ARE WE TOO NICE?
By Ruth Minshull
A man and woman entered the restaurant and approached a nearby table. She started to sit on a chair against the wall, but the man pointed to the aisle seat opposite his. “Sit there.”
She moved over, and they both sat down.
At one time, I would have taken no notice of this exchange, but this time I wondered: Does he always order her around that way? Does she usually comply? Does he generally disregard her preferences? And the biggie: Does she mind?
My questions stemmed from reading an unusual book, Love, Medicine & Miracles, by Dr. Bernie Siegel, a specialist in cancer therapy—a former surgeon and teacher at Yale University. He observed that people have a remarkable influence on how well and how long they survive. He found that a patient’s outlook was more powerful than all the treatments provided by the medical profession.
Dr. Siegel saw countless individuals who had been diagnosed as terminal, but who lived happy, productive lives for years beyond the predictions of the doctors. Others did not. The difference was in their attitudes. Their expectations.
His research revealed that emotional losses (divorce, breakups, betrayals, financial failures) often precede a serious illness—especially if the person tends to bottle up his sorrow and appears to be “taking it well.”
But it isn’t only the major upsets that cause a lasting and deadly influence on people.
Cancer patients, he learned, are compulsively proper and generous, and they habitually put the needs of others ahead of their own. “Cancer,” Dr. Siegel concluded, “might be called the disease of nice people.”
These men and women sacrifice their own preferences without a word; they take criticism (or verbal abuse), apparently, to obtain love and approval from others.
This was a shocking revelation to me. Since I had experienced four episodes of cancer, I had to wonder if I had been “too nice”. At first, it didn’t seem possible. I had never let others browbeat me. (After all, I grew up with three older brothers—and had always held my own against the tricks, teasing and tyrannizing so common between siblings.)
Still, I realized how many times over my adult years I had forfeited my own wishes just to be agreeable–how many small desires had been overridden by someone else: Shall we go to a movie tonight? I like this color best. Why don’t we go out to dinner? Wouldn’t that other brand work better?
On most occasions it didn’t really matter to me. We all make hundreds of small concessions in our daily activities. It’s called “getting along.” But once in awhile, I had swallowed a retort or let my own choices be nullified by someone else.
And, sometimes I turned the sting of disappointment inward on myself.
I made myself sick.
No one else had done it to me.
I recalled a time when my friend, a crotchety old bachelor, was visiting me. We were riding into town, when he began criticizing the manner in which I was holding the steering wheel. “Oh well, I shift around a lot,” I said, dismissing the subject.
Looking back on it, I realized I had wanted to say, “Herbie, we are driving through some of the most beautiful countryside you’ll ever see anywhere. Why don’t you just enjoy the ride instead of doing a critique on my driving position?”
At the time, I thought it didn’t matter. But, it happened about ten years ago, and I still remember it. So it did matter.
Perhaps the difference between the little things of no consequence and the “little” things that really do matter is whether or not we still remember them a long time later.
The unfortunate truth is: when something “is eating at you” it may be happening literally as well as figuratively.
Nowadays I speak out rather than let someone bully me, dominate me or trample on my hankerings.
A long-time friend, Walter, had been calling me for years, carping, complaining, shelling out unwanted advice, invalidating my opinions and trying to rule my life from long distance. I had always let him ramble on without resistance (or so I thought). After reading Dr. Siegel’s book, however, I changed. The next time he called I said, “Walt, I’m not going to listen to any more of your negative comments or criticisms. From now on, if you can’t say something positive, don’t call me.”
There was a long silence. Finally, he spoke, told an amusing anecdote and we ended the conversation with a laugh. In the two years since then, his phone calls have always been cheerful and pleasant. He got my message.
I have concluded that if you need to kowtow to anyone in order to be liked, there’s not only something wrong with that person, there’s something very wrong with your relationship.
So, nowadays, I’m not really pugnacious, and I don’t always have to have my own way—but I have stopped being too nice.
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© 2009 by Ruth Minshull