I have been told how nice I am my entire life. This is usually a great compliment to me. I love it when people tell me I'm nice, because I am nice. In fact, throughout my life I've tried my best to be kind, caring, empathetic and helpful to just about everyone I meet. These qualities are the bedrock on which much of my identity is based.
I have learned over the years though that "nice" is good, but "too nice" is not. "Too nice" is the person who doesn't like to ruffle feathers. "Too nice" is the person who is afraid to set boundaries. "Too nice" is the person who is afraid to say no. "Too nice" is the person who I used to be (and still am, sometimes).
When I reflect back on my life and my various relationships -- with men, with friends, with family, and even with some co-workers, I can now see how being "too nice" was my way of staying safe, of avoiding conflict, and of remaining emotionally intact.
When I hit 50, I escalated a journey I'd been on for a few years, where I challenged myself to be more honest in all areas of my life -- honest about my wants, and my hopes and also about my fears. When I hit 50, I began the process of examining my desire, my need, and in some contexts, my compulsion to be "too nice." When I hit 50, I began to realize that being "too nice" gave me a high, it was my addiction, my chosen drug of avoidance.
So I set about to figure out my seeming need to constantly appease. I assumed that at the core of my issue was a need to be accepted and secure; needs that sat right alongside a fear of being seen and summarily rejected, so I worked hard on becoming more courageous and bold.
And yet, while I may have been overly accommodating on the outside, I never lost touch with who I really was on the inside. I maintained my sense of identity, my own reality, my own self. I retained me. So while some people may have seen me as passive, I knew the truth -- it wasn't that I was passive; I was just so busy protecting myself emotionally, that I wasn't always present enough to share who I really was.
And that's when it hit me. I wasn't being "too nice" so I could be accepted, I was being "too nice" to ensure the survival of my identity. And I wasn't being "too nice" to avoid being rejected, I was being "too nice" to avoid being seen.
And then those realizations lead me to this one: I don't have a fear of abandonment, I have a fear of engulfment.
I am afraid of being overwhelmed, of disappearing in the process of connection. I am afraid of losing my identity and uniqueness. I am afraid of losing my perspectives and reality in the process of merging my life with others. I am afraid of losing my autonomy. I am afraid of losing me.
There are many reasons why I've struggled with a fear of engulfment. And most of those reasons are rooted in a childhood wrought with emotional upheaval and a parent who didn't understand where one person began and another ended. I learned early in life to defend my boundaries fiercely but quietly, so as not to arouse suspicion. I learned early in life to create a safe place where my true self could exist, without any external threats.
This coping mechanism served me well in my childhood, where asserting any aspect of my true and unique self was seen as an attack and a sign of betrayal. When I brought these survival techniques into my adulthood though, they were no longer effective, because in order to develop a truly intimate relationship with another human being, one needs to actually show up to the party.
One of my favorite Cheryl Strayed quotes is: "Alone had always felt like an actual place to me, as if it weren't a state of being, but rather a room where I could retreat to be who I really was."
I have very strong connections with others, and I deeply value longevity, loyalty and love. I am fiercely committed to those in my inner circle -- dear friends, family members, and in particular, my son -- those people who readily accept me and give me a wide berth. But for me being alone has always felt like a refuge, a place where I could retreat and be who I really was. I've spent most of my life working hard to protect this refuge of mine, of ensuring its walls remain intact.
It takes a lot of effort to say yes, when we really mean no, to say we're okay, when we're really not, to always focus on the other person's needs, when we have a boatload of needs of our own. So after a season of being "too nice," there was always that inevitable point where I exhausted myself, where I couldn't go on another minute without rest. And since I did not understand the nature of my fears, and I could not see a way out of my self-imposed bondage, the only option I could ever envision was retreating, so that I could go to my alone room, and be who I really was.
But then I turned 50 and decided it was time to learn how to be who I really am without the option of escape. It's still difficult for me at times to remain completely present with others while expressing how I feel and what I believe, without the security of knowing I can hide, but I'm doing it, and every day it gets little easier.
The key is to tell myself what I used to tell my son when he was young: "Use your words." If I am feeling overwhelmed, if I am feeling engulfed, I don't have to hide. I can say how I'm feeling and ask for what I need. I can use my words. I have no control over what happens next -- hurt feelings, disappointment, anger, or understanding, acceptance and love -- and that's perfectly alright because I only need to have control over myself.
My greatest challenge is remembering every day to rest in the knowledge that as an adult, it is no longer possible for me to be engulfed, as I was when I was a child. I am a powerful presence even when I'm not trying to be, and I no longer need to retreat to be who I really am. In fact, none of us do.