Are there any words in the universe that can make me angrier than the simple, two-word command: “Be nice”?
The answer to this is no, there are not. Which you’ve probably guessed already, considering I’m sitting here typing a blog post about the whole thing. Or, perhaps I’m running out of blog post ideas. This could be either a good thing or a bad thing, depending upon your perspective … but I digress.
The refrain “be nice” echoes throughout my childhood memories like a bad commercial jingle. You know the ones I mean: the ones with those songs you hate so much that it makes you physically ill to hear them, and yet, they are so catchy that they burrow into your brain and run on an endless loop until you wish you could go mad just so it would stop. Any time I expressed an opinion that differed from those held by my parents, any time I expressed an emotion my mother didn’t like (anger, sorrow, jealousy, etc.), any time I was even remotely upset, “Be Nice!” was the command I heard. As an adult, I even do it to myself! Instead of letting myself feel what I feel, I catch myself saying, “Oh come on now … be nice.” Instead of acknowledging my feelings and their value, thereby acknowledging my existence and value as a person, I hear those hated words in my head: “Be Nice!”
Each time it happens, I want to scream. Or bang my head against the nearest solid object — not for long, just until the annoyingly smug voice inside it shuts the heck up and stops bothering me. I don’t want to “be nice” — not when this command is a subtle code for doing what someone else expects of me, or, even worse, when it means surrendering the ability to have any of my own emotions. I’ve been there. I lived in that place for a long, long time, and it’s not pretty.
Perhaps I am overreacting. Scratch that. I’m sure I’m overreacting. But, when you’ve lived with something for your entire life, when that something burrows into you and eats away little parts of your soul until you end up middle aged and wondering if you even really exist … Well, overreacting happens. It is impossible for me to describe the pure, unadulterated hatred I hold in my heart for the command to “be nice”. Let’s put it this way: If “be nice” was on fire, I wouldn’t cross the street to spit on it in order to put out the flames. This is how much I despise these two words.
Don’t get me wrong. Being nice is not a bad thing. I like nice people. I strive to be a nice person in my every day life. I’m confident I don’t always succeed, because I am human. There are times when I feel angry or jealous or just icky. But, underneath all of that is a person who, usually, manages to have compassion and a somewhat positive outlook on life.
But here’s the thing about those words. “Be nice” was a loaded gun pointed directly at the core of my being. As a kid, those words told me I wasn’t as important as the people around me. They taught me I wasn’t to have an opinion or even feelings that made other people uncomfortable. They taught me I was flawed, and could never possibly live up to the expectations of those around me. No matter how hard I tried, “be nice” was always there to remind me I had failed. They taught me I didn’t matter. I was to be seen and never heard, unless spoken to first. Each time my mother told me “be nice”, she took away a little part of the unique mixture of personality and emotions and thoughts and experiences that should have taught me who I was and where I existed in this world. Instead, I learned to parrot whatever my parents told me and to stuff down any errant feelings. I was the perfect automaton, although both of my parents — to this day — comment frequently about how stubborn and willful I was. It makes me laugh, mostly because I would cry, otherwise, and they would never understand why. Oh, if they only knew!
“Be nice” still haunts me. To this day, my mother frequently will tell me “be nice” in response to various things we discuss in our phone conversations. And you know what? It still cuts me to the quick to hear it. In that moment, I am back there — a lonely, confused child with no self-esteem — and it hurts. But the difference is that, now, I can remind myself I am not that little kid any longer. I can remind myself that “be” and “nice” are just words. And I can end the call and hang up the phone. Sometimes, walking away is the most healing thing we can do for ourselves.
The other day, my daughter came to me with a complaint about something. I can’t even remember what it was now, but it was important to her. She’s nine. The world is full of drama. As she was telling me all about who did what and how and how it made her feel so angry, I caught myself starting to say, “Be nice.”
Ugh! Can you believe it? As much as I despise those words, here I was, about to unleash them on my beautiful, amazing daughter. I guess it’s pretty hard to overcome a past that’s deeply and painfully ingrained. Luckily, I caught myself in time. Instead of the hated words, I gave her a hug and told her I was sorry she was sad and hurting. As I held her in my arms, that lonely little kid who still lives somewhere in the back of my psyche whispered, “Be nice or don’t. Be whatever you want to be. You’re perfect just the way you are.”