No more...Ms. Nice Gal?
January 7, 2010 12:19 AM   Subscribe

How do I become less "sweet" and more upfront about what I want?

Hey, MeFites. I'm a senior woman in college, bordering on 22 years old, and ready to begin the new year and semester with a significant change in my personality and behavior. See, I've always been branded "sweet" and "innocent" by my friends, and I used to take that as a compliment. Not that those things are inherently bad, but I've grown sick and tired of being pushed around, and yelled at, and being apologetic for crimes I never committed because people don't think I'll retaliate. This has also been a problem for me romantically. I've never been in a relationship, but whenever I like a guy, I become really eager to please - to the extent that the guy just bullies me around/says whatever he wants to me because he knows I'm afraid of losing him (but then he's not interested in me anyway, because who wants to date a pushover, someone so eager for attention?) I wear my heart completely on my sleeve, and every single time it leads to heartbreak. Also relevant to this personality "problem," I think - I'm very fragile and tend to break down easily.

I'm not sure if I'm saying all of this in a way that makes total cohesive sense, but how do I go from awkward and overeager and hypersweet to calm, collected, sophisticated, even? Even better - any tips on how I can just become a stronger person more generally? I admire women like Ani DiFranco, Hilary Clinton who aren't afraid to speak their minds, but I suppose I'm afraid of not being "likeable" or (and believe me, as a feminist, it's difficult to say this) "feminine" enough. That being said, I don't want to become a firecracker that just explodes every time someone says something I don't like or agree with (I have a friend like this, and frankly, sometimes I wish she'd just shut up.) Any books/movies/tv shows with strong female protagonists, recommendations for other historical female figures to look up to, tips/methods/advice you have would be greatly, greatly appreciated. Thank you!
posted by themaskedwonder to Human Relations (44 answers total) 60 users marked this as a favorite
I am not a psychologist/therapist/whatever.

I believe you are in danger of becoming something that you think is totally different that what you are, but actually nothing is different. The analogy I'd use cream. Sure let's go with that. Say you didn't know you were lactose intolerant, and you tried ice cream for the first time ever. You talked about it with your buddies, and they all said chocolate was the best. So you got some chocolate ice cream. Then you got sick. But even though you liked everything about chocolate ice cream, and even though you understood why people liked chocolate ice cream, you still got sick every time you ate it.

Then one day, you're all "screw this, I'm done with this crap". Then you tried vanilla.

(I've decided to fast forward here since you probably know where this is going)

Vanilla ice cream is never "better" if you're lactose intolerant. No matter how much you add this flavor or that color, or how many cookies you eat with it, it's still ice cream and you'll still get sick. Sweet and innocent are on the same spectrum of qualities as are bitchy and firecracker. Same with ice cream flavors, no matter how much you dress it up, it's still ice cream. I know this might sound weird, but it's only because no one's ever assigned qualities of temperament to ice cream before, as far as I know.

I'm certain that being pushed around and being bullied has nothing to do with being sweet and innocent. It's totally possible to be sweet/innocent and assertive at the same time.

Keep wearing your heart on your sleeve. Cover it up when you're walking home alone at night, etc. I think learning when to wear your heart on your sleeve will be the first moment you learn what strength actually is, and not what social constructs say it is.

I suggest you go with that.
posted by bam at 12:55 AM on January 7, 2010 [12 favorites]

I had an "oh shit" moment.

Here's how you can be a strong person: Keep wearing your heart on your sleeve if that's who you are. People might break your heart, or make fun of you, or bully you around, but being able to deal with all that and still being able to say mushy stuff would really be amazing to me. It could be frustrating listening to people always saying things like "don't let it (a?)effect you" or "don't take it personally" but never elaborate on the how. Srsly, ALL you need to know is that it's got nothing to do with you. Their issues, not yours.
posted by bam at 1:11 AM on January 7, 2010

I agree with the comments above. What I would recommend in addition would be this: Try to work on the "I'm afraid of not being "likeable" or (and believe me, as a feminist, it's difficult to say this) "feminine" enough" part. Sometimes people are not going to like you because they are assholes, or they are insane, or they just don't. It is NOT your job to figure out why they don't like you so that you can tweak yourself into some other person that they will like. It is their problem, not yours and this also applies to a romantic relationship.
Loving and accepting yourself will also help you deal with being assertive, because then you accept who you are and if people don't like it, then so be it. I think being sweet and innocent are two different things from being assertive and collected. Just be sure to make that distinction. You don't have to get rid of the sweet part of yourself to become that.
posted by kuju at 1:41 AM on January 7, 2010

I was you, only male.

Look into assertiveness training. A bit more info here.

Or you could do what I did, and start working retail. Customers take no prisoners whatsoever, and they WILL wreck your entire day given the slightest whiff of a chance. Continuing to wear your heart on your sleeve will just lead to more heartbreak, as people realise that you have a] have buttons they can push, and b] are pretty obvious as to where they are. Making your emotions obvious is a recipe for disaster in a lot of situations.

Being a firecracker can be a bad thing, but I find I get into that state when I bottle things up. When I release the anger more gently and more often, I don't explode. Assertiveness is the middle ground between being angry and being walked all over. Assertiveness training will teach you how to stand tall, look someone in the eye and say "no".

Part of the problem is internalising what other people are doing. Consider these statements: "someone else is angry, therefore I feel scared". "Someone else is shouting at me, therefore I feel I feel devalued". Do they sound familiar? I used to get really scared, to the point of crying, when customers at work would shout at me. Eventually I realised that I don't have to accept the gift of their anger. now they can rant and rave, but it's like there's a gigantic shield between us - whatever they try to throw at me can't come through. This shield came into being when I taught myself to think that their anger was about them, not me. It took a while, but now I just take a step back, emotionally, and look at the other person as if they're a small child.

You can learn to deal with this. It's not necessarily easy, but the reward of being able to be confident is worth it.
posted by Solomon at 1:55 AM on January 7, 2010 [16 favorites]

I saw Lois Frankel, author of Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office, speak one time. Many women exhibit the behaviours you describe in an office context, and it undermines credibility and sabotages careers if left unchecked.

Lois traces a lot of this stuff back to the family of origin. Her theory is that being eager to please is a behaviour learned young because of your family dynamics. See if you can identify the root cause where this started. Realize that your friends, your professors, your colleagues are not your mother, father, sister, or brother, and you do not have to curry favour in the ways you have been taught since childhood. Separating from your family of origin is a key work item at age 22, changing this behaviour is just one aspect of that separation.

Take a look through Lois's books (though not necessarily buy, they're beach reads). Also, take a look at things about negotiation skills, such as Women Don't Ask. You will get a lot of suggestions on how to assert yourself from those kinds of books.

Also, I have previously participated in a mentoring group where a group of women from industry were paired with a group of women in their last year of school to help them gain confidence entering the workforce. The women that participated found the negotiation skills and practicing assertiveness helpful, and wished they had been taught earlier. Check your college for mentoring resources. Taking a mentoring approach is cheaper than therapy, widens your network, and is a broadening experience.

The reason why I am providing suggestions in a career context, and not in the life context as you framed the question, is because there are more concrete resources to help women learn to be more assertive in that arena. Ideally the skills you learn at work will transfer to the rest of your life and you'll be closer to achieving the goals you set out in your question.
posted by crazycanuck at 1:59 AM on January 7, 2010 [8 favorites]

This is a tough one, I know. It's especially tough because we can observe in our society a strong tendency to take any female who is perceived as remotely confrontational or dangerous and render her more inert by injecting sweetness. The first example that springs to mind is Bjork - and this is not to cast aspersions on her, but the way society wanted to see her, a strong, loud, interesting, thought-provoking female who had useful things to say and do with her music - was as "cute." And you can see a host of women who have been marketed the same way: as sort of in-your-face, but... "cute." And that makes me sad.

So you have to step out, and look for women who have lived beyond that entirely, who have been bold, refusing to be pigeonholed.

The very best I know of is Patti Smith. She means a lot to me, especially on this front - one could make an argument that she's the best lyricist and writer involved with punk or rock music over the last thirty or forty years, not the best woman lyricist or writer but the best person lyricist or writer. And she refuses in any way to compromise who she is to the things society tries to demand of her; not pretty, not made-up, and not 'sexy' in the way I think women are always expected to be - an immediate, facile way - but in a really human way, a way that all too often people see as reserved for men: raw and powerful in her ideas, direct in her approach, unflinching in her art. I saw her perform live two years ago, and she still had the firm hand on her art that she's always had, that uncompromising excellence that's led her to be such a fantastic writer and performer. I highly recommend her and her music as a fine example of womanhood unfettered by sexist cutesification.

And a whole lot of other brilliant women came after and were inspired by here - sexism is still alive, so they're not as well-known as the males, but they are just as great, often greater: Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, Ari Upp of The Slits, Lesley Woods of The Au Pairs, Vanessa Briscoe of Pylon - these people are heroes to me, and I think they broke a lot of those stereotypes. Unfortunately, that's why people know names like Joe Strummer, but have never heard of them.

One other, a bit different, is Bessie Smith. Her music has a real power, a gut to it - great stuff, very gritty, very real, and very powerful and direct. That song “T'ain't Nobody's Business If I Do” is thick stuff, man - awesome.

Sorry these are all musicians - guess that's just who I'm thinking right now. But there are a few for you to dig into, if you like.
posted by koeselitz at 2:06 AM on January 7, 2010 [19 favorites]

Work as a waiter in a restaurant for a year. It's not the customers that will get you over yourself the most, it would be the fellow waitstaff.
posted by ZaneJ. at 2:18 AM on January 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I agree with and will elaborate upon bam:

Keep being yourself. The things you want to be and the things you are - they are not mutually exclusive. By acting like you need to fully transform, you are rejecting yourself and validating the insecurity that continually will drive you to seek others' validation.

Perhaps a small exercise in acceptance - tell yourself, "yes, I am sweet." Think of the thoughtful things you've done that have encouraged people or made them smile. Inevitably you may also start recalling of some things you've done that aren't quite so sweet. Here you smile to yourself and say, "I'm not always THAT sweet" ... but thank goodness people don't judge me by those things.

Also agree with later posters that encourage mentorship. Hollywood/pop culture can give us a skewed idea of what type of woman is successful. Go out and talk with the ones that actually are - you could be in for a surprise. It isn't about where you wear your heart, it's how you how your head. Be confident in who you are, what you do, and what you don't

Speaking from a position a few years out of college, some of the more successful young women I know were the so-called "sweet/innocent" ones. Who were, it turns out, not such pushovers after all. Funny, too: the majority of the toe-the-line, firebrand b*tches? Well, some have very enviable jobs and some don't but none seem very happy at all.
posted by keasby at 2:19 AM on January 7, 2010

I keep trying to write something here and keep ending up erasing it and trying again.

Mostly I think you just need to take that step and stand up for yourself. Say no more often when you are thinking no. Walk away when people yell at you.

Guys who bully you because they know you're more interested in them than they are in you are jerks. Regardless, coming on too hard can certainly push people away, so slowing down may be in order there. Tragically, I think one of the best ways to figure out the right pace is to fail a few times. It's probably a good rule of thumb to pay attention to your object of affection and try to keep their pace (unless their pace is faster than yours, at which point feel free to go as slow as you want or break it off if they don't give you that option).
posted by that girl at 2:30 AM on January 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Augh, pressed post instead of preview.

Anyway, adding on to that, it is perfectly allowable to be feminine and likeable and nice and still be yourself. The most important thing to keep yourself from turning into the annoying angry girl is to know how to pick your battles. In a simple conversation with a person you rarely interact with, it may not be worth it to argue with them about something you disagree with. Sometimes in these sorts of arguments, your opponent will end up playing by different (and nastier) rules than you are. So you need to learn how to walk away from those. If a person is pushing you around, you can get angry, but don't yell. Yelling is one of the fastest ways to get people to stop respecting you.

And remember that not everyone has to like you. If you are confident about yourself as well as friendly and accepting a lot of people will like you, but those people who seem to dislike you for no good reason will be there no matter what and you can't control them so don't bother. Just leave them out of your life.
posted by that girl at 2:37 AM on January 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

I would suggest you read "Your Perfect Right", which is about assertiveness. It is a short book, easy to get through and full of practical suggestions. It is a good starting place. Self-esteem might be an issue, especially if you were raised to avoid conflict. An easy book to read about cognitive behavior therapy is "Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy". Issues of self-esteem/pleasing others/being hostage to the opinions of others etc. are covered. I found both books to be very helpful. In my own case, I was raised in a family that avoided conflict and stressed being nice and being pleasant. When my siblings went out into the real world, they had very similar problems, as did I, to what you are describing. I think these 2 books will help you. If you find the CBT approach helpful, you can probably have about 10 sessions with a therapist to help you absorb the ideas and turn them into behaviors. You will be learning new habits.
Best of luck.
posted by PickeringPete at 2:45 AM on January 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

I can't really tell you how to do it, but I think you need to stop caring about what people think. Doing nice things for other people or flattering them, catering to them... it's important to know why you are doing that. Do you do it altruistically, or do you feel you need their attention or approval? Remember, other people's opinions should not be the key to your self-worth or happiness.

If you can learn to be happy by yourself, and understand that you don't need anyone else to bring you that happiness, that's a good start. The goal is to find people to be happy with, not try to find someone who makes you happy. Make yourself happy.
posted by Menthol at 2:51 AM on January 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Good pieces for your puzzle here so far.

I want to add that it's OK to experiment. Simply try things. For instance, try being "harder" at times in conversations. If someone is hurt, then apologise. If it doesn't hurt others, it's OK.

Be humble, but state what you want. Find ways of showing respect. If you are uncomfortable with stating what you want directly, try adding a prefix sentence: "Sincerely, with all due respect, [I want this / No]". If you find it hard to smile when you are 'battling' for something, try bowing very very slightly while maintaining a serious face.

For me, it's about getting the FULL message across: 1) I want this; 2) I respect you; 3) I don't want trouble.

If I know I have done my best to get The Full Message across, I am generally calm and can't be shaken with an argument – it's usually just a misunderstanding on THEIR part at that stage – and misunderstandings are simply to be cleared up.

It's hard to explain ... For me, this type of stuff revolves a lot around rules-of-thumb and intuition.
posted by krilli at 2:59 AM on January 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

... also, smiling is magical!

There is a humble smile, a meek smile, all kinds of smiles.
posted by krilli at 3:01 AM on January 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

One thing that's really helped me not be such a pushover is the concept of the "Holy No." I think I got that phrase from Anne Lamott, but don't quote me on that. Basically, it's shifting your thinking away from constantly worrying about how the other person will react, to putting yourself first and foremost in decision-making.

The Holy No comes forth when, for example, a friend asks you to come to her party Saturday night. You know she'll be disappointed if you can't come, and it will probably be a great party, but you also know that you have to work an extra shift at work on Saturday and will be wiped out and in need of sleep. The Holy No says that, while it might benefit other people if you say yes, saying a gracious but firm NO is a loving and holy act of caring for yourself. And the great thing? Most people will completely understand, and respect you more for it.

So basically, start caring for yourself. Know your boundaries. Know when you're saying yes because there is an authentic need or desire, and when you're saying yes out of obligation or guilt. It's not selfish; it's how we survive.
posted by sarahsynonymous at 3:06 AM on January 7, 2010 [7 favorites]

I have this problem too, but I'm a bit further along the path to dealing with it.

I think for me it's a combination of getting over caring what people think of me (not entirely, but just not worrying so much about what every single person thinks) and realising that acting super nice doesn't always have the desired effect. I think it's also about learning to focus more on yourself (the only person you can really do much about) and less on other people.

You don't need everyone to like you - you just need a good set of friends. Being overly nice to everyone is exhausing, a bit pointless (people are usually more worried about themselves), and can also distort your picture of why people like you. Do they like you for you, or just because you always do what they want? It can actually be reassuring to let your friends see your grumpy side or whatever occasionally.

I've had a few experiences where I've stood up to people who were being horrible. It was terrifying because I thought everyone would hate me afterwards, but surprisingly I found that rather the opposite happened - people respected me more, and liked me about the same. Those experiences have given me a bit more confidence.

Anway, I guess what I'm saying is that being nice and being assertive aren't opposites. I don't know how you actually really learn that - I think partly it's just happens naturally as you get older (college is horrible for all that peer group stuff that makes this kind of thing so much harder), but I also think that if you just try to focus more on what you want and start being more assertive (not nasty, just be honest and stand your ground) when necessary, you might have a few positive experiences that will help you start snowballing towards developing a bit more poise.

I suspect reading a book or two on negotiating tactics for women or something similar might help, but I never have, so I can't recommend anything.
posted by Emilyisnow at 3:23 AM on January 7, 2010 [5 favorites]

You can be perfectly nice and still say no. Two of the most successful people I know are exceptionally cheerful and positive. Check out some older movies with classy, classy ladies like Breakfast at Tiffany's and the like.
posted by carlh at 3:48 AM on January 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

I don't think assertiveness training will help you anymore than learning how to run would help someone with a weight problem; you can have all the tools in the world, but unless you understand why you feel worthless unless everyone likes you/scared that people won't like you/like their approval is more important than you own identity, it'll just keep happening again.
posted by blazingunicorn at 3:58 AM on January 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

"Nice" and "mean" are too sides of the same coin-- fearing rejection, and fearing deprivation.

Try something else: Take your focus off the other person. Ask yourself not what he/she is saying or doing or feeling... and instead ask yourself this:

What do you want?

Not what you don't want... but what, specifically, you do want.

And make the answer concrete and specific-- don't settle for a feeling. Narrow it down to the particular desired experience that you believe will create the feeling-- and focus on that.

Then make a mental image of your desired experience, and make it big and bright and in close-up.

And once you have a clear, vivid image of what you want, knowing what to say and do to get it should be much easier.
posted by darth_tedious at 4:07 AM on January 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Feeling Good pg. 262 [(1) If someone criticizes me, I feel miserable because this automatically means there is something wrong with me". (2) To be a truly fulfilled human being, I must be loved. If I am alone, I am bound to be lonely and miserable." (3) "My worth as a human being is proportional to what I've achieved." (4) "If I don't perform (or feel or act) perfectly, I have failed."] If this describes you, CBT is worth looking at.

Your Perfect Right pg. 219 "The idea of assertiveness for those who had been "pushed around" earlier was to help them gain the respect that they had been missing from others. Assertiveness is not incompatible wiht kindness, thoughtfulness, compassion empathy and politeness".

While I agree with blazingunicorn that you need to understand the root cause, you may have a problem changing your behavior. The people around you will resist. So knowing the techniques to be assertive is very important. This book discusses those techniques.

I strongly recommend that you look at both books. Failing that, go see a therapist. I was trying to be sensitive to your probable financial status, given that you are a college student.
posted by PickeringPete at 4:18 AM on January 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Working retail did it for me. After, one person said to another: "What happened? SillyShepherd used to be so sweet and such a pushover."

Not that you need to stop being sweet, but you don't need to be a pushover. You can say no, and do so in a nice tone of voice. You can say no, without feeling that you need to justify or explain yourself. When you start explaining, you open the door for others to "negotiate" with you. You also can be less nice if someone is not listening to what you're trying to tell them.

Someone asks you to go to a party after work:

Them: Hey. Come to my party.
You: Thanks, but I'll pass. It's been a long day at work, and I need to rest.
Them: Oh, come on! Just for a little bit.
You: No, but thank you. I'm tired.
Them: ___ will be there.
You: [silence]

This might sound extreme, but there's Gavin De Becker's book, Gift of Fear. He addresses the societal pressure for women (or people) to be "nice". Go to a bookstore and read the first chapter, and think about it.
posted by SillyShepherd at 5:11 AM on January 7, 2010

The people around you will resist.

Watch out for this. People will, unconsciously, resist any change that cedes control over you. Be prepared for difficulties as you change your way of interacting with people, even very small changes. New friends may (at first) be the most accepting of your new position, because they don't have a long history of walking all over you, or having you flex to meet them.

It can be very disconcerting when you feel you're making a positive change but the people closest to you are reacting negatively to your (very personal) self-improvement. If it starts to get to you, or slow you down, try to re-frame this negative reaction as a sign that you are making progress.
posted by fake at 6:45 AM on January 7, 2010 [4 favorites]

Embrace your inner bitch. I used to be really nice and worry a lot. But inside I kind of hated a lot of things that were going on, but I didn't want to say anything because then people wouldn't like me/think i was a bitch/i wouldn't have any friends but then it got to be where i didn't like myself anymore. I was trying to be what I thought people wanted would like, but they would walk all over me and really they didn't know me at all.
I started speaking my mind more often, and I found I got a lot more respect. I'm not mean or rude, and I am generally very "nice" and easy to get along with. I generally hold my tongue, but sometimes, after careful listening and thought it doesn't hurt to speak up and tell people how you really feel about things in a reasonable and civil tone. It feels good, and if somehow a situation leads to someone being offended, yelling, arguing or calling you a bitch etc (ie your worst fears come true) who cares? It takes all kinds to make up a world. If they don't agree with you and you feel strongly about it, then that's their problem. Try and stay reasonable and civil and just agree to disagree (or whatever). Everyone is entitled to their opinion, even you. And if you find a lot of problems with your friends when you try and assert yourself, maybe it's time to find some new friends who like the new you.

I highly suggest Margaret Cho. She can be a bit raunchy, but she has some really interesting stuff about beauty, self esteem and confidence. It's nice to watch her stuff chronologically.
posted by smartypantz at 7:40 AM on January 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Saying this pushes me to a point of no return, the one where I admit I'm forty and motherly, though inside I'm still twenty-two and sweet and innocent too... but, time will take care of this. Possibly, you haven't graduated from the School of Hard Knocks yet, but more stuff will happen as you age, and you'll learn, and you'll toughen up.

As others have said, working will hone your edge. Mainly because you'll be exposed to people of all ages, and you'll find mentors and role models and situations where's you'll prove yourself and gain confidence.

I advocate, in lieu of rapidly aging, finding a personal mantra, and slowing down reactions to people enough to remember it before you speak or act. Mine is "I do not let how others are affect my being the quality of person that I want to be." So if you're dealing with someone who'll take advantage of your better nature, you don't need to change your nature - you just need to change how you respond to their behaviour. I am sarcastic, but I'm not a jerk. So, say someone is yelling at me (and it's happened - I've worked in retail), remembering that yelling says more about the person doing it than it does about me, and reminding myself I'm not a person who wants to engage in that means that I clench and unclench my toes, take a breath, wait for them to finish, and continue reasonably, because I am a reasonable person. Or, for example, say I want to blow off meeting a friend or going to an event. I don't like to lie, so I'll say, regretfully, jokingly and truthfully "I'm blowing you off. I'm sorry, I'm a jerk - but I can't get it together to do this." It doesn't make what I'm doing any better, but it does mean I'm still a truthful person which I think has some value, and my conscience is less dinged and it also gives people a clue as to how I want to be treated.

I did take an assertiveness training course when I was your age, and I still use techniques I learned from it. Learning about using the quality of your breathing as a way to lower and calm your voice and practicing speaking without hesitations and stammering and how to suppress or redirect nervousness or frustration in situations has been helpful throughout my whole life. I recommend taking one, but more - doing your homework. When you can compose yourself outwardly, others will treat you better.

You also don't have to explode when disagreeing with someone, when most often a raised eyebrow or an "Oh, really." can accomplish what you need to. But that takes time and experience to learn to apply such things, and you've got that on your side. And sometimes, you don't want to be a value pack of "firecrackers" - but if you need to explode, so be it. It lets people know when you've been pushed too far and clearly defines a boundary. But as you've noticed, it loses its effectiveness when applied liberally.

Lastly, in speaking to "feminism" - and I rarely go out on this limb - but one dictionary's definition, and the one I follow, is "the advocacy of women's rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.", with the second wave of it focusing more on unity and sisterhood. It has nothing to do with appearances, either in manners or behaviour or feminintiy. If you want to mix feminism into this equation, you can achieve it quietly as well as loudly.

I love and second koeselitz's musicl suggestions, and would add Nina Simone to the list of women who have used their words and voices, sometimes in whispers and sometimes in shouts to speak their minds with clarity, dignity and passion.

Perhaps you could seek out women to work with learn from, either from their positive or negative qualities - and look above and beyond your peers. Or, look at little kids - how awesome they are before all of these weird anxieties and traits and insecurities become so ingrained. From the age of fifteen, aside from two periods of employment, I've always worked for female business owners or supervisors, and from them I learned who I wanted to be as a productive adult. I learned, for example, that business is business, not a way to make friends. Also, that if I am going to work with my husband, it doesn't make me appear stronger to diminish him. Stuff like that. Learning from your work, in the end, is as important as what you're paid.

And speaking of friends - I'm not going to advocate getting new friends or choosing better boyfriends if they have behaviours that drive you crazy or diminish you, I'm going to suggest re-naming them. Employers, co-workers, classmates, businesspeople and people in general you interact with are not necessarily friends. My friends are people I love, trust and who also treat me well. Those whom I know but don't meet these standards are "acquaintances". Keeping only people who enhance your life close to you, and everyone else at a friendly, polite but slight distance might be a way to preserve your good nature, but protect your interests.

Thanks for the opportunity to offer my experience, and warm wishes for all the best in your future.
posted by peagood at 7:41 AM on January 7, 2010 [7 favorites]

I'm going to take a wild guess and suggest that maybe you had a parent that everybody had to walk on eggshells with. That parent or other caregiver might have yelled or gave people the silent treatment--often times when something was bothering them.

A common reaction for children put in that situation is to become people-pleasers willing to do almost anything to avoid an emotional scene. They take responsibility for things they didn't do.

A lot of this occurs because kids are built to learn from their parents. Take a three-year old playing with dials on a stove. The child doesn't know what the dials do. When the parent yells at the child not to play with the dials, the child internalizes it without knowing why.

With parents with emotional problems, the situation goes from functional to dysfunctional. If a parent yells or hits children when suffering from mood swings or other issues, the child internalizes it. The child is unsure of what it did wrong to get yelled at, but the feeling is still there. Do that enough and you have a child whose response to conflict is to try and please the other party, whether or not they are at fault.

Usually a good therapist helps with this. It helped me tremendously. Made a difference in my life.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:01 AM on January 7, 2010 [9 favorites]

It kind of jumped out at me when you said that you're afraid of 'not being likable'. You might want to consider that your being eager-to-please, pliable, outwardly emotional, and prone to breaking down in public are actually making you UNlikable and are the reasons you are mistreated by others. There are lots of sweet, innocent, bubbly types who AREN'T treated this way by others, and that's because they understand (consciously or unconsciously) the social contract that governs daily interactions - to put it simply, that contract says 'don't make other people uncomfortable'. When you make people uncomfortable, they will push you away and act like jerks. It's really that simple. What you need to remember is that others are as awkward and emotional and easily hurt as you are . They have just learned to control the outward expression of those feelings - again, because of the social contract - and maybe they think it's unfair that you don't feel like you have to bother. I'm not giving the people around you a free pass for being jerks, but it helps to know WHY they act like this and it is about a million times easier to change your own behaviour than someone else's, so that's where you need to look. It seems like you're doing that already, so good job!

Anyway, some specific thoughts:

-Most people don't like to be the decision maker in a group, whether it's a group of two people or twenty. What if you pick the restaurant or the movie or make the big business decision and it turns out to be a terrible idea? You feel like a huge asshole. It's a big responsibility. You may think you're being sweet when you say 'oh no whatever you want is fine' all the time, but you're actually shirking your share of the social decision-making responsibility. People will pick up on that and resent you for it.

-Unless it's a serious, serious tragedy (end of a marriage or a really long-term relationship, death of a close friend or family member, that kind of thing), crying and breaking down in public makes other people incredibly uncomfortable. If it's a regular occurrence, again, they will begin to resent you and probably try to avoid you. If they can't avoid you, they will be rude in order to push you away.

Even though I am NOT a big fan of easy self-help aphorisms, one that seems to actually make sense and work is 'fake it until you make it'. When you feel like you're going to break down, GET AWAY from other people. Fake a sneezing fit or an important phone call or something, get yourself alone, and don't rejoin the group until you are calm and collected. If someone says something to hurt you, don't let on that it gets to you. I find that a kind of quizzical look followed by a brief shake of the head works in those situations. 'Why would she say that? oh, well, doesn't matter' -that's the idea you want to get across. Don't be afraid to (gently) tease people and disagree with them - and DON'T get upset when people tease or disagree with you, even if that means, again, you need to fake a phone call to get out out of the room to get yourself together.
posted by Wroksie at 8:05 AM on January 7, 2010 [5 favorites]

I popped in here to also say a couple of simple things: This is about respecting who you are. Why do you need to change for another people? (because, this is really is the same thing. You want to please people, instead of in a nice sweet way, you want to please them in such a way that they show you more respect. This is all about how other people perceive you.)

Other people will treat you how you want them to treat you, if you respect yourself. Show confidence in yourself.

One big big big way to do this: Look forward when you walk. Look at people directly when you talk to them. Don't look down at the floor, or your fingers, or over the person's shoulder. Don't try to shy away or 'look small and insignificant' when attention is on you. Speak clear and confidently. Put strength in your words by increasing the volume of your voice a bit.

"we don't want to whisper like this.. We want to tell the world our opinion!"

You also need to totally stop caring about other people's opinions. This is not something someone can teach you, but a belief you need to develop. The belief of: "Fuck them."
posted by royalsong at 8:34 AM on January 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

huh, the small tag didn't want to work for me.

"we don't want to whisper like this.. We want to tell the world our opinion!"
posted by royalsong at 8:36 AM on January 7, 2010

Is there an area in your life where you have the opportunity to act, not strictly on behalf of yourself, but as an agent of some role that is important to you? For instance, I teach college undergrads, and over the years many occasions have come up where 'Normal Me' really wanted to give in to my softie/pushover side - let a student have that C they needed even though they'd done F-level work, give someone partial credit for something just because they came up and argued with me over my grading, let someone make up a test from a month ago because their father's brother's nephew's cousin's former roommate had died, etc. - but I'm able to stand strong because I know I have to let 'Teacher Me' take charge and do what needs to be done.

The neat thing is that after I'd been falling back on that for a while - letting my pushover side take a back seat to a role that needed me to be firm - I started acting more firmly in other areas of my life as well. I think the key was that once I'd started being less of a pushover in one area of my life I got to see that people did NOT end up hating me forever - yes, someone might get mad at first, but 98% of the time it was only a matter of days before they had put on their Big Boy/Girl Pants and just got over themselves. Better yet, once people start seeing they can't lean on you to get their own way ... eventually they stop trying (there's a saying I like that seems applicable here: "People treat you like you teach them to treat you"). Learning that the consequences were so much better than I had feared - and not only "not painful," but actually beneficial in the long run - has been of HUGE import to me in situations where I know I need to stand firm but just. don't. WANT to.

(Finally, I think it's worth reiterating that you've got a false dichotomy going on here - "sweet" and "collected/strong" are not mutually exclusive at all. With my students, for instance, I can still sympathize with their situations, and when I do I wouldn't be me if I tried to hide the fact that I genuinely feel bad for them ... the trick, I think, is to give yourself permission to experience that sympathy or niceness while realizing - and making clear - that it does not require you to give in. Good people are good to others AND to themselves, yeah?)
posted by DingoMutt at 8:36 AM on January 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

As a first step, put into your toolbox the following phrases:

"Please don't speak to me like that, it's not acceptable".
"Let's discuss this when you're feeling calmer".
"If you keep yelling like that I'm going to leave".

You don't have to stay in a yelling situation; you don't have to respond to the yelling.
You also don't have to justify your actions. It's the other person who's setting up the situation as if it's your responsibility to listen to yelling, or somehow explain yourself. But you don't usually need to do that, which is lucky because both of those things are potentially stressful and difficult.

Someone: Could you please stand on your head on the roof so I can check my trigonometry homework?
You: I'd rather not, no.
Someone: It's perfectly safe and this homework is due in tomorrow! Why on earth not?
You: I'd just rather not.
Someone: You hate me and want me to fail my trigonometry course!
You: I like you, I wish you all the best with the trigonometry but I won't be going on the roof.
Someone: But how will I do this homework??
You: I'm sure you'll find a way to do it.

In this example, you don't have an excuse, you don't explain and you don't assume responsibility for solving the other person's problem.

It's even easier when the person has chosen a passive aggressive way to get you to help:

Someone: My house is so cold with the boiler being broken. How I wish I had a friend I could stay with while I wait for spring!
You: That must be so dreadful for you.

Also, keep an eye out for compromises. If you and a boyfriend want two different things, it doesn't automatically mean that one and only one of you has to "win". If you look for a solution that keeps you both happy, then you don't have to be a doormat and you also don't have to be Crazy Aggressive Bitch Lady.
posted by emilyw at 8:45 AM on January 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Lots of great advice here, but you also need some Jonathan Richman:

Well, the girl stands up to me now
more than she did before
I used to win all the arguments
when she felt inferior

But now the girl says yes when she means yes
the girl says no when she means no
the girl stands up to me now
more than she did before

Well, now when she says no
it comes out smooth as silk
she don't act like no bad breakfast cereal
waiting to wilt in the milk

Because, the girl says yes when she means yes
the girl says no when she means no
the girl stands up to me now
more than she did before

When she says no to me
It's just like the umpire's call
It's strike strike strike three buddy
and ball ball ball

Because the girl says yes when she means yes
the girl says no when she means no
the girl stands up to me now
more than she did before

When she first said no
ooh, that was rough
well now, I think I like her better
tough tough tough

Because the girl says yes when she means yes
the girl says no when she means no
the girl stands up to me now
more than she did before

more than she did before
posted by libraryhead at 9:08 AM on January 7, 2010 [6 favorites]

Seconding what Ironmouth said.

It was really, really shocking for me to realize (at a much older age than you) that most of the people in the world do not act like my parent who we walked on eggshells around. It is totally okay to disagree with most people and they won't go nuts.

Not only that, but I was so very open to having friendships or relationships with people who acted like my parent, because I was used to that type of behavior and didn't think there was anything too wrong about it. Then, to my surprise, I discovered that good friends and people I admired eschewed that kind of behavior and refused to have relationships with people who behaved badly!

With all due respect, could you be having relationships with people who have a bit of a bullying tendency, because their behavior is familiar and you don't see it for what it is? Maybe the issue isn't that you are too sweet, but that you are too accepting of bad behavior.

Keep being sweet, but do take a look at who you are choosing to date/be with. Assertiveness training would be helpful, but also you'll need to weed out people who don't appreciate your naturally sweet nature and cause you to have to assert, assert, assert exhaustively all the live-long day. If what I said rings true at all, read up on toxic relationships. If not, ignore me (assertively).
posted by Knowyournuts at 9:57 AM on January 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think what you may be looking for is boundaries. You can be as sweet as you like (innocence will fade with time, for better or worse) but you need to learn what your boundaries are. Learn to say no when you need to. Once you learn to say no, it stops being a negative expression, and instead becomes a demarcation of one of your boundaries. No one values an open, vacant lot - put a fence around it and people will start to use the gate.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 10:01 AM on January 7, 2010

I agree with a previous poster that you should work retail. People can be awful and it used to make ME feel awful until I realized something. These people know absolutely nothing about me. So the reason they're being asshole-y to me CAN'T be because they don't like me. They're yelling at me because they had a really hard day at work, or they just had a fight with their spouse, etc. etc. The lesson? You never know what's going on in someone's life and how someone acts towards you really doesn't have anything to do with you. Even your people-pleasing is ultimately about you. Once you realize that people's reactions have nothing to do with you, you won't be as fazed by people's negative behaviors. Good luck!
posted by kookaburra at 10:10 AM on January 7, 2010

themaskedwonder: “See, I've always been branded "sweet" and "innocent" by my friends, and I used to take that as a compliment. Not that those things are inherently bad, but I've grown sick and tired of being pushed around, and yelled at, and being apologetic for crimes I never committed because people don't think I'll retaliate.”

jeffburdges: “I'm not sure assertiveness alone will solve your issues since honestly you sound kinda unstable. Assertiveness might be one component of becoming more well balanced, but you almost surely use your instability to influence or manipulate men. Ideally, you should stop putting so much effort into influencing other people, especially males.”

I mean no offense, and I don't want to start an argument, but—well, I'm a guy, and I hesitated before first commenting in this thread, finally thinking over how I felt about it and deciding it was okay. I think that women face a lot of pressures to be a particular way in the world that we men are hardly ever even aware of, pressure to look a certain way or sound a certain way or act a certain way. And I think it's pretty important for both sexes to stay aware of this if there's ever to be real equality; unfortunately, it's still a lot easier for us guys to forget all about the pressures and difficulties.

All I guess I'm trying to say, themaskedwonder, is I think jeffburdges is flat wrong on this, in a way that we guys often tend to be, unfortunately. I know you don't "use your instability to influence or manipulate men." I know that you're not any more unstable than anybody else. I don't think jeffburdges was even conscious of how that really sounds, but for god's sake don't doubt or second-guess yourself because of judgments like that. It's a trap people unknowingly set, a trap that perpetuates inequality, to convince you to spend all your time worrying about whether you're manipulating men by being ‘too sweet’ or by being ‘too sour,’ et cetera.

I think this question shows that you're already doing fantastic at the most important thing—being true to yourself and to who you are as a human being. And you should keep on trying to be yourself more around other people, and demanding more of what you know you want and need from them in a direct and honest way. Again, I mean no offense to him, but I think maybe it's a good warning for you to see that ‘don't be so manipulative’ sentiment here—because, unfortunately, the majority of men you will meet will probably feel similarly. And when they say things like that, I guess you just have to know not to let it worry you; instead of thinking to yourself, ‘wow—am I really manipulative toward men?’—you should stop right there, take a deep breath, and remind yourself that you are who you are and that that's okay.

I'm sure that's what Patti Smith would do. Well, okay—she might not be that nice about it, but you don't have to be, either, if you don't want to be. It's really up to you—that's the point.
posted by koeselitz at 12:03 PM on January 7, 2010 [6 favorites]

... and, in fact, I'm trying way too hard to avoid offending people. Short version: don't put up with sexist nonsense like "you're being manipulative toward men," and don't let it being who you want to be.
posted by koeselitz at 12:12 PM on January 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

don't let it keep you from being who you want to be.
posted by koeselitz at 12:13 PM on January 7, 2010

Patience. Age and experience will take care of this. Be who you want to be. Do what you want to do. Fuck up. Learn from it. Wear your scars proudly.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:47 PM on January 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

2nding crazycanuck's recommendation of Women Don't Ask. The follow-up practical guide, Ask For It, is outstanding. The authors reference their findings from Women Don't Ask, the systemic reasons (eg, socialization, rigid gender expectations, role modelling) why it still doesn't even occur to many women that they can personally change a suboptimal situation for the better, by speaking up and asking, instead of just gritting teeth and putting up with it. Then they describe real-life cases where women negotiated better situations for themselves in both personal and work lives, and they provide exercises and phrases for the reader to practice too. The exercises start with helping readers get into the mindset of feeling like they have a right to ask for something for themselves, at all. Other negotiation books I've read assume that the reader already feels entitled to that right. This one explains why, if we don't feel that way already, it's not a personal character defect and is something we can change with a bit of practice. That point is priceless for those of us (well, me, anyway) who were raised to put everyone else's needs before our own, and so learned to honor self-sacrifice ahead of honoring our own emotional or physical health.

They've even got a chapter on finessing "the likeability factor," the fact that many in our society still perceive femininity != assertiveness. (How to finesse it? "Multiple studies have shown that using a 'softer' style can improve a woman's chances for success when she negotiates . . . [you can] remain tough on the issues [while being] 'relentlessly pleasant'.")

Also, I've posted this link on honoring your boundaries on AskMe before, but it bears repeating: "Why is it so hard to set boundaries? . . . If we start setting boundaries, there will be shifts in our relationships, and some individuals who do not respect our boundaries may be asked to leave. Are you afraid to trust, or fearful of losing a relationship? . . . Some of us may not feel we deserve boundaries (question of self worth). . . . If we get our self worth from pleasing others- it’s much harder to set boundaries. . . . our boundaries can only be as clear and as strong as our support for our own wants, limits, choices, and values. . . . "
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 1:22 PM on January 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

I've never been in a relationship, but whenever I like a guy, I become really eager to please - to the extent that the guy just bullies me around/says whatever he wants to me because he knows I'm afraid of losing him (but then he's not interested in me anyway, because who wants to date a pushover, someone so eager for attention?)

There are many good reasons to want to be more assertive, less of a "pushover", more communicative of your own needs and desires... but this is not one of them.

You've been attracted to a lot of jerks, but you've inadvertently managed to get them to self-identify before you could get involved in a relationship with them. That's a good thing. Don't assume that every man you might become attracted to would behave so poorly, and don't be too eager to give up your existing "jackass filter" until you've figured out how to replace it.

Besides, what is your goal with guys? To me the ideal relationship is not one where you're not really eager to please your partner; it's one where you are obviously eager to please your partner, they know how eager you are, but they're still just as eager to please you anyway. That does imply being upfront about what you want (how else are they going to know what pleases you?) but it doesn't preclude being eager for their attention or devoted to their wants.
posted by roystgnr at 2:33 PM on January 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

First, I am a lot like you are describing. I am 26, which is only a few years older than you, but I have changed DRAMATICALLY in the past few years since graduating from college and starting teaching high school. Working with such a range of students, including many many super difficult, nasty ones, has made me way stronger. I'd liken it to what others have said about working in retail or being a waitress for a bit. And even if I hadn't been teaching for the past several years, I think so much of this change does come with age, particularly in the 20's, which is a transformative time. Still, while I am so much tougher than I once was, a particularly rude comment from a peer can send me into hysterics. I'm not proud of how (overly?) sensitive I can be, but I'm not sure I want to change.

You say that you wear your heart on your sleeve, and I think that is a great personality trait. If you feel like it's a trait you don't want, because it hurts you too much, sure, you can change, but my guess would be that you wouldn't end up happy. It's ok to be super nice, and "hypersweet", as long as you make sure your own needs are being taken care of.

But there are lots of little steps you can take that people have mentioned already - making sure to look out for yourself first, saying "no" more often, trying not to throw yourself into pleasing every guy who comes your way, etc.
posted by violetish at 3:00 PM on January 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

For the sake of another data point, I have a very similar temperament to the OP (and am also working on it), but my family situation was not hostile or volatile; quite the opposite, actually. My parents were very skilled at defusing anger quickly and efficiently, and taught us kids to do the same; we knew that if voices were raised, that meant people were losing control, so we learned to step away and cool down before calmly continuing the discussion. Humor was frequently deployed, and an emphasis on feeling safe among family at all times was ever-present.

I have wonderful, deep relationships with all of my family members because of this; unfortunately, it left me completely unable to deal with people whose argument/discussion styles are different. Because it was so hard-wired into me that yelling = out of control, I immediately get anxious when arguments become heated, even if no harm is meant. Encouraging the other person to calm down rarely works, and humor is... not always met with the response I want. I am working with a therapist on how to adapt to different styles of argument, but it's a tough road.

So basically, no matter what, it sucks; if you're brought up with unhealthy relationships, you're doomed to act out that dysfunction in your own relationships. But, if you're brought up with healthy relationships, you can't deal with all those other unhealthy people! ;)
posted by sarahsynonymous at 11:57 PM on January 7, 2010

Everyone says "be yourself" which is totally true, but what makes everything better is loving yourself. You really really have to become your own favorite person, and then "being likable" doesn't matter so much. As long as you continue to be likable to yourself, your fine. Everyone else will get on with their lives.

Start small. Think of some instances where you should have spoken up/stood up for yourself. What would you have liked to have said? Come up with some key phrases like: I don't like when you talk to me like that. I don´t agree with what you are saying. I'm sorry, that's not true and I don't appreciate you saying so. I don't want to discuss this right now, excuse me. Etc.

Like any new skill, you need practice. At first you will stand up for yourself but still feel very scared and worried. As you start to experience that people respect you more for saying what you think, you will start to become more confident.

You can be as sweet as you like, even smile, but tell others how you feel about things.

And work more on being your favorite person, be your own best friend and standing up for yourself will become necessary.

Also, being a feminist has nothing to do with being feminine and don't let anybody tell you otherwise.
posted by Locochona at 9:33 PM on January 9, 2010

Practice life. Realize that very few mistakes will ever hurt you in the long run, and no small mistakes will ever really hurt at all. But without making mistakes, you're never going to learn to be who you want to be.

If you're 22 and never been a relationship, get into one if the chance pops up. Don't take it hyperseriously - it's almost certain it won't be the last relationship you're in.

Rotating back, wearing your heart on your sleeve is one thing, but changing shirts to match the other person is just doing a disservice to yourself.
posted by talldean at 7:16 PM on February 4, 2010

« Older Don't want to lose myself in the music, the moment...   |   How do I hook up a MacBook to a "locked"... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.