How to stop being "nice"

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William Jackson PsyD

Co-founder, Authentic Self 

I used to buy into the mantra, “go with the flow,” and often did what other people wanted to do in an attempt to be nice, to be accepted as part of the group or to make someone else feel better even if, when I was honest with myself, I would rather be doing something else...

When I decided I wanted to be a Buddhist monk, the zen master gave me the name “wisdom of virtue/boundaries.” In the vietnamese zen lineage students are given a name that identifies a significant character flaw to help them consistently train their mind and develop new character traits. In other words, the zen master was telling me I needed to learn how to assert my own wants and needs and stop being so accommodating to other people wants and desires.

As a monk you are supposed to be kind and generous, listen to people, be patient and wise, but most importantly you must have integrity. You don’t have money or possessions and you even give up your family-- but you keep your integrity. I was taught that integrity, over time, leads to wisdom and that wisdom over time leads to the alleviation of suffering. This is the core of the Buddhist practice. Unfortunately, that does not happen overnight. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t shave your head, put on a robe and then all the sudden you are a happy and peaceful holy person. I shaved my head, put on a robe and was confronted with all my demons. All the times throughout the day that I devalued my own opinion, allowed others to tell me what to do and take advantage of me, or tell me what I felt and who I was compounded into an overall frustration with life. It’s not like I didn’t have amazing support, I did, but even in a monastery you are dealing with other people, their virtues, and their flaws. More important to note, I was more comfortable playing the role of the victim than the leader.  So, for the better part of my first two years as a monk I was angry.

During those first two years I had to give up all my usual coping mechanisms that helped me deal with the anger and frustration of ignoring my needs. I gave up smoking, drinking, sex, burying myself in work, and blaming others. Most importantly, I started consciously trying to stop doing things I regretted and blaming others for my plights.

As a monastic you have to follow a certain set of personal boundaries called “sila.” Sila equates to “vows” and can also be translated as, “appropriate personal boundaries to encourage virtuous behavior of body and mind that lead toward enlightenment”’ as paraphrased from The Visuddhmagga (The Path of Purification) (Buddhaghosa, 2003). This book in particular is a key meditation text for any serious meditator in the Buddhist tradition and defines ‘virtue’ in a simple, yet elegant way, “acting in a way that you will not regret.” It goes further to say the first way to start cultivating virtue is to make appropriate personal boundaries. Ultimately, you are the only one who can determine which boundaries are appropriate, but the texts give you a headstart with a few key points: don’t kill people, don’t steal things, don’t try to have sex with people that are not interested, be honest, don’t get hammered, etc. Not difficult to buy into for most people. So I did. I practiced and it worked. I felt great about myself.  The Dalai Lama wrote in his book How to Practice: the way to a meaningful life, “enlightenment is when what you want to do and what is the most effective action for the wellbeing of yourself and others become the same thing.” I made this my personal goal in life. It was my mission, my new mantra.

So to summarize, virtue = acting in a way that you will not regret or acting in a way that makes you feel good about yourself. To act with virtue you have to make clear boundaries for your own behavior and how you treat yourself. You can probably think of someone who fits this description right now. They hold to a seemingly strict personal code, schedule, exercise routine, or values. They might be strange, but they have integrity. It wafts around them like a perfume and beams out  like sunshine. The virtue of integrity has an unmistakable quality. There is a deep need for human beings to maintain their integrity. When we are able to hold to it against all odds it brings a deep sense of satisfaction. To hold to our word, to hold to our values allows us to feel whole and complete, safe and content. It is the beginning and end of loving yourself, motivation, and all things worth pursuing. So much so that models of behavior change, philosophy, sales, parenting, sports psychology, law and potentially all domains of study in human experience are all built on this fundamental innate human principal.

But how do you identify these values, these ultra personal boundaries that will lead to your integrity or personal “enlightenment?” Make time in your day, in your life, to do the deep work of looking inward. Stop being busy for a few moments and get to know your inner life. Develop a system for doing it. There is no other way. While you are developing your system, there are some ways to enhance what you are already doing. Think about what happens when someone asks you a difficult question that you want to answer honestly, but you know they want you to say something other than what you believe, or you get put in a difficult situation at work where your boss or colleague asks you to do something you do not feel comfortable doing. This internal struggle is your values running up against a competing value of someone else. What do you do when following such a request explicit or implicit would be sacrificing your values, cause you to go against your word, or, take even a second of the precious time, energy, and attention of this one life away from what is most important to you? I will give you a hint... it’s not being “nice.”