You probably know me. I’m a nice person. I’m the responsible one who does what needs done, who generally puts others’ needs first, who usually defers my emotional responses until a convenient time. I was raised believing love is patient, love is kind, love doesn’t keep score, and all you need is love.
That made me an easy target. I was drawn to the men who needed me — often angsty intellectuals who I thought were deep. I found it easy to pick up the lost socks of their daily lives because they obviously were focused on less superficial things. I could handle the bills, do the cleaning, and in fact, earn almost all the income — love didn’t keep score, and being patient and kind was a trademark of love. Of course a relationship took work. I accepted that I was the one doing all the work — emotional and physical — without question.
I defined myself by how I could serve. My upbringing and my church encouraged that: Servant Leadership was a buzzword that I heard in weekly church services, and the professional culture surrounding my day gig, education, reinforced it even more. “Whatever It Takes” was the mantra for my life. It took years for me to see that I was a helpfulness-junkie and even longer to begin to change it. I was the accommodating committee member who took on the extra responsibility, the friend who almost always said of course I have time for whatever you need.
When I finally left my two-decade marriage, I was shocked that all my friends and family were happy. Relieved. They were surprised that I finally realized I could walk away. They knew I was the nice girl.
The first lesson that I should have learned earlier was this: Nice girls — and nice boys, too — need to keep score, to yell “No” and “I’m done.” We need to know that any relationship we lose because we refuse to do the lion’s share of work, emotional or physical, is a relationship we’re better off losing. I’ve always been able to champion causes or people I cared about, but I rarely advocated for myself. I had a hard time telling anyone what I needed or wanted because I didn’t know. It was (and still is, usually) nearly unthinkable to inconvenience anyone else, even when I have missed sleep or emptied my pocket fulfilling their needs.
Lennon and McCartney were wrong. Love isn’t all you need, regardless how sincerely they sing it. It may be wrong to keep score of every action every day, but a regular check in to make sure that no one is freeloading in the relationship is essential, especially if one person is prone to enabling.
Today I was talking to an acquaintance, a woman slightly older than myself who had spent a great deal of time and energy arranging an event for a group I’m part of. There had been some complications with the event, and she tenaciously fought to make the event turn out well. It was wonderful, and as I thanked her, she said, “Well, I’m a nice girl, and I didn’t want to let anyone down. That was my fear, you know.”
I know. And in my friend’s situation, being tenaciously nice worked to my group’s advantage. If I had been in her place, I would have done exactly what she did. But that was for a weekend, not for a lifetime. Lesson one that I finally learned — and sometimes have to relearn — is that it is fine, even better than fine, to be not-nice. Now, if people sing “All you need is love” as they expect me to put their dirty socks in the hamper, I do my best to turn my inner channel from The Beatles to Nancy Sinatra. If my niceness is being taken advantage of, “These Boots are Made for Walking” is my new theme song.