doing. Like should I stop being nice to girls I want potential relationships with, and how am I supposed to not get angry at her for me being too nice. What is so wrong with the world that people don’t like being treated nicely, it perplexes me.

Sorry if this doesn’t read smoothly, I’m writing this immediately after I found out and my almost immediate reaction was to question how I am supposed to think like a Buddhist when bad things happen to me for being too nice.

Euan’s comment raised questions that I thought are worth exploring in a blog post.

Euan’s experience is not unique. I’ve been there myself in the past, and when I was young I found myself astonished and sometimes angry at the way some women I’ve been interested in gravitated to men who seemed to me to be jerks. And although my anger never turned into a general hatred of women, this evidently happens with some men. But I still had a lot to learn.

So I want to talk about “being nice,” from the point of view of a man who’s realized that “being nice” is not as “nice” as “nice men” like to think it is. I’m not advocating being unkind, and certainly not advocating ill will or hatred. I’d like to talk about how “being nice” is not actually kind, is a form of manipulation, and is not, in most cases, what women need or want. And I’m sorry, Euan, but some of this may be hard to read. I don’t mean to be unkind or to hurt your feelings, but instead want to act as a kalyana mitta (spiritual friend) who points out things we need to know but may not want to know.

What’s a “nice guy”? A “nice guy” is a man who thinks that the way into a girl’s heart (and bed) is by being agreeable and flattering. Here are a few characteristics of “nice guys,” drawn from a Wikihow article:

  • They offer to do things for a girl they hardly know that they wouldn’t normally do for just anybody else they know.
  • They avoid conflict by withholding their opinions or even become agreeable with her when they don’t actually agree.
  • They try to fix and take care of her problems, they are drawn to trying to help.
  • They try to hide their perceived flaws and mistakes.
  • They are always looking for the “right” way to do things.
  • They have difficulty making their needs a priority.
  • They are often emotionally dependent on their partner.

The psychology of “nice guys” has been written about a lot. Here’s a great analysis of the whole phenomenon from Geek Feminism Wiki.

Being a “nice guy” is a strategy. It’s not who someone fundamentally is, although “nice guys” are very conscious of and attached to their identity (self view) as “nice guys.”

Copyright, Callmekatto.
Copyright, Callmekatto.
The purpose of the strategy, as I’ve said, is to attract and keep a woman. A cartoon by Callmekitto about “nice guys” shows a woman jubilantly holding up a card, similar to one of those “Buy ten cups of coffee and get one free” cards. She’s saying to the young man beside her, “That’s the eight stamp on your Nice Guy Card! Now you can stop pretending to care about me as a person and we can have all that sex you deserve!”

The cartoon is brutally frank, but it’s making the point that acting as a “nice guy” assumes that relationships are a form of transaction: I’ll pretend to be the kind of person I think you want, and then you’ll give me sex and approval.

As the cartoon indicates, the man who is playing at being a “nice guy” isn’t actually relating to the woman as a full human being. He’s not being himself, and may even have lost touch with who he is. He doesn’t want to express his needs and won’t challenge his intended partner in any way because he thinks that risks pushing her away. In fact the opposite is the case. Few women want a partner who doesn’t express himself and who avoids conflict. A conflict-averse partner is neither going to stand up for you not stand up to you.

The “nice guy” is far from practicing metta, or kindness. Metta is based on empathy (anukampa), which is an awareness of the other person as a person — as a feeling being who has needs. In fact the “nice guy” role is based on craving. You desperately want something (sex, companionship, approval, the status of “being in a relationship”) and you go through the moves that you think will get you that thing. But there’s no actual awareness of the other person, which is unattractive, and so as a “nice guy” you’re constantly finding that you don’t get what you want. In fact it’s not just that you want the things I’ve mentioned: you deserve them. After all, you’ve given the endless compliments, you’ve refrained from expressing what you really want in just about any situation (“No, any movie you choose is fine with me!”), you’ve studiously avoided expressing any needs (“No, it’s not a problem that you stood me up”). You’ve been nice. You’ve cranked the handle on the machine, and how it’s time for your reward!

When the reward doesn’t come the first few times, you might be depressed. But then you get angry — but not just at the girls who rejected you, because you start to realize that almost no girl is going to give you what you deserve. And you do, you think, deserve the sex and the love you want, because you’re not even conscious that “nice guy” is a role you’re playing, and you think it’s who you are. So you both want and hate women, or “bitches,” as you may think of them. As another cartoon (actually it’s more of a “meme”) says, “Women never date nice guys like me. I hate those bitches.” Frustrated craving turns to hatred.

I want to re-emphasize that the “nice guy” is a role that men play. It’s not who they fundamentally are. So in criticizing the actions of “nice guys,” I’m not saying that there’s something irretrievably flawed about them. Just that they need to so some work in becoming more self-aware, braver, more honest, and more genuinely empathetic and loving.

The Wikihow post I linked to above has some advice for stepping out of the “nice guy” role, but I’ll say just a few words about developing the qualities I just mentioned.

  • Become more self-aware: Realize when you’re acting out of craving and expectation. Let go of the label of “nice guy.” Seriously, never refer to yourself or think of yourself as a “nice guy” ever again. The role has become a trap for you, and it’s preventing you from seeing who you really are. Take responsibility, and take a good look at yourself: if your attempts at relationships all end up the same way, the common denominator is you, not “women.”
  • Be braver: Don’t cling to your preferences, but don’t be afraid to express them. Express how you feel. If you’re upset or afraid or hurt, it’s OK to express those things. And I mean express them directly, in words (“When you stood me up I felt really hurt”), not throwing a tantrum or trying to punish the other person. The Buddha was not a “nice guy.” He called people on their bullshit.
  • Become more honest: Stop trying to be “nice” all the time. But being honest doesn’t mean saying whatever happens to be on your mind. For example, Euan said that this girl has been “leading him on.” He may think that telling her that is “honest.” Actually, saying “I think you’ve been leading me on” is technically honest, because he has had that thought. But saying “She’s been leading me on” isn’t the truth, but a story. What from Euan’s point of view seems like being led on, might well be, from the girl’s point of view, giving the relationship a little time in order to see if she actually likes this guy. When you take your interpretations and present them as if they were the absolute truth, you’re not being honest.
  • Become more genuinely empathetic and loving: Ah, right: there are all these tips you’ve read on “how to show empathy.” You nod, and look concerned, and ask questions, and reflect things back to the other person, and make little “uhuh” noises to let the other person know you’re listening. But those things are not empathy. They’re what empathy looks like, and they can all be done without any real empathy at all, without any real appreciation that the other person is a fully human being with needs and desires, who in all likelihood wants to be with another person who has needs and desires, and not with someone who is going through the motions of “being nice” and “being empathetic.” To be genuinely empathetic you have to be self-aware, prepared to take risks, and to be honest. Ask yourself, would you want to be with someone who was acting the whole time?

Euan said, “From what I’ve learned for my short period of meditation is that we should love each other, but when someone tells me they don’t want a relationship because I’m ‘too nice’ it makes me question what I’m doing. Like should I stop being nice to girls I want potential relationships with.”

Buddhism does teach us to have metta (kindness) and karuna (compassion) and to be empathetic, but that doesn’t mean “being nice” and it certainly doesn’t mean “being manipulative.”

nice guyThe men a “nice guy” thinks of as “jerks” — the ones they see girls with all the time — are more enjoyable for just about any human being to be with, let alone a romantic partner, than any self-consciously “nice guy.” They aren’t acting. They’re more inclined to be honest about what they want and feel. When they give compliments it feels sincere because they’re not doing it all the time. They offer challenge. They call out bullshit. We all need that.

I’m not saying that every “jerk” is really a good guy. Some jerks cheat or are violent. Those are real jerks. But even a real jerk might be more fulfilling to be in a relationship with than someone you don’t know because they’re constantly playing a role, and when there’s the underlying threat, which isn’t that hard to pick up on, that they’ll turn nasty when they don’t get what they want. Better the devil you know than the one pretending to be “nice” all the time, perhaps.

So being a “nice guy” isn’t nice. It’s fake. So yes, “nice guys” should stop being “nice.” But that doesn’t mean being unkind. It doesn’t mean treating people badly. It means becoming self-aware. It means “manning up” and having the courage to be honest so that you can be in a genuine relationship with another human being rather than acting out a role in order to get a reward.

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24 Comments. Leave new

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Elizabeth Heys
February 5, 2015 10:50 pm

I’d like to stand up for my husband and son who are really nice guys and not just because they are looking for sex. Some women, of any age, are attracted to “bad boys”. Younger women, especially, and I think this is biological. (Handsome, aggressive “bad boys” appear to have better genes…). But, truly knowing yourself and offering that self, humbly and wholly, trumps everything no matter how long it takes.

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The term “nice guy” in the context of this article means something quite specific, Elizabeth, which is why it’s in quote throughout.

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Well put.

As a woman who has been turned off by a guy being “too nice” and couldn’t concisely explain what that means, I am very grateful for this reflection.

Being “too nice” can be very smothering and come off as needy to the recipient.

Being ignored isn’t so fun either, but a detached interest..consciously “going with the flow” of the relationship as a dance..pretty awesome.

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Wow. I’ve been in need of an article like this but never really knew it and I actually was stunned to read it. So thank you. I wish someone had given me this to read 20 years ago. I don’t think I’m a completely “nice guy,” but I’m nearly so and I see many of those characteristics in myself.

I’m an attorney working in Family Court, which can get highly and unnecessarily contentious. A couple of years ago, after an appearance in court, when the other attorneys had left the courtroom, the judge told me that I was “too nice” to be working there. In context, she meant it as a compliment, but it wasn’t something I wanted to hear. If she’d said I was “too professional” or “too good an attorney” to be working there, fine. But being “too nice” ultimately implies being ineffective in representing my clients. I think since then I’ve become more confident and assertive and that the judges and other attorneys now respect me, though not all of them like me.

I mention that only to show a contrast with the way I am with dating and relationships and realize I’ve always believed being a “nice guy” with women was a good thing. (Not to be confused with being a nice guy.)

Nobody likes rejection, but I recognize that I consistently turn my emotions and feelings into a “story,” as you mention above and as your Guide to Meditation explains more fully. I hadn’t recognized the difference and that surely has been
to my detriment.

Change is difficult but, I think, never impossible. Self-awareness is the first step and guidance such as this helps develop that quality.

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Disclaimer: While my name is similar, I am not the subject of this article.

I think there are a couple different types of “nice guy”, and the type you focus on is less familiar to me than another type that I’d like to highlight. They both involve projecting an image onto the other person rather than seeing them as a real person, but in substantially different ways. The kind you talked about thinks they deserve something for being nice, and perhaps undervalues women, seeing them as less than whole people.

The other kind is nice because they don’t think they deserve anything, and they perhaps overvalue women, seeing *themselves* as less than whole. In this case, they crave the companionship in order to fill an empty space in themselves. They shower the woman with compliments because they are willfully ignorant of any flaws she might have. They are in love with their idea of the woman, which no real person could live up to. In this case, the woman may say that the man is “too nice”, because the man doesn’t know her well enough to make all those compliments. He unrealistically sees her as perfect. He cares so much about his idea of this perfect potential relationship that he’s willing to do just about anything to keep her happy. He feels that his well-being depends on his ability to keep her around (and thus keep her happy). This is an overwhelming responsibility to put on a person, and one she isn’t likely to want. She doesn’t want to be responsible for his sense of well-being, even if it means he’ll do everything in his power to make her happy, especially since it isn’t in his power to see himself as inherently whole and to see her as a real complex individual. This also leads to him falling apart when she’s unhappy, since he fear that she will leave if she’s unhappy. This certainly isn’t helpful, since his distress makes him unavailable to her. This kind of “nice guy” is not conscious of any manipulation and is essentially willing to be a slave, enduring just about anything except abandonment. He isn’t pretending to be what he thinks she wants; he is trying to actually be what he thinks she wants (trying to be good enough, trying to be worthy).

The difference again is in which person is seen as less than whole, which is seen as deserving, and whether the “nice guy” is conscious of manipulating his prey/savior. I think it’s fair to say that the manipulation is there in both cases, but only at the conscious level in one.

There are hints of this second type of “nice guy” in your quotes from the WikiHow article, but it feels like they were glossed over because they didn’t fit the character you were building, and I think that’s because there are these two very different types of “nice guy”. There’s a smooth-talker with a sense of entitlement, and there’s a desperately needy man with low self-esteem.

I used to be this second type of “nice guy”, and I brought heaps of suffering to myself and my partners. Seeing myself as whole, I am now much more able to see women as human instead of angelic. I am a nice guy without quotes. I’m able to have female friends, and I’m able to be open to romantic possibility without craving it. In order to be nice to a real person instead of a projection, I first had to learn to see *myself* as whole, to have a sense of inherent self-worth.

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Ann (sweden)
May 21, 2016 3:06 pm

That was very well said! Ive been with a nice guy (the one with low selfesteem) and after five years it was over. I left him. Its also this: equal attract Equals so I had low selfesteem myself

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You’ve hit the nail squarely on the head, an absolutely excellent article.

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You’re a brave man, Bodhipaksa.

I think a lot of people in general aren’t genuine in the beginnings of dating, and in return this becomes a turn off for the other person. People should remember that attraction has to do with a lot of things, like sense of humor, common interests, etc., and being “nice” is not enough on its own to be found attractive. If all a person does is be “nice”, it can come off as dull, boring or fake. When I was younger I remember thinking several times that I preferred to hang out with people who were perhaps less “nice” but who were honest and genuine about themselves because at least I knew where I stood with them.

I also would like to point out that a lot of people probably don’t realize they aren’t being genuine about who they are. It’s hard to take a good look at yourself and your behavior, we’re used to believing certain ideas about ourselves that were put in our heads when we were young and it’s difficult to separate that from our real intentions. I think a lot of guys don’t realize what they’re doing, and that’s why they’re disappointed by women’s reactions (and a lot of guys probably DO realize what they’re doing). I remember years ago I was having lunch at work and talking with my co-workers, one of them a charming guy who everyone considered super nice, kind even. I don’t remember exactly what we were talking about, but suddenly he said “I would never use anyone… unless it was for sex!” and laughed. I was shocked because I never expected to hear him say that… Anyway. Understanding people is hard.

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Many good points in this article. And I think it doesn’t just apply to guys. Women can be “nice” this way, too, and not just with guys, but in general — at work or in the family or wherever — because they think that being deferential is how to get along with people and keep the peace.

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Norman MacArthur
February 9, 2015 9:41 am

Wonderfully explained. I have seen the tables turned with the genders in relation to this in the past.

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Forrest Cahoon
February 9, 2015 2:10 pm

Very nice article, although I agree with Evan’s comment above that perhaps your portrait is only of one sort of “nice guy” and there are others.

I have a question about something you wrote, though:

Being a “nice guy” is a strategy. It’s not who someone fundamentally is, although “nice guys” are very conscious of and attached to their identity (self view) as “nice guys.”

I’m having trouble with the concept of “who someone fundamentally is”, especially in contrast to the Buddhist teaching of _anatta_, or non-self. My familiarity with Buddhist teaching is more of a casual sort, but my understanding was that any concept of self is an illusion — that there is no “who someone fundamentally is”, and every self-concept is a “strategy”.

It also seems to me that, while the word “strategy” in this passage implies being disingenuous, it seems to me we all need to use strategies to present ourselves to others. For example, f I were to meet a potential employer, I would present myself in a different way than I would when meeting a potential love interest, but I don’t think this is in any way disinigenouous — I’m still “being myself” even if I am showing different sides of myself as the situation seems to call for.

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Hi, Forrest.

That there is no one who one “fundamentally is” is the very point I was making. “Nice guy” is a role one adopts, and is not who one is. Recognizing this allows the “nice guy” to let go of identification with that role, and it allows the rest of us not to disapprove of the unskillfulness of a “nice guy’s” actions without thinking that there is something inherently wrong with the person.

I don’t use the word “strategy” primarily to imply being disingenuous, but to point to behaviors as something non-intrinsic to the self. In this particular case, however, the strategy is indeed one that’s disingenuous, since the empathy of the “nice guy” is feigned, and will be dropped as soon as he realizes that he’s not going to get what he wants (he’ll then become bitter and angry) or when he does get what he wants (because he no longer needs to be “understanding” and nice).

Thanks for giving me this opportunity to clarify!

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Confused By Hypocrisy
February 10, 2015 3:53 pm

Bodhipaksa,

By this logic, you are not a “teacher”. It is simply a role you adopt so that we, your listening practitioners, do not disapprove of the unskillfulness of the words and actions you use in generalizing specific traits into a overarching stereotype that you insist is correct and then perpetuate as inner misunderstanding of some greater truth.

I am not implying that you calling yourself a “teacher” is disingenuous, but you don’t seem to be teaching, so much as demonstrating that your worldview is not terribly compassionate towards these men. Is this “strategy” not simply you projecting your own behaviors that are not intrinsic to the self? Or is this simply the way you choose to be willfully disingenuous? By claiming to be a compassionate teacher while demonizing and perpetuating stereotypical behaviors without looking inward to see that you are guilt of the same ideals, but towards a different subject. Ie: “do what I say, not what I do.”

Please clarify further.

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Uh, what?

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great post! thanks a lot Bodhipaska. it was very helpful to me and certainly some dots were connected as a result of this read.

I was also blaming the women in my life for a long time instead of realizing how much of it all were because of my actions and decisions in that matter. I am so grateful for understanding it now and being able to see more clearly who I am and what I want.

Some of my relationships got a lot better and much more real since I separated the “persona” I have created from the “real me”. It’s liberating and and easier, actually. :)

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beshkempir
May 3, 2015 6:10 am

Great post and very insightful to me as a woman. I find it refreshing to read this analysis in terms of male behaviour as the words chosen are different from those when discussing female behaviour. The things people of both genders do when desiring love and approval may differ in form, the root causes and structures underlying it are most probably very much the same. It’s insightful ànd fun to think of things I did in terms of ‘wanting to get in bed’ with someone – also I’m very happy with the advice to ‘man up’ rather than reading advice that plays on prejudices about how women should use supposedly ‘female charms’ in order to be attractive to men. I like the ‘balls’ of this text. Thanks.

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Wow. Just wow. I’m in my mid 20’s and this article just blew my mind. It 100% describes how I have been throughout all my teenage years up until now… I’ve never been able to have a lasting relationship and I somehow always knew it was in a way my fault, but I could never identify what it was that I was doing wrong. Yes, I once got dumped in high school for being “too nice” and it should have raised a big red flag, but it didn’t. Looking back at all my past relationships this is absolutely spot on… This article should seriously be a mandatory read for every young man out there. The sad part is that I’ve been slowly developing resentment towards woman in general, even knowing I’m the one at fault. Thank you so much for writing this

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You’re welcome, Shawn.

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Brilliant! You have just clarified an important point(s) that has plagued me for many years. The subsequent trickle down effect of understanding is both elating and liberating! Thank you and Namaste!

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Hi. Im a women who spend five years with Mr Nice Guy untill recently . I have blame myself for getting angry on him ,lost my respect and then slowly my sexinterest for him too. I felt so quilty as I was “together with The nicest guy ever”. He did every thing I said, to please me, never stood up for him self never pointed out what he felt (when things were not so good that is…). I couldnt understand why I felt so angry in side of me, angry at him. It came to that point that I really disrespected him and broke up. He wasnt even angry then. Never confronted me. Just kept on going being nice and hoped for us to be a couple again. Well at some point after breaking up he was not a complete whimp I meen he did have some guys . I just wonder: how do Nice guys feel when they get the truth right in their face? Does it help? Do the feel bad? Im mot sure how the act and think when someone hit the spot and tell them the truth?
From sweden so sorry for my swinglish!
/C

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Your Swinglish is excellent, Clarissa!

How nice guys respond varies from person to person. Some switch over to hatred and blame. Scratch the surface of those nice guys and you find a raging misogynist! Others can cling to their “niceness” much longer, as yours did. In between those extremes are some that will feel deeply hurt and confused that you’ve rejected them.

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You need to communicate to her fish brain – her ancient status evaluation subsystem.

Treat a woman like shit and her amygdala lights up – by displaying that you don’t care if you lose her by being rude, you are subcommunicating that you have a high status.

Women want a man that is better than her in every way. The default contempt women have for men can only be overcome by outdoing her in the game – you need to look down on her, only this will get her gushing

It goes against everything you have learned, but it’s true.

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This is hilarious, Damien. Thanks for a good chuckle. I really needed that.

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