“The opposite of nice is not mean, the opposite of nice is authentic…A sense of isolation is another direct result of niceness. [People] might like you, or even love you, but they don’t really know you.” — Aziz Gazipura
About two years ago, the son of a coworker passed away suddenly and our entire office rallied together to attend the funeral. We drove up together and were greeted by the usual funeral sights- a large flower display, pictures of the man who passed (I’ll call him Rob), and crying groups of friends and family.
To begin the service, Rob’s Dad walked to the front of the room and opened with the following: “Rob was the type of guy who could walk into a room and make everyone love him…or he could make everyone hate him. It really depended on what type of mood he was in that day.” Everyone laughed, and stifled it quickly because of the occasion. Next, Rob’s friends came to the front of the room and reminisced about his personality: “Rob always loved music. Really, like, all music. The Rolling Stones, the Backstreet Boys, Tori Amos…And he had this weird, duck-like walk…” Rob’s friends each began to imitate his walk and bizarre quirks until they concluded that you really just “had to be there.” They recalled his generosity in always sharing food he had stolen from his restaurant job (Rob’s boss, who was also present, raised an eyebrow) with friends. Every statement, including a totally sincere one by his younger brother who mentioned Rob delivered porn to him and was the “best big brother ever,” left me laughing so hard I cried.
His mother concluded the ceremony by looking to each of us and saying, “Thank you for coming to celebrate the life of my perfectly imperfect son.” It was a fitting statement to conclude the most authentic and honest funeral I have ever been to. Though Rob was alternately (and accurately) described as a thief, a porn delivery boy, and an asshole, it was impossible not to love and feel connected to him. Though I had never met Rob, I felt like I knew him better than some people I had known for years.
The Honesty Experiment
I made a personal decision earlier this summer to be more honest and authentic, whatever the consequences. While I was never dishonest, I had the habit of agonizing over basic communication: breaking up a relationship, asking for help, admitting that I don’t want to go to a party in Brooklyn not because I have other plans but because it’s just ridiculously far. Though I recognized this behavior in myself for years, it wasn’t until I was taking antibiotics and feeling exhausted all the time that I realized how little energy I had and how much I was giving away.
While reading a book by psychologist Aziz Gazipura (quoted above), I was struck by his assertion that those who try to be nicest often feel the most isolated because they are always being nice rather than being authentic. Though I would say I get along well with people, I usually feel distant from them. There are only a handful of people that actually know me as I see myself- including my weird, dark sense of humor, internal fantasy world filled with caricatures of everyone I know, and strong opinions on my pretty much every topic. As I read the book and did the exercises in it, I could understand why: I was living in a straitjacket of hundreds of unconscious rules of things I could and couldn’t say, should or shouldn’t do in order to be nice and liked.
So, I decided to write down all of the rules I operate by in conversations, relationships, and work, and break the ones that seemed stupid. While writing down my rules, I became aware of contradictions like “I shouldn’t spend too much time in a conversation because I don’t want to take up too much of someone’s time/I shouldn’t end a conversation abruptly because it’s rude.” After writing down every rule I could think of, I was shocked at: 1. How many of the rules contradicted each other 2. How most were not based on any logic or real-life experience I could remember 3. How trying to follow all of them at once would create the effect of a split or socially schizophrenic personality, which must have confused people I interacted with. I remember a guy once telling me on a date, “It’s interesting, I usually get bored of people but I can’t quite figure you out.” Unfortunately, I couldn’t quite figure me out either. There were too many garbage ideas and beliefs that stopped me from being who I was and saying what I really thought.
Results So Far
Over the Summer, I had many chances to practice honest communication: to clear up social misunderstandings, to finally end an old relationship that I knew was not working, and to openly state that I didn’t want to pursue a romantic relationship with someone until my own life was in order. What amazed me was that even when telling someone something that he or she didn’t want to hear, the response was almost always, “Thank you for your honesty/thank you for your courage in saying that/I’m so relieved that you said that.” On rare occasions when the response was negative, I often felt a detached since of calm after speaking because I knew that I had done my best and that I was only responsible for my own feelings. I also found that after I stated whatever I needed to say, my relationship with that person improved in some way. Most often, it was that I felt much more comfortable and relaxed after enforcing my boundaries, which made it easier to connect with someone else. I also found that I could be more present in social situations because the different aspects of myself- beliefs, desires, body language, and verbal communication- no longer contradicted one another.
But the greatest lesson I got came from an in-person interaction. I had been struggling with a friendship in which I felt the other woman was domineering and constantly overstepping my boundaries. As I told a family friend, “I don’t know what to do. I can’t say nothing because I’m tired of being stepped on and bottling it up, but if I let it all out and blow up at her, she’ll blow up too and I don’t want to waste energy fighting.” Her response was, “You have a third option. Rather than saying nothing or blowing up, become like transparent glass. Say exactly what you have to say in a neutral way and if she gets angry, don’t engage with her. See what happens.” A few days later, a conflict arose between me and my friend and for once, I stated exactly what I thought, calmly and directly. She blew up and said, “Yeah, what do you want me to do about it?” I stated my opinion and then watched her. She was shaking and boiling with rage, but when she looked back at me, I just observed her with curiosity. She got up and stormed away saying, “I can’t stay in this toxic environment.” That was the last time we spoke, but it taught me a very useful lesson: the truth can be delivered with clarity and neutrality, which makes it incredibly powerful. Even if the other person reacts with anger, rage, denial, or another strong emotion, the emotion dissipates or implodes if you don’t engage with it.
I often think back to Rob’s funeral because it shattered my assumption that total honesty and being liked were mutually exclusive. In fact, I can’t think of any dark or incriminating statement that wouldn’t have made me like Rob more. As I become more authentic and honest in my own life, I’m discovering that the truth about who you are or what you want is never the problem in and of itself. The problem is always something else, like fears and unconscious assumptions from childhood, discomfort in the body while speaking the truth, and a lack of boundaries from one or both people leading to misplaced responsibility for feelings. Once those factors are overcome, the truth is generally felt as a huge relief. While I don’t think it ever becomes easy to say something uncomfortable, I hope I can make it a habit. I also hope that I can one day have a funeral as hilarious as Rob’s.