How Being Too Nice Can Be Dangerous for Women

Being a nice girl can set a woman up to be used and abused.

In this day and age you would think that women had learned enough about assertiveness, boundaries and codependency that they wouldn’t continue to be used and abused. So why is it that women continue to be victimized emotionally, physically and sexually by their male partners?

The main reason certainly lies in the fact that we still allow men to abuse women and get away with it. We’ve come a long way since the time when men believed that their wives and daughters were their property and they had the “right” to treat them any way they saw fit. But we still need to make abusive men accountable for their abusive behavior toward women and require them to get the treatment they need.

In spite of a great deal of public education, we are still dealing with a huge problem when it comes to the abuse of women. Statistics tell us that women continue to be abused and assaulted in record numbers. For example:

· The American Medical Association estimates that over 4 million women are victims of severe assaults by boyfriends and husbands each year.

· Around the world, at least 1 in every 3 women have been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in their lifetime.

· Nearly one-third of American women (31 percent) report being physically or sexually abused by a husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives.

· Three in four women (76 percent) who reported they had been raped and/or physically assaulted since age 18 said that a current or former husband, cohabitating partner, or date committed the assault.

· According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, 84 percent of victims of rape know the offender and of those, 66 percent were on a date when the rape took place. In fact, acquaintance rape accounts for the largest category of reported sexual crimes.

· Of the total sexual assaults reported in the US, 29 percent were perpetrated by a husband or lover, and 7.7 percent of American women have reported being raped by an intimate partner in their lifetime (

In addition to not enough being done to expose and treat abusive men, I propose that another reason women continue to be victimized is that they are too nice for their own good. This “niceness” attracts the wrong kind of people and sends the message that they are an easy target to be taken advantage of, controlled, and even emotionally, physically and sexually abused. It also prevents women from standing up for themselves and keeps them in relationships that are unhealthy or abusive.

It is my contention that the “Nice Girl” behavior sets women up to be misused and abused. This does not mean that women cause men to become abusive. Nor does it mean that women are responsible for their own victimization. What it does mean is that by being too nice, women send a strong message to those who already have a tendency to use and abuse. The message is: “My need to be seen as nice (or fair or sweet) is more powerful than my instinct to protect myself.”

The hard truth is that women cannot afford to be Nice Girls. It simply is not safe. Yes, we need to hold abusive men accountable and insist they get the help they need, but in the meantime, women continue to be abused. And there are too many people (women as well as men) who will take advantage of any weakness they find in another person. Being too nice is certainly viewed as a weakness. While not every Nice Girl gets raped or is emotionally, verbally or physically abused in her relationships, every Nice Girl is putting herself at risk by continuing to believe and act as she does.

Who Are Nice Girls?  

A Nice Girl is more concerned about what others think of her than she is about what she thinks of herself. She is more concerned about other people’s feelings than she is about her own. And she is more concerned about giving people the benefit of the doubt than she is about trusting her own perceptions.

According to the dictionary, synonyms for the word nice include: careful, pleasant, subtle, agreeable, likable, delightful, good, admirable, pleasing. These words describe a Nice Girl to a T. In fact, many Nice Girls have an investment in being perceived in all of these ways. But I also think of other words when I think of the word nice—namely: compliant, passive, wishy-washy and phony.

· Nice Girls are compliant. They do what they are told. They’ve learned that it is easier to just do what someone asks than to risk an argument.

· Nice Girls are passive.  They are often too afraid to stand up for themselves causing them to be easily manipulated and controlled. They are afraid to speak their mind either out of the fear of hurting someone else’s feelings or out of fear of being rejected or hurt themselves.

· Nice Girls van be wishy-washy. Because they are so afraid of confrontation they say one thing one time and another thing another time. They want to please everyone all the time and because of this they agree with one person and then turn right around and agree with someone else who has the exact opposite belief.

· Nice Girls can be phony. They are afraid of telling others how they really feel. They pretend a lot. They pretend they like someone when they don’t. They pretend they want to be somewhere when they don’t.

Just as it is not okay to blame rape victims for their victimization, it is not okay to blame Nice Girls for their Nice Girl behavior. It is not their fault. There are very good reasons why they behave as they do, including cultural conditioning, parental messages, and childhood experiences. Those women with the Nice Girl Syndrome are simply doing what they have been conditioned or taught to do.

Although there are several causes, generally speaking, there are four major origins for Nice Girl behavior.

· Biological predisposition.

· Cultural beliefs passed on to a child by the culture or society in which she is raised.

· Familial beliefs passed on to a child by her family, either directly or by witnessing parental and other family members’ behavior.

· Experiential beliefs a child forms as a result of her personal experiences, including childhood trauma.

Let’s address these causes one by one:

Biological: Women are hard-wired to be patient, compassionate, and to value connection over confrontation. In her landmark studies, Harvard University professor Carol Gilligan came to the conclusion that what has previously been considered “female passivity” is often the female’s need to seek a solution that is most inclusive of everyone’s needs—“as an act of care rather than the restraint of aggression.”

Another landmark UCLA study suggests that women actually have a larger behavioral repertoire than the “fight or flight” responses males are limited to. When the hormone oxytocin is released as part of the stress response in a woman, it buffers the fight or flight response and encourages her to tend to children and gather with other women for protection.

Societal: Girls are typically socialized to be polite, appropriate, pleasant and agreeable—all the personality traits that characterize Nice Girls. For centuries, being nice was often synonymous with being female. Girls were supposed to be “Sugar and spice and everything nice.” Unfortunately, in some families and cultures, the feminine ideal continues to be to please others, be selfless, nice, pretty, and to make oneself the object of someone else’s life.

In order to attain this culturally prescribed ideal a teenage girl must put away a great many parts of herself. She stops speaking out and expressing her feelings. Instead, she focuses on trying to please others, especially those of the opposite sex.

Familial: Our families pass down to us certain messages and beliefs. These include everything from the way people should treat one another to the role women play in a family. These messages and beliefs have a powerful influence on our thinking and behavior and help shape who you are today.

There are several common types of family situations that can set a woman up to a Nice Girl. These include:

· Having an abusive or tyrannical father or older brother

· Having a passive mother

· Being raised in a misogynistic family.

· Having parents who place too high a value on being fair, compassionate, and nice.

For example, the first false belief, that other people’s feelings and needs are more important than one’s own, usually comes from being taught this at home. This belief may have been modeled by a passive or co-dependent mother who sacrificed herself for her family or husband and never considered that she had needs of her own. A girl growing up with such a mother can easily receive the message that to be a good woman, a good wife or a good mother, she must put her own needs aside and focus solely on the needs of others.

Another way that a woman may have received this message is if she had a selfish or narcissistic parent who considered his or her needs to be all-important and who ignored the needs of his or her child. A child raised in this environment often comes to believe that her happiness lies in fulfilling the needs of others.

Experiential:  It is quite common for Nice Girls to have experienced physical, emotional or sexual abuse in their childhood or as adults. Abuse and neglect tend to create certain unhealthy attitudes and beliefs that set women up to be Nice Girls and often, victims.  For example, those who end up becoming a Nice Girl or taking on a victim stance tend to:

1.      Blame themselves when something goes wrong.

2.      Doubt themselves, including doubting their perceptions, their knowledge and their beliefs.

3.      Be overly trusting of others, even when someone has proven to be untrustworthy.

4.      Be naïve when it comes to the motives of others.

5.      Believe they should attempt to meet the needs of others (especially those of their

partner and children) no matter what the consequences or hardships to themselves and

that their own needs are not as important as those of others.

The Fear Factor

As we can see, fear is the predominant factor in creating a Nice Girl. Why are women so fearful? There is a multitude of reasons, many of which center around the mere fact that as females we are the “weaker” sex, at least physically. The truth is that most men are bigger and stronger than most women and for this very reason, women are often intimidated by men. We aren’t necessarily conscious of this on an everyday basis, but the fear is there, nevertheless. It is similar to how a small dog feels next to a large dog. The two dogs can coexist on a day-to-day basis and even play and romp with one another. But make no mistake about it, the smaller dog knows his limits. He knows that if the larger dog wanted to, he could overpower him.

The other factor, closely related to the size differential, is that men carry a built-in weapon they can use against women—their penis. Most men don’t think of their penis as a weapon, and most women don’t either. But nevertheless, an erect penis can be used to penetrate, harm and dominate a woman. Again, it isn’t that women consciously think of this on a day-to-day basis, but the inherent fear is there on an unconscious level.

These two physical factors influence a woman’s thinking and feeling on a subconscious basis. We know that our very safety is dependent on the goodwill of men. If we cross them, if we make them angry, we are risking being physically reprimanded. While most men do not use their physical advantage against women, the possibility and the threat is ever-present.

The other major reason for women’s inherent fear is our history of being dominated by men. Throughout human history physical force has been used to keep subordinate groups in their place by more dominant forces in society. Men have always been physically larger and stronger than most women, and most societies have been male dominated. Because of this, for centuries, women have been frequent victims of physical assault and intimidation by men and have, in response, been afraid of men.  Until recent times, few people viewed violence in the home as a problem. The common notion in the past and in many societies today such as India and Africa, a woman is not a full human being, but considered property, first of her father, then of her husband.

And the third reason girls and women are so afraid is the fact that we continue to be dominated and abused by men. Although much has been done to alleviate domestic violence and child sexual abuse, the fact is that these two crimes are still rampant in every culture in the world. Women are still being physically and emotionally abused by their husbands in record numbers and the rate of childhood sexual abuse is still climbing. Once a girl or woman has been abused, either emotionally, physically or sexually she is overwhelmed by fear and shame. In fact, for many women, their very life is characterized by the fear that they will once again be victimized. Although this would never be done on a conscious level, what better way to keep a female child down than to sexually molest her?

These fears are at the core of most, if not all, of the false beliefs that cause the Nice Girl Syndrome. Understanding these common fears will take away some of the shame many women feel because of their “passive” behavior. For example, many women are unable to leave abusive relationships, even though they know they should. But the reason they stay isn’t that they are weak or stupid or because they are masochists who want to be mistreated. It is because they are afraid. And they are afraid for all the reasons I have written about above.

If you are a woman who is often perplexed by your nice girl behavior, reminding yourself of these fears will help you to 1) understand yourself better, 2) not be so critical of yourself and hopefully 3) feel more motivated to change.

In Part II of this article, I will present the Ten False Beliefs That Set Women Up to Be Used and Abused and will offer some remedies to the Nice Girl Syndrome.

·  Please note: although this article is addressed to women, there is information in it that can apply to men as well.

·  The above information was adapted from my book, The Nice Girl Syndrome: Stop Being Manipulated and Abused—and Start Standing Up for Yourself published by John Wiley and Sons.