“When do I get to be bad?” wondered Beverly Engel as a little girl, when her mom told her to be good for the babysitter. “I have to be good at school; I have to be good at home; I have to be good for the babysitter. So when do I get to be bad?” Her question, simplistic and childish though it may be, rings true. She was onto something.
Engel, now a trauma and abuse recovery expert with more than 30 years of experience as a psychotherapist and about a year into her gig as the executive director for Domestic Violence Solutions (DVS) for Santa Barbara County, tackles the issue in her most recent book, The Nice Girl Syndrome: Stop Being Manipulated and Abused-and Start Standing Up for Yourself, her 20th book on the subject of abuse. Avoiding conflict, playing naive, putting other people’s needs first-not only are such behaviors rewarded in society, but they have biological underpinnings, as well, Engel points out; many such “nice girl” behaviors go hand in hand with motherhood. They are, in other words, a tough habit to break. But, she says in the book, if women really want to take care of themselves, they would do well to chuck their need for approval and their desire to be perceived as nice, and start standing up for themselves.
Citing grim statistics and case studies from her practice, Engel gives her readers a look at where being too nice can land them. Even for those terminally nice women who don’t wind up the victims of physical abuse, plenty become targets of emotional abuse-and are frequently too concerned with their abusive partners’ feelings to leave.
For some women, the investment in being nice-or in being seen as being nice-is so strong as to be dangerous, but nearly every woman has something to learn about the ways in which the insidious, culturally enforced desire to be perceived as nice can undermine her own best interests.
“Most women apologize too much; we don’t stand by our convictions,” Engel said. “We’ll hedge rather than come right out and say what we think. ‘I might not be right but :’ or ‘I’m not an expert on this, but:’ We discount our own knowledge and opinions.”
So, you may think, what’s the harm? I’m just trying to be, well, nice. According to Engel, “In this day and age, it’s not safe for women to be nice anymore; it sends the wrong message, particularly to men: ‘I can be manipulated, I can be used, I can be abused.’ I’m certainly never blaming a woman who’s been abused. But women who are nice tend to attract controlling, abusive people. Men used to be raised to want to protect women, but there’s not a sense of protecting women anymore. We have to be smart and savvy and know how to protect ourselves.”
The message is particularly relevant this month, as October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and in light of this year’s theme: “Domestic violence isn’t just other people’s problem.” It affects battered women, of course, but also their children: More and more, research is showing that children are as deeply affected as the person who is being abused. In addition to suffering from extremely low self-esteem, such children are far more likely to become bullies, juvenile delinquents, and gang members, and such effects appear ever earlier. DVS has a teen prevention program in high schools, but according to Engel, they’re finding that they need to start going into junior highs. The costs of domestic violence mount in other ways, too: Abusers are likely to act out violently outside the home, as well, and paying for treatment, incarceration, and rehabilitation for everyone involved costs society a lot of money.
Lest the anti-nice agenda rub you the wrong way, rest assured: Engel’s not advocating women become soulless monsters. She admits that, during the course of writing the book, the word “nice” became quite loaded for her; so she distinguishes between doormat-variety niceness and qualities like kindness, generosity, and thoughtfulness. “We can be all of those things without being ‘nice’-[nice] meaning being phony, compliant, and wishy-washy,” she explained. “There’s a difference between that and somebody who stands up for herself but does it in a kind way. So it’s not as fine a line as we would think. It’s really two distinct behaviors.”
Engel offers tools and exercises throughout her book to help women exorcise their inner nice girl and tap their stronger selves, emphasizing the importance of cultivating what she’s dubbed the “4 Power Cs:” conviction, confidence, competence, and courage. They’re qualities we all possess, but that we’ve likely been programmed to associate with masculinity, or been afraid to develop for fear of being called the “b-word.” We’d best get over that, Engel says. There’s no time like the present for giving up your nice girl act, and claiming your power.
Beverly Engel will discuss and sign her new book at a High Esteem Tea, a traditional afternoon tea which takes place this Sunday, October 5, at the Four Seasons Biltmore Resort, from 2-4 p.m. On Tuesday, October 14, at 6:30 p.m. at the Public Library’s Faulkner Gallery, Domestic Violence Solutions hosts a screening of Once Were Warriors, a film about domestic violence in the indigenous Maori community, followed by a panel discussion on the cultural reasons for domestic violence in the Latina/Latino community. For information on these and other events, call 963-4458 x17 or visit dvsolutions.org.