With Boundaries, Kindness, and Emotional Resilience
This is the essay version of my Note of Daring podcast episode.
One lovely summer evening years ago I went to a Nationals baseball for my friend’s birthday. And it changed my perception of what it means to be nice.
For me, when I’m out in large groups or loud places, and especially when I’m cold, there’s a moment when I’m just done. My energy hits a wall and plummets. When my introvert starts showing and wants refuge.
Often it starts softly, like a whisper, and ramps up in strength until I’m just done. I knew exactly the moment that I wanted to leave that summer post-baseball game night. But instead, I stayed longer. I stayed out with building resentment and frustration because it was my friend’s birthday, so that’s what I should do because I needed to be nice and polite. Even if I didn’t want to stay out.
I realized that I had ignored my own needs to be nice.
Not just in this instance but in lots of situations. I was ignoring what I wanted and needed, and so while I might seem nice and polite, internally I was getting annoyed and frustrated and resentful. I didn’t have the boundaries I needed.
It’s hard to have boundaries that may push against social and cultural norms and expectations. Because that is what a boundary is. It pushes back against something, and it does that by clarifying what is okay versus not okay. It’s super challenging but also necessary to be boundaried if we don’t want to betray ourselves.
Necessary but not easy.
There is a sticky that’s been on my cork board for several years that says ‘if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all’ with a big question mark on it.
Because I don’t want to be nice.
And that is a hard and complex story to let go of. To rewrite the narratives around ‘being nice’ and ‘not nice’ in my life.
To clarify the idea that I do want to be considerate, generous, and kind. And understand what those things mean to me and what they look like in behavior.
This also requires doing the work to get myself to a place of emotional safety and resilience where I can be ‘not nice’ and trust that it will be okay. That I will be okay.
And I’ve needed to explore how the story of niceness constrained me from asking for what I need and sharing my voice. From expressing myself. Or starting to say many things, instead of saying nothing at all just in case what I say might not be nice.
Because being considered nice is part of the silent and insidious web of expectation for women.
Brené Brown’s early work is about shame and vulnerability, and she talks about shame as the fear of disconnection. Her definition is that shame is an intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.
All humans experience shame but are triggered by different things. And for women, our triggers show up as a web of conflicting and competing expectations of who or what or how we should be. It’s perfectionism. It’s a web of double binds.
Double binds like speak your mind and have a voice but don’t upset or offend anybody.
Or just be yourself. But not if that means that you’re reserved or unsure or shy or loud or opinionated. You need to be confident but only confident in this certain way.
Or don’t make people feel uncomfortable but be honest.
Or if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
There is no good way out in a double bind. It’s like walking a tightrope blind with no net. You will fall one way or the other.
So, we need to abandon part of the bind. We need to abandon either don’t say anything at all. Or abandon be nice. I’ve been slowly abandoning being nice. And that means untangling my worth from how ‘nice’ we are perceived. Or how ‘nice’ we try to be perceived.
Nice is a word with a range of meanings. The dictionary definition of nice lists concepts like polite, kind, pleasing, well-fitting, agreeable, appropriate, socially acceptable, well-bred, virtuous, and respectable.
There is a lot of variations and nuances there, and several are more loaded than other. And honestly, I don’t feel the dictionary definition captures what ‘being nice’ might mean. Like when being nice is code for being a ‘good girl’ and staying small, sweet and silent.
Or to silence and shrink oneself so we don’t threaten our fitting in. Or to not risk triggering shame and possible disconnection from people and society. Or to tip toe around someone else’s feelings at the expense of our own.
For me, abandoning nice, doesn’t mean I’m embracing being rude, mean, inconsiderate, or disagreeable. It’s not a switch between one or the other. It’s a messy, complex tapestry of boundaries, feelings, relationships, values, behavior, and choices.
Some of which might bruise your feelings, or upset you, or make you uncomfortable. But that is what a boundary does sometimes.
It is a constraint. An edge indicating what is okay and what is not okay. It communicates what is true and valid for me. I am letting you be responsible for your own emotions and responses. I’m not going to subsume myself in anticipation how you might react to what I say or do.
It’s celebrating your birthday and going home when I’m done.
I will show up as me, and interact with you, asking that you show up as yourself as well.
Sometimes I think nice is a bullshit cake with pretty frosting. From the outside it looks appealing, but you don’t want to get under the surface at all. And I’ve never much liked frosting.
There is a facilitation structure called Open Space, which has four principles and one law setting up a gathering or conversation. The four principles are whoever comes are the right people, whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened, whenever it starts is the right time, and when it’s over, it’s over.
And the one law is called the law of two feet, or the law of mobility — which is that if during the course of the gathering, you find yourself in a situation or conversation where you are neither learning nor contributing, then you move to a more productive place.
In the open space structure, it only works if people follow the law of two feet.
I feel that applies to boundaries too.
So, when I find my introvert whispering or my resentment building, it is my responsibility to leave and move myself to a different place. The law of two feet is about boundaries and being honest with what is true for yourself.
And that means that I might push against the status quo that says, ‘sit there even if you are deeply bored, wildly annoyed, and so over it, but you feel you need to stay because it is the polite, nice, or expected thing to do.’
I like how the law of two feet is explicit in its clarity of leaving what doesn’t serve you. Its very explicitness lends itself to possibility and opportunity for something new, interesting, and potentially wonderful.
Following the law of two feet and leaving requires two separate acts, both of them requiring knowledge and daring. Even with the explicitness and inherent permission, you have to recognize and acknowledge the moment you want to leave. And then you actually have to make a move.
Applying this concept means there is often a powerful pushback, both internally and externally, when we abandon the double bind of ‘being nice’.
Internally, resistance takes work to overcome. We all have implicit trainings we get growing up in society and culture that we absorb. And we need to separate out what is valuable and what is suffocating for us. We need to define and rewrite things.
And externally, we collide with other people’s expectations and complications.
Kim Scott’s book Radical Candor talks about giving feedback in a workplace as a boss. I think her framework has a much wider application for how we can interact with people in our lives with kindness, but not necessarily niceness.
For me, it has helped clarify how directness can be kind, how directness without caring is harsh, and how silence because of fear about hurt feelings can be damaging.
Basically, her framework is a two by two with one axis being challenging directly and the other axis being caring personally. And like many things, is best illustrated with a story of a simple situation, like you have something in caught in your teeth.
The ‘nice’ person might not say anything because they don’t want to hurt your feelings or make you uncomfortable or self-conscious, and then hours later you figure it out and wish that someone had said something earlier.
The harsh yet direct response might be to yell across the room that there is something in your teeth. You get the information but with unwanted exposure.
The kind response is to walk over, pull you aside, and let you know exactly what’s up and maybe offer a mirror or let you know when it’s gone.
It’s kind and clear. It’s specific and sincere. And it’s helpfully direct.
The challenge is that this directness can push against ideals of politeness or niceness. And it does needs to be changed based on context, relationship, and culture. And making the most generous assumption about people’s intentions is helpful too.
It takes a lot of internal emotional resilience to loosen the web surrounding ‘I should be nice’.. We are integrating a new narrative into our lives. And there will be consequences. Behavior change. Relationships change. Identity changes.
Change happens when I let go of ‘being nice’. And often it’s not a big change with a clear before and after, but a collection of small moments that cascade and accumulate.
It’s noticing when my introvert starts showing and then doing what I need to do to recharge. It’s leaving when I’m done after the baseball game. It is finding a bit of refuge for a moment at a loud concert. It’s when I leave conversations or situations when I’m neither contributing nor learning nor connecting.
I am changing myself when I start acknowledging when I my wants and needs start whispering to me and when I’m start asking for what I need. When I start saying something even when it might not be nice.
We work to abandon the double binds and internal stories that trigger shame and shrink us, and also continually butt against them because they exist in the world. They do not disappear completely. Yet.
And this isn’t even a clear continuum, but a knotty web that is full of stumbles and gray areas that need to be navigated as we move through the world.
And to do that I need to create emotional safety and build resilience. We need to be safe.
When I let go of ‘being nice’ and start sharing my voice, I will likely hurt someone’s feelings or offend someone. My honesty or directness might make you uncomfortable. It might make me uncomfortable and vulnerable.
This is not a neat knot. There are contradictions and complications. It’s full of stumbles and miscommunications and slips. Friendships, collaborations, and connections dissipated or change. People change. Lives and worlds change.
When I stop constraining myself in anticipation of your emotional reaction, that means I am making myself vulnerable. Vulnerable to hurt and disconnection. And I need the emotional resilience to not get sucked into a shame spiral and to withstand a storm that may come. To deeply know that vulnerability is not weakness.
Vulnerability requires boundaries and trust.
Boundaries about how nice or not nice I’m willing to be.
And then I need to trust that I will be able to withstand the storm and handle the pushback that will likely show up with my boundaries.
Brené says that “acknowledging our perceived vulnerabilities is important. When we dismiss vulnerability as weakness, we confuse feeling with failing and emotions with liabilities. Vulnerability is being capable of being wounded, while weakness is the inability to withstand attack.”
I like that distinction between vulnerability and weakness. Because I think we feel they are the same, but they’re not.
Abandoning the ‘being nice’ double bind without creating emotional safety and resilience means falling without a net. It is being unable to withstand the storm. Nice is the armor both protecting us from the flying debris and also weighing us down so we cannot move out of the storm.
Abandoning being nice means outgrowing things and letting them go.
Moving away means that as I shift how I interact with the world there is potential for both wild heartbreak and fantastic opportunity. The world pushes back against change, wanting to maintain the status quo, the familiar. People push back. Culture pushes back. We push back against ourselves.
It takes practice to say no thank you to the metaphorical bullshit cake with nice frosting. And it takes time to learn how to bake my own angel food cake with berries instead of frosting and offer you a slice to share with me.
And still, with all that, I don’t want to be nice.
I want to leave when I’m done and avoid feeling resentful by staying two hours longer out of obligation. And also, I want to support and celebrate my friends and do things with them and for them.
I want to listen to the music with my entire body instead of using all my fading energy to look like I’m listening. I want to BE engaged instead of SEEMING engaged.
I want to have deep conversations and also be able to have small talk and conversations that make other people comfortable too.
I want to have friendships, adventures, relationships, and projects that are like an open space. Where whoever comes are the right people, whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened, whenever it starts is the right time, and when it’s over, it’s over. Where we engage with kindness, not niceness. Where the law of two feet is foundational and expected, even if it takes me home and away.
This podcast is a practice in abandoning the being nice double bind. It’s a place where I’m working to let go of being ‘nice’, to stop staying quiet, and be okay with rocking the boat.
This is about growing, speaking up, sharing my voice, becoming expansive and expressive.
It is about building new facets to my identities and embracing the freedom that it gives.
This I me trying to be courageous and vulnerable.
This is about shifting connections and relationships both with you and within me.
And also, this is about going to baseball games on beautiful days with friends.