Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Discouragement and 'Mr. Nice Guy'

His sudden death, seemingly in the prime of life, had come as a shock to his wife and family. One phrase was used repeatedly to describe him. "He was a nice guy," everyone said.

As someone who had informally counseled with him, I knew this to be true. But I knew something else about him: He was deeply discouraged and unhappy.

"I'm everybody's doormat," he told me. "It's not that I mind doing things for others. It's that people expect me to drop everything and do for them whenever they need help. But I never seem able to muster the courage to ask anyone else to help me."

He revealed that he was so burdened by the obligation he felt to please others that he couldn't imagine ever striving to achieve the goals he had for his life, even those he felt certain God had planted in his mind.

Mr. Nice Guy, a deeply committed Christian, would then hang his head in shame for these supposedly "unchristian" thoughts. He thought that he was called to be a nice guy/pleaser/doormat.

Of course, we should all be interruptible, open to opportunities to do loving deeds for others. Jesus says that whenever we care for those who need care, we're really serving Him. Such service can be a way of fulfilling Jesus' call to "love others as we love ourselves."

But it's been my experience that people don't fall into the doormat way of living, which is really a life style of slavery, out of gratitude for the love God offers through Jesus, the proper motive for Christian service. Jesus' love doesn't enslave us, but liberates us to become our best selves.

Pleasers though, seem to be motivated by one or more of several different desires:
  • Keeping others from becoming angry with them
  • Placating those already angry with them
  • Avoiding confrontation, creating an atmosphere of false placidness in which differences are swept under the rug, the pleaser accepting servitude without a whimper
  • Getting people to like them
  • Getting people to depend on them
  • Subtly soliciting and receiving compliments
  • Making others feel beholden to them, even if the pleaser's desire to be perceived as being competent may prevent them from ever "calling in their chits"
  • Feeling powerful, capable of doing for others what they won't or can't do for themselves
  • Feeling competent
Notice that there isn't a benevolent or loving impulse in the entire list! That's because much of what motivates people to be inveterate pleasers is the elevation of the self. Often, nice-guyism is at least partially motivated not by love for others, but by the desire to be indispensable. (I know because I've wrestled with being my own version of Mr. Nice Guy!)

"If I can be nice enough to everyone," the pleaser subconsciously thinks, "they'll all like me, they'll do what I want them to do, and my life will be easier."

Behind all the nice person's efforts to please everyone is self-loathing. Inside, there's a quaking child with a gaping hole that the pleaser tries to fill with the trophies of others' appreciation and compliments. But such self-aggrandizing approaches to life simply don't work!

In the next installment of this series on discouragement, I'll talk about what I'm starting to learn does work or can work, if we let it.


"ME" Liz Strauss said...

I've had a continuing conversation with myself over Shel Silverstein's book, "The Giving Tree," for about 20 years. At what point does the tree become a victim. This becomes a bigger and bigger question in my mind as our culture becomes so "victim-friendly." Jesus was not a victim.

The only conclusion I can come to is that the answer is in the mind of the (in this case) the tree.

It is not what you do, but your reasons for doing it. A wise woman I know often says, "There is no act of mercy that does not go both ways." I recognized that as true the first time she said it to me.

I think I've just discovered what tonight's post is going to be about. Thank you Mark. :)

Mark Daniels said...

I think that you're absolutely right that the central issue is motive.

None of us ever acts out of purely altruistic or loving motives, to be sure. And it's the rare individual who is so given over to evil that they act solely out of base and sinful motives.

But there is a general direction in our motives and our actions. It's to that that we need to attend and about which, I think, must be prayerful.

I'm excited to read what you'll be posting!


Natalie Jost said...

I'm reading "No More Christian Nice Guy" now and it covers this pretty well. Jesus was not a 'nice guy' by today's standards. Way too many Christians think they have to be doormats in order to be seen as Christians, when what they're really doing is showing unbelievers that being a Christian is weak.

Great post!

Trista said...

Having read many philosophers, I truly believe that no act is completely selfless. That said, this story is heart-breaking.

"The Giving Tree" is a perfect example for this situation.

stc said...

A psychologist friend of mine makes a distinction between a "strong" ego and a "weak" ego.

I appreciate the terminology because we too often confuse a solid sense of self-worth with pride (which, of course, is unacceptable to a Christian).

Jesus was "lowly in heart" (Mt. 11:29) but he clearly had a strong ego. He could withstand criticism, and he could withstand the demands of others when they were a distraction from his God-given priorities.

Mark 1:35ff. is a case in point. Everyone is searching for Jesus; but he has retreated to a lonely place to pray. And then he announces that he's moving on to the next town. Those who are searching for him are out of luck, at least for the time being. Someone with a weak ego couldn't have made that choice.

But a strong ego is not equivalent to pride. It's more of an inner compass, oriented to carrying out God's will. This necessarily involves prioritizing our activities: choosing the best over the good, and the important over the urgent.