Niceness vs. Kindness

Written by Dr. Robert Daylin Brown

When I was a child, there was not enough space for me to speak. I was raised by a teen mother who flew into control mode rather quickly. Dealing with physical abuse and a controlling nature, quickly leaned into the fawn domain of the fight-flight-fawn-freeze trauma response model. I learned to navigate my mother’s moods, demands, and expressions to better anticipate her needs and meet them before the tirades rained down.

This type of childhood led to two distinct traits: the inability to set clear boundaries, and the propensity of setting other people’s needs before my own.

In short, I became the people-pleasing nice guy.

I placed a lot of value on being nice. I didn’t cause trouble. I did all my homework, and obeyed all rules. I was the quintessential nice guy.

Through therapy and a lot of self-reflection, it’s only recently that I see the difference between being nice and being kind. There is a subtle but important difference between niceness and kindness.

Kindness is a state of being. Niceness is a state of doing. One is authentic and is a part of who you are. One is performative and is a part of who you want others to think you are.

Let me explain.

As a youngster, you may have been taught to “play nice” and that being a nice guy is what others want you to be. Superficially, there is nothing wrong with the word “nice”. In fact, being nice is important when you’re younger and learning how to interact with other children. The concept of being nice fits into a toddler’s understanding because being nice is highly performative. Toddlers and young children cannot always understand the nuanced ideas of boundaries or people-pleasing or passive-aggressive behavior. It’s much easier to tell a child to “say thank you to the teacher” or to “share your toys with your little brother” or to “say please and thank you”. These actions become learned behaviors associated with being a “nice” person. The hope is that kindness develops internally and these things become part of who the child is as a person. But it must be explicitly taught and practiced for it to eventually integrate with a child’s personality. Otherwise, it remains external and not a part of who the person is. When these behaviors don’t evolve into something more mature, they remain performative and manipulative.

Look at it this way. Saying “thank you” is important when someone gives you something. But there’s a difference between saying “thank you” and being a grateful person. Apologizing is important when you’ve harmed someone, but there’s a difference between saying “I’m sorry” and being a person of justice. Sharing your toys is important, but there’s a difference between sharing a toy and being a generous and compassionate person.

Saying “thank you’ is the precursor for gratitude. Apologizing is the precursor for restorative justice. Sharing is the precursor for generosity and compassion. In this same way, niceness is the precursor for kindness.

The important thing to remember is that you should always be striving for kindness. And sometimes kindness means saying “no” to other people.

Consider this real-life scenario.

I was asked to be a part of a program at work in which I would help plan activities and deliver a presentation. I really wanted to see this program succeed, but I also knew that I didn’t have the time to deliver quality work. I just didn’t have the bandwidth to do the project. Of course, it would have been “nice” to say yes. Of course, it would have been nice to even tell the coordinator that I would think about it. But that was not authentic. That wasn’t true to what I knew about myself. That wasn’t true to how I really felt about participating in the project. The truth was that it wasn’t for me. The truth is that I couldn’t do it. So instead of being NICE and saying yes, I chose to be KIND to myself and to everyone else by saying no.

Being kind is different from being nice. Take a look at these ingredients of kindness.

  • First, being kind begins with being grounded in who you are. It means knowing your strengths and weaknesses. It means knowing your capabilities. It means being aware of your time and your other priorities.
  • Second, being kind means setting boundaries. It means being honest with what you will and will not tolerate, and then being clear with others when they cross that line.
  • Third, being kind means being true to yourself without hurting others. It’s about avoiding the people-pleasing. Avoid looking for permission and validation for your choices.
  • Being kind means simultaneously considering others’ needs as well as your own needs. Problems arise when you ONLY consider yourself or when you ONLY consider other people. It’s about balance.
  • Being nice is easy because it involves polite words and actions that are already familiar to you. But being kind takes a little more effort because it involves empathy and boundaries and compassion and understanding.

Today in my adult relationships, I sometimes find myself slipping back into my people-pleasing behavior. Conflicts occur, and my first instinct is to “play nice” and give the other person whatever I believe is needed to calm them down. But the truth is that behavior is not serving anyone. It doesn’t help me express myself, and it doesn’t demonstrate my boundaries. I’m starting to realize that being nice is not serving me well anymore. I need to consciously practice kindness–kindness to others, but more importantly, kindness to the self I really aspire to be.

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