How can I stop being nice?
February 23, 2005 10:19 AM   Subscribe

I am one of those people who will give you the shirt off their back. Problem is, sometimes it's a little chilly being half-nekkid in this damnable British weather...

I can't help but be nice to everyone - I am extremely poor, hungry, in quite a poor state of health and in dire need of several tons of luck. Is there any way I can learn to stop being nice to other people? It's not an assertiveness issue at all but it's simply a desire to help others who need it. I just can't say no to anyone who needs assistance and I seem to go out of my way to help anyone.
A result of this is that I am the work guru, the agony uncle, the loan giver etc. I would very much like to do this in a way that will not offend others. Anyone had any luck with such a significant turnaround in their behaviour?
posted by longbaugh to Human Relations (31 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Try and realise that the most important person in your life is you and if you don't sometimes make changes to focus on yourself you run a risk of neglecting your own needs which could prove damaging to your own happiness in the long run.

I had this advice when I was younger.
posted by Frasermoo at 10:27 AM on February 23, 2005 [2 favorites]

No advice. Just, God bless you.
posted by Doohickie at 10:36 AM on February 23, 2005 [1 favorite]

The hardest part, I expect, will be handling your friends' reactions when you're no longer playing work guru, agony uncle, etc. at the drop of a hat. You want to make it clear that you're changing your own behavior, not trying to ditch them. Try to find alternate ways of showing people you care about them. You might have to be freer with compliments, or more persistent about calling people up and inviting them to things.

There will probably be some people who can't recognize friendship if it doesn't come in the form of a free lunch — that'll suck, but in the long run, good riddance to them. But in my experince, most people won't mind when the free lunches end, so long as they know you still like having them around.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:39 AM on February 23, 2005

You can't pull someone out of the water if you yourself are not standing on dry land. Take care of yourself and your needs, repect yourself. When you are coming from a place of inner strength, you will be able to see how to truly help someone.

I know it sounds all new age-y, but it's the god's honest truth.
posted by Specklet at 10:41 AM on February 23, 2005

You might be surprised to find there is help for you from the people you've helped in the past.
posted by annathea at 11:13 AM on February 23, 2005

Make sure you're being nice to yourself, and getting done the things you need to get done to stay afloat.

That will still leave time for you to be nice to others.

I don't think it's a habit you have to give up; it's one you have to re-prioritize.
posted by Wolfdog at 11:23 AM on February 23, 2005

longbaugh, I was very similar to you for years and it wasn't until I had a very unfortunate incident that I stopped trying to help everyone.

As I was dropping off a date late one night I heard some scuffling and then a scream behind us. Upon a little rubber-necked straining I could see a man bent over in the street, seemingly looking at something on the ground. I asked my date to call the cops and I ventured over to find said man screaming at the woman he was dragging across the street. He was dragging her by her hair and she was clearly in a bad way.

I approached him and said something stupid along the lines of "A real man would let a lady walk". He yanked her to her feet, pulling out some of her hair while doing so and told me to STFU. He proceeded to walk toward me and I backed up so that I was a few feet away from a parked car.

In his final approach he brought out a knife that he'd been holding at his side and I had not seen. As he swung it at my chest I jumped back and hit the car hard, he tore through my shirt, but barely scratched me. He was enraged that he'd missed and boxed me upside the head. Leaving me dazed and confused in the street.

Cops arrived, woman wouldn't press charges and I got in trouble for being on his property. I still have hearing loss, the girl I was on a date with dumped me a week later.

Moral of the story? There is a price for helping some people. And everyone pays it some time.

I also agree with Specklet, but I'll add that if you're only helping in the short term, you're not helping, you're enabling. I no longer listen to my friends bitch about this that or the other if they aren't willing to take steps. It's cost me at least one friend, but I can't lie: I don't really miss her.
posted by FlamingBore at 11:23 AM on February 23, 2005

Know your limits. You don't have to "stop being nice to other people" but you do have to establish boundaries (of time, of how much you give) such that the do-gooding does not interfere with the rest of your life. You don't have to say NO but you have to know when enough is enough.

If you keep on helping people at the drop of a hat,
a) they can take you for granted
b) you enable them to be victims
c) sometimes they can't/won't/don't take responsibility for themselves - because you have already taken it upon yourself to fill that role, or they thrust it upon you.
It bears repeating: know your limits. Know yourself and just how much you can devote before it takes its toll on you. Value your own self, your own money, your own time. Maintain your self-respect and inner strength. If you find those lacking, build yourself up until you are confident enough. Keep in mind that you have to take care of yourself first, because if you keep on giving until it drains you into nothing - what are you giving then? Can you give from a vacuum?

Do a mental check before you're helping someone: are you doing it to avoid your own problems? Are you doing it to feel useful? For the appreciation afterwards? Are you investing for future reciprocity?

Also, there are other ways of helping people. Lead by example. Teach them how to help themselves. Show them what you've learned from your own experiences. Give a voice to the voiceless. Show them what they're worth - a lot of the time, genuine appreciation and interest are enough.

I have found that the more you value yourself, the more valuable your help becomes to others. Don't let them trample on you, and they won't see you as a pushover.
posted by Lush at 11:39 AM on February 23, 2005

Response by poster: Oh I've done the knight in shining armour/getting into fights with drunk wifebeaters routine several times FlamingBore. Just as an example the other week a work colleague was worried about walking to the local tram stop so I walked her up there, I then ended up walking her into town to the pub where she was out with friends. They were most of the way p*ssed so I stayed out with them to chaperone one of my single-friends-who-makes-bad-choices-when-drunk and ended up escorting them around town until 5am. I really hate men who hit women and will not stand for it under any circumstances - regardless of the risk to myself.

I have a great deal of respect for myself (bordering sometimes on arrogance - I know I'm great) and again it's not an issue of assertiveness, it is just my "help other people" gene seems to be working overtime.

on preview - Lush - the problem is accepting that I have limits. I really am that much of an egotistical ass. I set myself challenges like going without food or sleep for several days at a time etc. By god I need a slap...
posted by longbaugh at 11:51 AM on February 23, 2005

What annathea said. I wish I had such a kind heart, maybe. It's the last thing I'd want to be rid of. Then what doohickie said.
posted by sagwalla at 11:51 AM on February 23, 2005

Work the front lines in a customer service position for a couple years. It's killed my nice-to-everyone outlook beautifully.
posted by danwalker at 11:57 AM on February 23, 2005 [1 favorite]

I have so much to say to you because this behavior has been integral to so many conflicts in my life:

I was also an extremely altruistic person until a few years ago, and I continue to grow more guarded and staunched with my promises as I get older. I think the only way you can depart from this behavior is to either be seriously taken advantage of for your unselfishness (like FlamingBore's unfortunate story), or to fall into a situation where you just don’t have the time to extend yourself beyond your means. If you are truly an altruistic person at heart, there is no way you will be able to ever completely stifle that compassion. Just accept that fact, but try to be more discerning with your extended promises.

For me, my altruism seriously diminished because I began commuting for 3-4 hours a day, which was coupled with a long workday. There were literally now like four hours a day that I had to myself when I’m wasn’t commuting, working, or sleeping. Because of this situation, I had to internalize all my resources, and quickly came to the understanding that I could no longer extend myself to help others. It was just physically impossible because I was continually wearing myself down. I was doing just enough to barely get by for myself, and it was asinine to continue patterns of gratuitous kindness. Helping others became a huge waste of my precious time. So for you, if you find something arduous that takes up all your free time, you probably will be less likely to want to extend your finite energy towards others. Also, if you find yourself being resentful towards people you promise to help, you must stop offering. It’s totally unfair.

The second way that my altruism fled is that I was an extremely generous person, but ran into situations where my giving made others extremely uncomfortable. I always bought gifts for my friends who couldn’t afford much for absolutely no reason or holiday, and was eventually greeted with resentment. I was also the person who would run out on every holiday and get little gifts for everyone in my office. Unfortunately, wanting to make people feel special is treated very cynically, and usually makes them think you’re desperate to buy their favor. Or have too much time on your hands. Or are wasteful with your money. So I think it's important to realize that what you think is actually helping someone, might actually be misconstrued. Although you know you are doing something out of the kindness of your heart, chances are that the recipients won't feel the same way. And you are indeed sometimes enabling someone else’s manipulative behavior.

Another valuable lesson was through a really shitty, yet short-term boyfriend who totally took advantage of my enthusiastic and selfless offerings to buy him dinner, drinks, gifts, etc. All of my unselfish extensions didn’t count towards anything, and I was totally duped in the end out of time, money, and emotional reserve. I think you have to realize that there are plenty of people out there who are going to completely take advantage of you and see you as a target if you are so willing to offer your resources. I also cycled through a bunch of friends in teh past few years, and in hindsight, am able to see how manipulative and greedy these friends were for what I could offer. At the time, I thought i was helping, but now i see that it was almost a game.

This is also a destructive behavior because by helping others so much, you create a system of prioritizing people and assigning them a value. As an example, I had an altruistic boyfriend who went out of his way to help others. But it ended-up completely alienating me because it seemed that the energy he was extending towards strangers and acquaintances could have been going towards our relationship instead. I felt cheated out of a companion because he was always off helping other people. So you also run the risk of alienating those closest to you.

It’s amazing to hear of your good experiences through helping out others, and that you haven’t been taken advantage of…but I think these sorts of deeds have a limited lifespan. There is only so long that you can continue this pattern and not get duped. Again, if you’re the kind of person who gets a lift out of helping others, there’s no way you can subjugate this urge totally. But you need to control it, and put it towards truly worthwhile issues. You need to prioritize everything in your life, starting with yourself and your immediate network. Remember: If you quit being such a big hero, no one is going to think you're a dick for it. They're just going to think you're normal.
posted by naxosaxur at 11:59 AM on February 23, 2005

Not an answer, but very much related to the discussion.
posted by anathema at 12:55 PM on February 23, 2005

I had the same problem--including the lack of material resources to begin with like you do. What made me more selective (and ultimately led me to take better care of myself) was unfortunately also an incident where I was very badly taken advantage of by a few people. What can sometimes happen is that people with a sociopathic or manipulative bent can often sniff out folks like us. Now I help fewer people, but consequently have more to offer--emotionally, timewise, and otherwise.
posted by availablelight at 1:00 PM on February 23, 2005

>>"What can sometimes happen is that people with a sociopathic or manipulative bent can often sniff out folks like us."

...This is so unbelievably true.
posted by naxosaxur at 1:16 PM on February 23, 2005 [1 favorite]

Having experienced at least some of this, one thing I eventually realized was that part of my being kind was driven by too much desire to be liked / thought well of by others.

So, to desensitize myself a bit, I spent a couple months doing slightly odd things - ordering one egg scrambled and one hard boiled for 'two eggs any style' breakfasts, or wearing two different (i.e., nonmatching) shoes.

And, at least to some extent, it worked. I'm still a very giving person; I just tend to do it when it works in my life, rather than because I'm afraid I'll offend someone by not.
posted by thomascrown at 1:29 PM on February 23, 2005

Wow, naxosaur, I could have written that post (though not nearly so well as you did!) I've had very very similar experiences. In the end I stopped because I had a "friend" who took advantage of me to the point where I just couldn't ignore it - I knew that it was my wake-up call. I think that it's a sad thing that people who are thoughtful and considerate of others are thought to be needy or trying to "buy" friends, and I always took it to be a reflection of other people's low self-esteem that they took my kind actions towards them in that way, but in the end I had to face up to it.

longbaugh, I can't tell you what the answer is (I tried and failed to toughen up before the disastrous last straw), but sometimes just asking yourself "What's in it for me?" is necessary. I know it's sad to have to say that, but it's true that sometimes being selfish is a good thing. Just try to remember to be a little more selfish. Practise saying no.
posted by different at 1:36 PM on February 23, 2005

I am extremely poor, hungry, in quite a poor state of health and in dire need of several tons of luck.

longbaugh, seems to me like you do know that you have limits - maybe just not what they are. It doesn't sound as if you can go on this way for much longer without compromising yourself, or you wouldn't be asking this question.

Since you mentioned egotism, it occurs to me that in helping others, we create an artificially superior position for ourselves in relation to the people we help: the helper vs. the helpless, the giver vs. the receiver, the pitier vs. the pitied. A successful episode of helping feeds the ego, it's a natural high, and you feel like helping even more, "because I can", leading to increasingly greater deeds, more heroism, ad infinitum. But you are not infinite.

I set myself challenges like going without food or sleep for several days at a time etc.

This doesn't sound healthy at all, any way you look at it. Pardon the pseudo-psychoanalysis, but maybe by setting yourself these challenges, you're trying to (artificially) establish your limits?

Boundaries can be as simple as loaning a 5 instead of a 20 (even if you have a 20) and firmly telling them you need it back in a week. Or accepting some but not all of the work someone piles on you (even if it's no sweat to you) and firmly telling them you've got deadlines to rush towards, too. Sure, you risk not seeming as superhuman as you'd like, but you risk running yourself to the ground otherwise, and by then you would be in no position to help.
posted by Lush at 1:49 PM on February 23, 2005

I'd say the best advice is to get a little bit cynical. There's absolutely nothing wrong with helping people out, but maybe you should see it more as a deposit in the favour-bank.

Doing favours for your friends is a good thing and it helps to cement relationships. It doesn't work so well if one of you is always giving and the other taking. It also doesn't work if the other person can never possibly return the favour. Friends like to return favours so here's my advice: You say that things aren't going great, well maybe the first thing you should do to change your ways is to call in a few favours. Even if it's something trivial it could help you out, and at long last the people you know can feel a little better for settling the bill.

Another thing to remember is that, generally speaking, people don't have a lot of respect for people who give too much. Is it possible you're probably being called a mug behind your back? I think this can happen because people don't like to feel that they always owe a debt and are never afforded the opportunity to repay it, and I suppose it eases their conscience that their not as giving as you.

I suppose what I'm saying here is that groups of people expect, and expect others, to behave within certain boundaries. If you're being overly generous or overly caring it can be seen as just as bad as being stingy and unfeeling. By breaking those boundaries you could be upsetting people even though you're trying to be nice.

And dude, if you're extremely poor you shouldn't be lending money to anyone. That's just crazy talk.
posted by dodgygeezer at 2:00 PM on February 23, 2005

Seems to me that in meeting the needs of others, you are not seeing that you have needs of your own. If your first reaction is - I have no/few needs, then you are forgoing your self-development. You owe it to yourself as a valuable human to recognise specific needs of your own - as you do for others.

Or are you unique, in that everyone but you is permitted needs, and you are not?

The good news is - in asking this question, you suspect something is not quite right. Value yourself, and say 'no', or even better, 'help', now and again. In doing so, you will allow others to get the buzz you get from being magnanimous, selfless and generous. Give them that feeling: hah - how can you deny your friends that?
posted by dash_slot- at 2:08 PM on February 23, 2005

posted by dash_slot- at 2:09 PM on February 23, 2005

I tend to consider the net benefit to the entire system. If giving a favor helps a friend more than it would harm me, I do it, and if it doesn't I don't.
posted by squidlarkin at 2:48 PM on February 23, 2005

I have a similar problem. I seem to have become Mr Free Tech Support for several of my friends. Will you come over and sort my PC out? Will you download and install some free software for me? Why is the computer doing this? Fix it over the phone, stay on the line for an hour while I slowly read out every single line of each wizard and dialog box. Please come and fix my computer, make it do this, make it do that, make it faster, etc etc etc.

I have no answer for you. I want my friends to be happy and have their problems fixed, but I want my own life, too. I don't want to spend my free time doing, basically, work. So I just keep fobbing them off, saying I haven't got time. I think soon I'll have to say the same thing to all of them: I'm sorry, but I'm not fixing any more computers outside of work. I don't do that anymore. Install Firefox, AVG, Spybot, Ad Aware, and a firewall, or buy a Mac, and most of your problems should be solved. I love to hear from you or visit you, but I hate fixing computers. I hate it. I'm not doing it anymore, for anyone. I'm not angry with you, it's no big deal, you don't have to apologise, there'll be no awkwardness or anything, I'm just letting you know that I don't do that anymore. Please don't ask me, because I'll just say no.

I think that's the only way to stop it. I'm going to have to be assertive. And you will be too. Don't offer to help if you don't have to. If they ask, simply reply "I'm too busy/broke". If they want a shoulder to cry on, plead personal tragedy, and say you're not in an emotional state to listen right now. If anyone is angry with you for not helping them, then they're not your friends. Easier said than done, I guess. But give it a try. I will if you will...
posted by ralphyk at 3:00 PM on February 23, 2005

getting into fights with drunk wifebeaters routine

One of the hardest lessons I ever learnt from my father was not to do this. You're helping no one but yourself: you won't be there when she takes the ass-whipping for you belittling him in front of her. I don't have a good answer to your larger question (and I wish there wasn't a need for an answer), but I can tell you you're not as nice a guy as you think you are if you can't see that some of the helping you do is ego-centric.
posted by yerfatma at 3:56 PM on February 23, 2005

Response by poster: There are some good answers and helpful tips here and I thank you for them - it's a whole lot more complex than this and really a bit too much to get into within the confines of AskMe. Just so you can see how much fun I have - I was recently made homeless shortly after my dad tried to fit me up for insurance fraud and basically move from one disaster to the next.

I am most gratified to find others who had the same issue as myself but a touch unhappy to find that the consensus is that being ripped off is the best way to get out of the habit.

Just wanted to address a couple of the points
danwalker - I have worked customer services for the last 10 years. I am the only person in my office who can walk in and out of the building smiling each day so I know exactly what you mean.
dash_slot - I don't actually have "friends". I only have time for my wife and my son. Everyone else comes under the heading "acquaintance".
Lush - Pseudo-psychoanalysis excused. I push myself because I want to know just how far I can push it. I want to be the best I can be. I have managed to last about 4 years on 4-6 hours sleep and eat maybe once every day or two. These are just a couple of the things I put myself through and they have both stood me in good stead during current events and through hard times.
yerfatma - I had not considered that aspect of it. The occasions where I have stepped in did not end at pasting the guy. I have in the past taken a stranger in and weaned them away from drink and steered them away from their ex-partner. That, so far, is going well for her.

There is so much more I could add but I really don't want to take up everyone's time and stuff and you aren't here for free analysis/behavioral conditioning.

My thanks again.
posted by longbaugh at 4:50 PM on February 23, 2005

I don't actually have "friends".

How I wish that was different.
posted by dash_slot- at 5:51 PM on February 23, 2005

Poor and hungry have material reasons - but unless you've got several jobs or something equally pressing, I'd definitely recommend getting more sleep. Sleep deprivation screws with your brain chemistry badly, so while this is a diversion from the main thread I suppose it would contribute to your overall state of mind and hence to this topic too. Sleep debt accrues and very gradually (some say never) "falls off the books," so every day that you manage to get just a bit more than a normal night's sleep you feel better and better. It's also more horrible for your health than you may assume, so for any number of health conditions if you do want to look out for yourself that's the first step, perhaps just as much as eating regularly.
posted by abcde at 11:59 PM on February 23, 2005

Have you considered that it might not be that you need to be less generous, but that you need to let other people know that you have needs too? Do you tend to mask your own needs/not ask for help with things? Perhaps you could learn to do so rather than reduce your own kindness?
posted by biffa at 2:18 AM on February 24, 2005

It sounds like your desire to be nice and help everyone out is integral to your being. There's nothing wrong with helping people out when you can "afford" to, but like many others have said, you need to figure out where your boundaries are and in what instances you're overstepping them and depleting your well-being in the process. Once you identify those boundaries, set yourself a little mental guideline that, for example, you're simply too tapped out to walk the friend to the pub and stay there watching her and her friends get pissed. You have no obligation to be a chaperone, unless you truly, truly feel your friend is in immediate danger. Bad choices? Let her make some and learn from them.

You mentioned you have a wife and son. You need to stay healthy (more sleep, better nutrition) for them too, if not just for yourself.

No true friend is going to hate you if you can't be there for them all the time and are drawing on your every last resource in the process. And if these people are merely acquaintances, they have no right to demand more of you than you can give. Good luck. I hope you find an answer.
posted by zombiebunny at 5:47 AM on February 24, 2005

The classic Kantian (general enlightenment) philosophy of morals is that every individual is equally worthy as a human being - no one is better, no one is worse (qua moral being - people are better or worse, carpenters eg, but that's secondary). That includes YOU.

You have to treat yourself the way you would treat your wife or son or the guy in your office or anyone else. If you are denying yourself certain basic needs, you are putting yourself in a different category from the rest of humanity. If you starve yourself, you're starving a human being. suicide is a kind of murder, etc. Remember that you're important simply as a person.

You may say that you know you don't mind not eating, so it's not wrong, but then you have to be absolutely certain that the help you provide others is actually wanted. people may politely appreciate what you do but internally resent you for stepping in; they may feel humiliated or indebted by your actions and ultimately not find it beneficial.

Not having friends might be a serious void in your life. Perhaps you find fulfillment in your work or family, but perhaps you have turned to altruism and extreme challenges because you don't have deep social connections... Have you had friends in the past? Are you interested in socializing? I'd explore that further.
posted by mdn at 5:52 AM on February 24, 2005

have you read camus's la chute. i just read a brief review and it sounded relevant.
posted by andrew cooke at 10:15 AM on February 25, 2005

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