Life Lessons: On Being (Too) Nice

April 15, 2009

It’s one of the most well-known stereotypes of Canadians: we’re polite. We apologize. We’re doormats. What can I say? There is, to some extent, a ring of truth to the stereotype.

At aikido last night, sensei was telling me about the issues that the older students had when they first began practicing. He referred to one student affectionately as being rather like a black hole when she first began; another one needs to learn to be less aggressive and more relaxed; someone else has had to deal with their length and extension. I thought I could guess pretty well what my biggest weakness is, but I really wanted to hear it from a teacher’s perspective and to get his insight, so I asked him. My biggest issue? I’m too timid, too tentative. “I think you’re afraid you’ll hurt someone,” one of the other students offered when sensei asked the other students for their input.

How true it is. While the concept seems ridiculous (how could anyone as little as me possibly inflict damage on someone else?) I think that my biggest barrier is simply learning to let go and realize that people can take it. Considering that it doesn’t matter your age, size, or gender when it comes to aikido, it is surprising just how much damage I could potentially do to a person. Just by pressing the right spot on a person’s hand, I can bring someone to the floor (theoretically. Sometimes I have to keep on pressing a couple dozen times until I hit exactly the right spot. Eventually it works!). With just the right momentum and rhythm, I can use another person’s force to pull them off balance. If you know your technique, you suddenly become a very powerful and dangerous person.

I’m not so afraid to be aggressive with the men that I practice with, maybe because they’re all about twice as big as me. But the women are nearer to my size and although I know that they have been practicing much longer than I have and clearly they know exactly what to do even if I did manage to hurt them, I’m still afraid to be too aggressive.

I don’t think that this is a healthy attitude to take in any situation in life, especially because it drives me crazy when other people treat me this way. I get impatient because I know that I’m stronger than that. I want to learn and make mistakes and the only way that I can do that is if they come at me full force.

Canadians are known for being passive, but does this sometimes hinder progress? How many people stay in relationships long after the love has died out just because they’re unwilling to hurt the other person by admitting the truth? How often do we tell white lies to protect people so that they won’t get upset- about anything?

Growing up, I remember that it was always the kids who had been “tied to their mother’s apron strings”, so to speak, that had the worst allergies. They got sick a lot because their immune systems weren’t strong; they hadn’t been built up because there was too much bubbled padding around them. They hadn’t been exposed to viruses or bacteria. Their parent’s fear for their safety hindered the children later in life so that they wound up getting sick more oftenΒ than they would have if they’d been exposed to a little mud.

If we can get over our fear of hurting other people, we will both come out stronger for it. Both parties can learn from the mistakes once they’ve been addressed. We can only correct the issues once we’re made aware of them, and sometimes the only way that we can be made aware of them is to make the mistakes. It’s healthy to strike out with confidence and to know that people are strong and resilient. We can handle the blows. It helps us to grow.

Do you have difficulties with this? Are you sometimes a little bit too nice, too gentle? Can you dish out constructive criticism? And can you handle that criticism? I firmly believe that we really need constructive criticism from others to make progress, because sometimes we can’t see the issues ourselves. We can all benefit from a little introspection.


  1. You got it. There’s no need worrying about applying techniques to your training partners. Especialy when they are more experienced. I remember one French aikido instructor saying that there are no men or women on the mat, only aikidokas. Keep it in mind πŸ™‚

  2. I can sympathize with you a lot here. Growing up in the South, women are taught to be polite and passive, to step aside and let the men handle things, and often not taught to argue on their own behalf. Fortunately for me, the part about being polite stuck, but the rest didn’t quite so much.

    I do, from time to time, have a problem standing up for myself and asserting myself. But I know it’s far better to do so than to stunt my own personal growth by giving in.

    It’s amazing what we can take from our workouts and apply to our daily life, isn’t it?

  3. I’m totally the same way in my karate class. My Sensei finally told me that it’s an insult to not throw a real punch. It’s like saying I don’t think the other person is good enough to deal with it. That helped me somewhat. But I still always apologize. Still working on that one!

  4. I’m often accused (in a kindhearted way) by my writing friends of being “too nice” in our critique group, but I’d much rather take the time to lead someone to his/her own solutions than to try to cram my ideas down their throats. Thus, my critiques are often peppered with “did you consider” or “perhaps you could have” or “just a thought”. It gives them something to ponder. To me, that’s more helpful than “you should have” or worse, “you must”. But that’s in fiction writing, which isn’t a scientific endeavor. πŸ™‚

    Translated to fitness world, though, I feel much the same. Constructive advice and/or suggestions are always useful, but there’s a level of appropriateness that should (perhaps?maybe?possibly?*G*) be observed. Felling someone on the mat, when they know the possibility exists, is appropriate. Grabbing them in the hallway and tossing them over your shoulder is a different animal. πŸ™‚

    There. That’s at least $.02-1/2 worth. Thanks for the post; you’ve given me a great analogy to use in my writing group. LOL

  5. Oooh yes – a lot of times I’m FAR too nice and then I end up getting hurt 😦

  6. Theres not enough truth tellers in the world, my friend that Im sharing a house with at the momment is just starting out with this kind of thinking. He finds now that when he does have an issue with me about what Im doing or not doing he just punishing himself by not telling me for the sake of my feelings. Prefering to go with the long term pain of not telling me his problem and getting agitated everytime it happens, rather than short term pain of telling me and we talk about it and sort it out.

    However when were true to others and ourselves we do tend to lose alot of the people we used to call friends, some people prefer to live in the comfort of their own illusions and attack out when you try to help yourself.

    But the end result is you have wonderful and honest relationships with great people with no pain.

  7. I want to take aikido.

    The only thing I can tell you is that after having a stalker (who carried a knife and was a black belt), I’m more than ready to inflict damage on someone (my fight or flight response is pretty much set to fight). And it’s not something I’m comfortable or happy with (which is why I want to take martial arts, so that I can re-learn that it’s not about violence or power, but control).

    I’m jealous that you are able to hold back.

  8. Doormat???? Who, ME????!! (Fer sure!!)

    I have a feeling, Sagan, that if you were faced with a situation where you actually had to use your aikido to defend yourself, you would not be holding back one little tiny bit! (and you would surprise the hell out of any dumbass who tried to mug you!)

    We Canadians can stand up for ourselves if we absolutely have to. Really. We’re just very polite about it!

  9. i want to take aikido now!

    oh how odd the person above said that! I do though! This was amazing to read. How funny, my fiance is canadian but grew up in the south. He is very passive but also is used to southern traditional women.

    I am very much not passive and not traditional southern! I am learning when to be passive , appropriately, sometimes it helps the situation for all. But, I do feel the fighter in me sometimes gets the best.

  10. I had a dream I met you last night- with a bunch of other bloggers- we all went out to dinner. nothing strange- it was really “real” -i thought that was interesting!

  11. OH yes. Growing up with 2 sisters, we were all (and still are!) incredibly sensitive. I can’t dish out constructive criticism for fear of hurting others, and I also am not good at taking it.

    I think I’ve gotten better with age, but I still wish I could be the “tell it like it is” girl sometimes. But then I realize, I’m somewhat scared and intimidated of people like that. πŸ™‚

  12. Ah yes, the Minnesota nice thing is something I have a hard time overcoming. I just don’t want to piss people off I guess…

  13. Karel- that’s so true!

    Gena- I love how much we can learn about ourselves through exercising… it all applies to “real life”.

    Charlotte- ha, that’s a good way to deal with it, especially if you’ve got a problem with being too nice πŸ˜‰

    Cammy- for sure, there’s a time and place for everything.

    VeggieGirl- I hadn’t really thought much about it backfiring in that way! But you’re right. Sometimes we wind up getting hurt just from trying not to hurt other people.

    Jack- it’s tough when we live in a place that doesn’t always appreciate true honesty. And it makes it difficult to figure out what’s worth telling the truth about!

    Tricia- my holding back is also wound up with my control issues, though, I think, so that’s problematic. But aikido would probably be really helpful for you. I’m so sorry to hear you had a stalker… that’s really scary.

    Bag Lady- I’ve been attacked by people before and responded through fight rather than flight (my father wasn’t pleased about that, heh)- I guess you’re right that we still know how to stand up for ourselves when it’s really necessary!

    bhealthier- aikido is wonderful. Dinner sounds great! hehe.

    Holly & Tony- there’s such a fine line between being diplomatic and being far too nice, isn’t there?

  14. I can definitely dish it out, but sometimes find it hard to accept. If I can dish it out, I have to be able to take it as well right?
    I have however learned not to dwell because there are far more important issues at hand. There are 5 billion ( plus) people in this world and they all have opinions, it would be insane to go against this “tide” So I say,”move on!”
    Like you, I am a very kind hearted person but I do voice my opinions and try to do it in a respectful manner. on the other hand hospitality can get you almost everything LOL! at least for me!!!

  15. I can completely agree with you here.

    I am one of those people that will tell anyone how it is ( and a lot of people don’t like me for it, but I call it their loss.) I know very few people who can do the same.

    My friends ask me all the time how my bf and I have such a great relationship. ( My bf is just like me) and I’m like, well… when he pisses me off I say, Honey, you piss me off when you do (insert dumb activity) because (insert dumb reason), can you please stop. and he says “oh sorry, I didn’t realize that was bothering you, no problem.” and he does the same for me. I do the same with everyone else as well and my friends always know they can come to me for advice and get the truth.

    I think the world would spin a lot smoother and people would have much better, REAL relationships if they were more out spoken and less timid.

    On the other hand, like I said, a lot of people dislike this trait, so I guess it goes both ways.

  16. I’m more likely to be too mean. I often take things personally, and it can make me snappy. I like to be told the truth, and while I don’t tend to offer unsolicited advice, I generally won’t lie if asked. I’m getting better at judging the circumstances, and be a little softer spoken, but I’ve definitely got a nasty temper that I must mind. I’ve learned some things over the years, one that it’s much easier to get what you want if you smile sweetly and ask politely, even though you might feel like telling person off and screaming demands. Another is that it is better to tell a person if something they do annoys you, instead of bottling it up and then exploding about it some day. Another balancing act, just like eating with food/body issues.

  17. I’m not sure if it’s by the region where you live or were brought up. As a New Yorker, we’re always listed as the most aggressive, but I think I’m able to control myself as a calm assertive person. I do think that age and wisdom opens your eyes to situations where you’ll begin to understand the balance of too hard or too soft.

  18. this is a great post, it makes you think about it :)See, I love that Canadians are nice, but I don’t think they are too nice. I think Canadians are assertive and quietly strong, without being overbearing or abrassive. You are polite and caring people, not pushovers… just laid back and confident. I really love Canadian idiosincrasy and it is one of the reasons I feel blessed to be able to live in this wonderful country!

  19. Nazarina- yes, there’s certainly lots of opinions out there. It can be helpful to hear lots of them!

    Rayna- ooh I’m coveting that trait of yours. You know you’ve got a really solid functional relationship when you’re able to properly communicate like that with each other and tell it like it is.

    Julie- it definitely is a total balancing act. And bottling things up is dangerous.

    Tom- interesting point; I’d add experience to the age and wisdom!

    Marta- aww that’s sweet. I like your way of thinking πŸ˜‰

  20. First of all I love how friendly, polite, and nice Canadians are!

    Second, I appologised to the guy who I laid out with an elbow strike after he tried to knock me over! I bent over his barely moving bully self and said I was sorry, and I meant it too.

  21. I want to try karate. I just wrote a post about kickbox but never did karate. My girlfriend and I one a free month at a fitness convention and never used it. How awful. I am glad you are nice, Canadian or not. I live on the east coast and not everyone is as nice here I can tell ya. Meeting someone extremely nice is refreshing.

  22. Finding the balance can be tough πŸ™‚ A society that is nice is generally good, but constructive criticism is also important yet most people view it as conflict. It’s so difficult to get people to debate with me! But I do get your point of view when it comes to martial arts – I would be worried too.


    I appreciate someone who is willing to go out of their way to make another person’s life a little easier. English people tend to be like that which has definitely taught me that it’s really self appreciating to do things for others. I’ve said it before, but my motto is, “do onto others what you would have want done to you”

    Have a great day!

  24. I have definitely been too nice and too sensitive. Sometimes I expect the same considerate treatment from everyone around me and the truth is, unfortunately, not everyone is that nice, or even nice at all. It’s sad really. But then again, I think it would help to develop a tougher skin sometimes. It would help avoid hurt feelings.

    Good post πŸ™‚

  25. Dr. J- hehe. We all apologize so much in aikido; last night sensei told one student that she shouldn’t be apologizing when she got me in a really strong wrist hold: “don’t apologize because you’re performing the technique correctly!”

    Kristisummer- that’s so sweet πŸ™‚ Kickboxing is loads of fun!

    Spring Girl- SUCH a fine line.

    Rupal- thanks! That’s a good motto to have.

    Danielle- yep, gotta toughen up our skin to survive in this world πŸ˜‰

  26. I had no idea you were Canadian. I mean I am sure I’ve read it before, but never got it. Duh!

    Anyway, I think sometimes I am too nice to people who really I do not need to be nice to – people who are mean to me, or annoy me. And sometimes I take out things on people who I love and do not deserve it – Mark, my mom. Ya know?

  27. I can understand why being “too nice” can be a hindrance. I’ve been in self-defense classes where I was too worried about hitting someone to really be effective. But in other situations, I’ve scolded (in a nice way) my friends who I thought were being “too nice.” So I guess it’s all subjective. πŸ™‚

  28. I think it’s a lot healthier place to come from to have to learn how to be less “nice” in certain circumstances, than to be an overly aggressive person who doesn’t have any empathy or consideration for others. That’s much harder to learn.

    (And personally, I think Canadians rock because they’re more sensitive to others’ needs than we Americans tend to be).

  29. Great post! In addition to being too nice, I am also guilty of being a YES -girl! (i.e. never saying no and spreading myself so thin to make everyone happy). I’m working on it and I think I’m already improving. It definitely takes a concious effort.

    I am so passive aggressive, too. but, I agree with Crabby. I’d rather be this way than a total b*tch!

    We nice people have to stick together πŸ˜‰

  30. I used to worry too much about what other people think. I’ve come to realize no matter what you do, you will get criticism so you might as well do what YOU think is right.

  31. Absolutely! I smiled when reading this post because it sounds a lot like me!

  32. I’m definitely not known for being too nice, although I do struggle giving people true honest feedback sometimes. It is really difficult when you want to keep people happy but also want to help them. Thank you for your introspection. Makes me want to think about it some more…

  33. Hangry Pants- it’s always our loved ones who get the brunt of it, isn’t it?

    Zandria- it certainly is!

    Crabby- this is true… it’s probably much easier to work on being “less nice” than to reduce aggression.

    Shannon- ahaha. Learning to say “no” is a good thing!

    James- agreed, but it can still be useful to have other peoples’ input.

    Natalia- your avatar totally represents your niceness!

    Juliet- all about the balance, right?

  34. wow, so insightful! i’d say i’m passive, i can totally see situations in my past where that’s been a hindrance. but acknowledgement or realization of this will hopefully take steps in the right direction!

  35. was this on tuesday? I don’t remember this, heh!

  36. aikido is one of the best self discipline we can engage, this is great for us to successfully defeat bad guys who attempt to destruct us.

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