Why Being Nice Will Always Fail for Highly Empathic People

Photo by Nina Strehl on Unsplash
Photo by Nina Strehl on Unsplash

What’s wrong with being nice? Isn’t this something that you were taught at a young age, and the generally accepted advice passed down generationally; “Now, be nice!”?

But then again, there’s the old axiom, “Nice guys finish last.” Maybe. But why does “nice” not work? Isn’t it better to be a nice person than a mean person? Hands down, yes, of course it is. But being nice often comes from a place that is not sincere within us, and therein lies the crux of the challenge.

Can you remember a time when you were screwed over by someone who was really nice to your face, but behind your back was ruthlessly unkind? That person could be a co-worker, a partner, a boss or an employee, it doesn’t matter. The insincerity and judgment of these folks cost you something. But they always seemed so nice, you mused afterward.

Have you ever found yourself saying yes, when the answer should’ve been no? Saying yes to the cheating spouse who wants back in your life, or the salesperson who really needs to sell you something you don’t need, or bending over backward for people who don’t appreciate you or even thank you?

If so, then you’ve found yourself being nice at the expense of your dignity, time and energy.

The Highly Sensitive Dilemma

If you are a highly empathic person, you are also likely a sensitive person. You are sensitive in a way that is attuned to the emotions of others, able to read a room well, intuitive, and generally able to feel the pain of another with compassion.

Ideally, a highly empathic person learns how to distinguish their own emotions and feelings from those of the people around them, and is thus able to experience compassion without over identifying with others. This is often something that has to be learned by knowing oneself and creating effective boundaries.

Judith Orloff, MD, an expert on empaths and highly sensitive people states that all highly empathic people are highly sensitive, but all highly sensitive people, (HSPs), are not necessarily empaths. She offers an empathy continuum and an empathy quiz. Check it out to see where you are on the continuum.


However, there is also popular wisdom out there that makes highly sensitive people seem fragile. In this worldview, the veil of “being sensitive” masks a kind of hyper-sensitivity that is often judgmental, passive aggressive, and easily offended. This view of the highly sensitive person is diametrically opposed to work of empathy or the truly empathic person.

Once I was at a meeting of colleagues from various communities. During the informal lunch, I made an offhand comment about a national political figure and used the word “bitch” as a prefix to his name. (It was a male politician.) When the meeting resumed, one of the women in the room took a moment to publicly state that my use of the term “bitch” during lunch had greatly offended her, and was indeed offensive to all women. (Uh, I am a woman too.)

I was so so shocked, shamed, and a bit humiliated, that I only replied, “Okay, I’m sorry about that.” On the way home, I was seething, thinking of all the things I could’ve said. In short, I felt there was no appropriate reply to such a passive aggressive, hyper-sensitive statement. Her righteousness was most important in that moment. Maybe that is why the politically correct get labelled as snowflakes.

Empathic people do not publicly shame others. Righteousness and empathy are mutually exclusive.

Truly sensitive people are sensitive enough to understand the effect of their behavior upon others.

I’m sure that woman will be nice to me the next time she sees me. She will be nice in a way that belies a hostility underneath. A smile on her face, and a pleasant “how are you?”, but the eyes and the body language will tell the truth. She may be nice, but she will not be kind.

Trapped in a Fear-Based State of Mind

When you feel a need to be nice, to please, to fawn over, or to make peace at all costs, these urges usually come from a place of fear. What are you afraid of? Rejection? Loss of love? Loss of approval?

First, identify the fear. What are you so fiercely protecting yourself from?

For me, it is usually fear of rejection and/or fear of being excluded from the tribe, whether that be family, relationship or work related.

A good friend of mine told me about a time that she was so desperate to have the love and affection of her alcoholic boyfriend that she went running after his car when he left her house after an argument. She followed him all the way home calling him and begging him to come back. Fortunately, she was later able to identify the irrational fears motivating her, and stop the crazy-making behaviors.

When you feel a need to be nice in order to get your needs met, then you are operating out of fear.

Now, this doesn’t mean you’re not going to be afraid. As a highly empathic person, you will most certainly be afraid. All people, no matter who they are struggle with fear. It’s just that you want to teach yourself to operate from your compassion, inclusive of compassion toward yourself—and not from your fear.

The late Chogyam Trungpa, in his book, Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, says that the definition of bravery is not being afraid of yourself. He teaches that you can be both heroic and kind. In becoming brave, you face yourself and what scares you. You move toward your fear with compassion, which allows you to uplift the existence of others and their unique experiences without judgment too.

When you’re afraid, you are in a state of selfishness. In the smallness of selfishness, you are the antithesis of brave. I’ve often thought that everything ugly in me comes from a place of fear. Fear creates a barrier to any kind of compassion. It’s a giant wall when it takes over your mind.

So first step, identify the fear. Secondly, acknowledge it and move toward it with all the empathy and compassion that you would show a loved one.

Niceness is the Mask; Kindness is the Face Behind It

Thirdly, ditch the need to be nice. It does not serve your best interest.

Niceness, as mentioned above, is externally motivated. It’s defined as being pleasing, agreeable, and likable. Nothing wrong about that. The question is, once again, the motivation behind it.

Think about the customer service representative who repeatedly calls you “ma’am,”while the tone of their voice is dripping with disdain and intolerance. The appearance is polite, but the intent behind it it is anything but polite.

That’s an easy one, but the examples are numerous. Niceness is a clever mask that people either wear very convincingly or not well at all. The point is that it is inauthentic. The external motivation might be any number of things, but niceness is usually employed to meet the needs of the person being nice.

Kindness, on the other hand, is internally motivated. Kindness requires empathy, and creates a sense of connection to another. When you’re kind, you are metaphorically able to step into another person’s shoes, and offer your genuine attention.

Simply speaking, being nice often comes from a selfish or fearful place, while kindness is brave.

When you’re brave, then you are acting in compassion toward yourself and others. You are allowing yourself to live a life with empathy at the helm.

Empathy is a Superpower, But Not What You Think

There’s much more talk of empathy these days, which is a good thing, because the world is sadly lacking it on so many levels. Even in grade schools, there are empathy education programs to help calm and regulate student’s behaviors. These advances are great, as they build the empathy quotient in our society.

But as with all advances, there is a risk that something really good becomes just another “buzz word” that we toss around until it loses its meaning.

Years ago, before anyone in social services was talking about empathy, I worked with an 11 year old boy in juvenile detention. We were having a discussion about some of his challenging behaviors that got in his way. At one point in the discussion, he offered up an idea that was both insightful and conscientious. He was brainstorming ways to make things better. I said to him, “What you’re describing is called empathy.”

He looked at me, and then repeated the word as if it were a sacred mantra or a prayer; “empathy.” And then he said what I will never forget, for it is etched in my brain as one of those moments where one bears witness to the blossoming of another’s heart. He very solemnly said, “Can you tell me more about empathy?”

A light turned on for him, and he was on a quest. That boy is grown now, and I hope that he has carried the quest for practicing empathy with him through the years.

The discipline of empathy is its superpower.

Your personal empathy quotient, even as a highly empathic person, can grow or shrink depending on how you work with it. Like the Grinch’s heart, empathy is not a static thing.

Empathy is action/motion/movement/practice. Its superpower is in the moment of connection. It is as though it comes through us as gift and presence. It is not ours to own, but ours to pass on.

Empathy practiced with humility, patience and kindness holds a great power for personal, as well as social change.

What do “Eat Your Wheaties” and “Love Your Neighbor” have in Common?

Jon Cohen, one of the wisest people I’ve ever known, used to sign his emails, “Stay strong and pay close attention.”

I particularly love this idea because being a highly empathic person in this current state of divisiveness and untruths is difficult and you must remain strong. There are too many temptations to zone out and shut down. It would be much easier to hide in the solitary confinement of your introverted nature.

But you are not a wimpy package of softness staring at your own fragile image too afraid to face reality. No. As a highly empathic person, you can learn to act from a place of strength and kindness. It is necessary.

So what do “eat your wheaties’ and “love your neighbor” have in common? One asks that you strengthen yourself, and the other asks that you reach out to others in strength. But both ask of you a fortitude that requires discipline.

It is that particular brand of strength that the world is craving.

Bring the Best You Forward

Our noblest leaders are empathic. Our better angels operate from kindness. But both need the superpower of empathic discipline to be effective.

Empathy actually creates numerous possibilities with not only personal, but global implications. Some of those possibilities include :

  • curiosity about those who are different from you.
  • a willingness to suspend or challenge your beliefs.
  • a willingness to ask questions, and actively listen for the answers.
  • a practice of becoming accountable to yourself and others.
  • a commitment to respect: no name-calling; challenge your assumptions; be willing to be wrong once in awhile.
  • the ability to step into another’s world with respect and awe for what they know and do.

Building character is a team sport. Empathy is part of the cure for the alienation that plagues us as a society. It is foundational for creating community.

So take the responsibility of being a highly empathic person by the mantle. Delve deeply into its meaning for your life, and swallow its light into your being. There is an inner strength that will continue to grow as you do. These are revolutionary acts of love.

The world always needs the bravery and service of all who are willing and able. Highly empathic people must pave the way. You see what needs to be seen, and you can learn to act on your best instincts, tempered with the gift of altruism.

Empathy is a critical piece of the kindness continuum. You can’t be truly kind without empathy, and empathy is hollow without the action of kindness. They need each other.

Place a boundary on being nice, and just get really real with yourself. Dig a little deeper and find that place where compassion resides. Let your truth come forth, but with genuine empathy and kindness.

The world needs highly empathic leaders. The world needs you.

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

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