Almost every one of the women who’ve interviewed me on radio or TV admitted that they were raised to be “nice girls.” Their mothers had taught them that the most important value was to be nice, polite and sweet at all times. They should ignore or rise above bullies; feel sorry for how empty and insecure bullies must feel; how horrible bullies’ family lives must be. Nice girls should try to understand those mean girls, to forgive them and to tolerate their nasty, insulting, abusive behavior. Nice girls should be sweet and kindly in all situations; not be disagreeable, not make scenes, not lower themselves to the level of the mean girls by pushing back verbally or physically. Nice girls were raised to believe that the virtues of loving compassion and sympathy were their own rewards and would also, eventually, stop bullying. Nice girls were to live by the Golden Rule. Being a virtuous martyr was preferable to acting “not-nice.”
As a result, when these nice girls became adults, they had trouble protecting themselves from bullies.
Many had married nice guys so they didn’t have to worry about bullying at home. But they didn’t know how to stop bullies at work, especially stealthy, covert, sneaky female bullies. They didn’t know how to teach their children to stop bullies at school. They didn’t know how to protect themselves from manipulative, abusive, controlling, narcissistic, nit-picking, negative, self-centered relatives, friends or neighbors.
And, in addition to the emotional scars and the feelings of helplessness and impotence in the face of the real world, they bore a measure of anger toward their mothers for not teaching them how to be effective as grown ups.
The start of their change was to openly admit that, in this area, their mothers were wrong.
Their experience had taught them that they needed to feel stronger in the face of bullies, to learn to act more effectively now and to teach better skills to their children.
They had to decide which values were more important than being nice. They had to adopt a new hierarchy of values to reflect what they’d learned. They had to discard their childhood rules and roles, and adopt new ones as adults. Once they made the decision to determine their own values, they felt a surge of power, confidence and self-esteem.
At first they thought that they needed at least two hierarchies of priorities; one for their home life and one for the outside world. This was abhorrent to many because it sounded like situational ethics. But it wasn’t. They would have the same ethical framework and merely different tactics that fit their different situations.
A general example of the new hierarchy they all adopted was that although being nice, sweet and agreeing with people might still be important, protecting themselves and their personal space was more important. Being treated well was more important than keeping silent and not making a scene or not creating a confrontation. Speaking up and keeping themselves and their families safe was more important. They would not allow toxic waste on their “Isles of Song.”
Determination, will and perseverance were more important qualities than being nice. These qualities gave them the power to take charge of their lives. They didn’t have to be mean, but they did have to be strong, courageous and sometimes firm. They were the ones who decided what they wanted and needed; what was right for them; what their standards were. These decisions were not consensus votes affected by the desires and standards of other people.
Their tactics had to be situational.
In their personal family lives, where niceness was usually reciprocated, they could usually interact by kindly suggestion and often be very forgiving of some behaviors. But with some relatives in their extended families, they had to be more direct and enforce more boundaries; no matter what other people thought was right or thought they should put up with because the bullies were “family.”
In most other situations – work, friends, their children’s schools – they had to overcome the idea that being open and firm automatically meant confrontation, which they’d been taught to avoid at all costs. They had to learn how to speak clearly, disagree in a nice and firm way, and make things happen even if it made people uncomfortable; especially people who were abusive or slacking in their responsibility to protect their children.
The hardest skill for many of them to learn was how to isolate some bullies or to work behind the scenes to thwart covert attacks from sneaky, manipulative bullies. But once they’d stopped thinking that being nice was the most important value, they were able to learn these skills.