Updated: Jan 22
My dear ones-
All of us are trying to adult under the influence of our childhoods. Those childhoods determined how we think about the world and is often the lens through which we see. Growing up on a farm in the Midwest, our lives evolved around the land, the weather, church and school. As a girl, the message was “be seen, but not heard”. And most especially, “BE NICE”. Southern white girls grew up with a similar message but were also taught graciousness and manners come first. To speak softly and look pretty was another important standard as southern belles grew up. Their southern sugar we all recognize can get nauseating, though. I’m talking about that surface-ey, fake smile while sugar free-flows from the mouth situated on a made-up face surrounded with over-bleached hair. And then the viper comes out!
Out east, girls were raised differently. I so admire my friend Anita who grew up in New York City. She takes shit from no one, and it has taken me years to emulate that. Anita grew up taking the subway to schools where she had to be aware of all sorts of things—who was standing too close and who looked menacing. Anita learned how to keep herself safe in the face of many different ethnic backgrounds and customs.
She and I think a lot alike on most things, but our emotional responses are quite different. That’s because it took me nearly a lifetime to get over being nice (the doormat scenario comes to mind). Each of our family’s dynamics played a huge role in our emotional outlook, and that’s why we’re going to talk about being NOT NICE.
Don’t get me wrong, nice is okay. In fact, some would believe it to be a virtue—meaning we don’t hurt people, we put others first, we always do the right thing, we try to make others happy, and we certainly don’t say mean or critical things about one-another. Sound like anyone you know? (Sometimes this is done under the guise of religion. But we all know that has gone out the window during the current political times when being a Christian is often (not always) about following the pack instead of being Christ-like.) There are even cliches about Minnesota-nice or Iowa-nice. Living here in the Valley of the Sun, I love meeting people from the Midwest because they’re friendlier, nicer, easier to get to know.
But nice is different from compassion, kindness, or even love—those are virtues. Being nice all the time is NOT healthy. Why? Because being nice is based on fear, not virtue. Let me explain. Women (and yes, some men) are driven to be nice by a fear of not pleasing others and then landing on someone’s bad-side. When we’re very young, of course we try to do things to please our parents and other adults. (Unfortunately, schools are driven by this modus operandi instead of encouraging children and adolescents to broaden their horizons.) As we grow and mature, we grow out of the people-pleasing mode unless we’re caught up in a religious or intimate trap that impedes our emotional growth.
When our growth is held captive, we become anxious, frustrated, angry, and guilty. Trust me on this, I’ve been that person. In the past, I’ve had great difficulty standing up for myself or asking others for what I needed (that one is still hard for me, to be honest). I remember I had so much trouble saying no to someone, I worried about what other people thought of me (glad I got over that one!), and it was very difficult for me to disagree with someone—feeling obligated to please the other person, to keep the peace. What that all boils down to is I couldn’t be my real self. I was trapped in niceness’ cage. When you free yourself from that cage, you will find yourself being more loving, more kind, more giving authentically. You’ll be less anxious and angry, less worried about others’ opinion. Remember, the opposite of nice is boldness, power, and authenticity. And there is no higher emotional goal than authenticity!
Freeing myself has not necessarily been easy. But with much support from my counselor and friends, I’m becoming the person I was meant to be. And that means not always being nice. Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous quote, “Do what you feel in your heart to be right- for you'll be criticized anyway. You'll be damned if you do, and damned if you don't” applies here.
When you begin saying NO, when you begin following your heart or putting your needs first, people will not like it. Especially family and close friends will dig in their heels because they don’t want you changing and growing. It can be difficult dealing with their anger.
The author Dr. Aziz Gazipura wrote a wonderful book about how to go about freeing yourself from over-niceness and the damage it causes our psyche. The book is entitled Not Nice, and I certainly recommend it to you. He talks of the five pillars of Not Nice, and I’m going to share a couple of them with you-all later on.
When you decide to journey on this path, you must be BRAVE. And remember the definition of brave? It’s YOU being the expert on what is best for YOU. Here are the steps (straight from Dr. Gazipura’s book) it takes to free yourself:
Decide to be not nice. (most people don’t get past this step)
Do the not nice stuff that makes you afraid and uncomfortable.
Work through the internal feelings (anxiety, guilt, fear, and doubt) afterwards.
Repeat steps 1-3 again and again.
Over time, you’ll gain more personal power and it becomes easier to be bold, to be brave, to stand up for yourself, and to care less about people’s opinion of you. And that’s a good thing.
The first pillar of not nice is Boundaries. Man, that’s a big one. And you-all know that when you begin setting boundaries, the shit can fly. But let it fly and remember to duck. Especially where families and intimate partners are concerned. But know that you can set those boundaries and walk away from toxic words and people because you are stronger than you think. But beware! You can quickly talk yourself out of your own boundaries—but they are important and reveal much about you. So stand up for yourself—even when it feels uncomfortable. And it will (to start out with). You will learn much about what you really want and don’t want—another good thing!
Pillar number four is Be More Selfish. A long time ago, my very first counselor helped me realize that selfish was just another word for self-care, that they are synonyms. Wow. That was an eye-opener for me after growing up in a strict, patriarchal, religious home. Self-care? Are you kidding? How can that be right? Or nice, for that matter? Let’s take a closer look at what selfish/self-care does or doesn’t mean. Please let go of any “all-or-nothing thinking,” the black and whiteness of word meanings. We’re here to learn to grow and help others, right? Okay.
First off, selfish/self-care does not mean self-sacrifice. We all do this when mothering or mentoring. And it can be the right thing to do. We deeply love our children and naturally need to do things for them because we are their caretakers. But the kind of sacrifice I’m talking about here is this—when one consistently prioritizes other people’s wants and needs (and feelings) over your own. Sacrifice does not make you or me altruistic. It does not make us a good person. It can often cause us personal pain; it diminishes our energy. Don’t be a victim to this—we all know people who have martyred themselves in family situations and then expect people to love and worship them for it. That’s a toxic merry-go-round if there ever was one. What we need to grasp is that acting in our own self-interest brings us back into balance—taking care of our own needs first helps us be healthy. We must advocate for ourselves to stay emotionally and physically healthy. When doing this, we become freer to live happy, fulfilled lives—we become a loving version of ourselves.
Remember, the key difference between self-care and callous selfishness: We meet our own needs in the best way possible that benefit the greater good. Dr. Gazipura says we can gauge ourselves by what’s called the resentment formula:
Giving/Doing + No Choice about the Matter = Resentment
Resentment can start small, inching its way into our psyche. Over time it turns into anxiety, depression, road rage, or guilt. When giving (self-sacrificing) starts to eat away at us, STOP. Whom exactly is pressuring us to give? And why is our brain sending us this message? Are we doing this just to please somebody else? Are we doing this to be nice? If so, you have given up your power, handed it over to somebody else. STOP. BREATHE. Remind yourself that you alone are responsible for your feelings and meeting your needs. Uncover what you really want and then take steps to get it. We do not have to do anything that someone else wants us to do if it is not right for us.
Mary Oliver, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet, wrote in her poem Wild Geese
“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
Love what it loves.”
And so it is, my friends. Learn how to be not nice if you find yourself (or are told by a good friend) unable to say no, self-sacrificing, playing the martyr card, or worrying too much about what other people think. Those behaviors are unhealthy and will harm you emotionally and physically. Work the not nice steps and be brave. Get support for your journey. Learn how to endure disapproval when you start claiming yourself and your power. And then write to me to tell me about your trek becoming a healthier person and regaining your power. Good Luck!
Love and light, my darlings-
Not Nice by Dr. Aziz Gazipura
Gutsy Woman: MARTHA MITCHELL
Martha Elizabeth Beall Mitchell (1918-1976) was an outspoken (Yay!), southern woman who became a controversial figure because of her comments about the U.S. government during the Watergate scandal. The media dubbed Martha “The Mouth of the South” and “Martha the Mouth” for her love of sharing inside information gleaned from husband John’s papers and frank talk about politics. “Martha Mitchell brought to [the Nixon Administration] a welcome touch of zaniness and genuine good humor. Seizing on a rare, good thing, the press tended to exploit her. What originally had been innocent japes became media events. During the Watergate furor, her abortive TV career proved to be another and finally pitiable example of the capacity of the media to exploit and consume the vulnerable. (1976 National Review).
Born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, her father, George, was a cotton broker and her mother, Arie Beall, a drama teacher. Growing up an only child on a farm, Martha’s playmates were the children of her African American “Mammy” (domestic worker). As a child, she loved to sing. Graduating from High School in 1937, the quote below her yearbook picture said “Love its gentle warble, I love its gentle flow, I love to wind my tongue up, And I love to let it go.” Martha attended Stephens College with a desire to enter pre-med. Instead, she became a Nurse’s Aide with the Red Cross. Eventually transferring to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, and then onto the University of Miami where she fell in love with the Arts. Denied by her parents the dream of becoming an actress, Martha ultimately received her BA in history. After WWII, she returned to Pine Bluff to work at the Arsenal. Both she and her boss, Brig. Gen. Prentiss, were transferred to Washington D.C.
After meeting, marrying, and divorcing Clyde Jennings, Jr., Martha soon began dating John Mitchell. She and the attorney were married in December of 1957 and settled in New York. When her husband’s career coincided with Richard Nixon, they joined together their respective law firms. Nixon was elected President in 1968 and appointed John Mitchel his Attorney General. Martha was now “in the midst of Washington’s inner circle.”
The couple moved into the fashionable Watergate complex. She first came to national attention when she quoted her husband as saying the November 1969 Peace Demonstrations reminded him of the Russian Revolution. Her statement was considered indiscreet and blossomed her notoriety. Martha had the habit of having an evening drink and then calling reporters sharing bits of overheard conversations and information she had gleaned from reading her husband’s papers. Her reputation as an outspoken socialite quickly grew leading to appearances on talk shows and Variety shows. Martha even made the cover of TIME magazine and was considered one of the most influential women of Washington D.C. She became known as “Martha the Mouth” or “The Mouth of the South” for her reputation to speak frankly and uncensored. (Isn’t it amazing how quickly women are given labels when they are outspoken?)
“Martha Mitchell brought to [the Nixon Administration] a welcome touch of zaniness and genuine good humor. Seizing on a rare, good thing, the press tended to exploit her. What originally had been innocent japes became media events. During the Watergate furor, her abortive TV career proved to be another and finally pitiable example of the capacity of the media to exploit and consume the vulnerable."
(The National Review)
When John was selected to head the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CRP or CREEP) for the 1972 campaign, Martha began complaining to her media contacts how the “dirty tricks” the Republican Party engaged in to win the election. She and John had traveled to Newport Beach, California, the week prior to the DNC headquarters break-in at the Watergate office building. When he received a phone call about the incident, he promptly headed back to D.C. while telling Martha to “stay and enjoy the sunshine”. Meanwhile, Mitchell had enrolled his bodyguard, Stephen King, to prevent any knowledge of the break-in getting to Martha or allowing her to contact any reporters. Somehow, she got hold of a newspaper and discovered who was being arrested. Because her daughter’s driver and bodyguard were among those detained, Martha knew something wasn’t quite right. After many unanswered phone calls to her husband, she threatened to go the press.
When Martha finally reached Helen Thomas (United Press), her phone call ended abruptly. When the trusted reporter called back, she was told Martha had become indisposed when in fact she had been abducted and held against her will. Five men had physically accosted her to the point that Martha needed stitches. (A doctor arrived, giving her a tranquilizer as well as stitching her up.)
Helen Thomas released her end of the conversation to other news outlets. Nixon aides vilified here coming forward to say that Martha had a drinking problem, she was a kook, suggesting she was convalescing in an upstate psychiatric hospital. (Isn’t that just typical? For over 250 years, men have been committing women to psychiatric hospitals when they disagreed with them or acted contrary to societal norms. Men in the White House chose to once again pull that trick!) When a reporter caught up with Martha Mitchell the following week, she saw the horrendous bruises on Martha’s arms and reported the evidence of Martha having been beaten.
Initially, Martha began contacting her media friends to defend her husband (as every good, little, political housewife would—standing by her man!). John resigned soon after the burglary, and then suddenly moved out of the family home. Everything Martha had tried to prevent by speaking out (urging John to resign so as not to become mixed up with the crooks in the White House) came true and suddenly made headlines around the world. In January of 1975, John was convicted of perjury, obstruction of justice and conspiracy in the break-in.
During the trial, Martha’s story of abduction was corroborated by James W. McCord, Jr., a CIA officer, saying Martha was “basically kidnapped.” He also testified of the jealousy H.R. Halderman and other Nixon aides felt toward Martha because of her media popularity and looked for ways to publicly embarrass her. Nixon himself later said, “If it hadn’t been for Martha Mitchell, there’d have been no Watergate.”
After being gaslighted by some of the most powerful men in the world, Martha Mitchell brought the White House down! One little outspoken woman lost many friends and was abandoned by most of her family (except for her son Jay) to speak the truth. "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free" was only partially true for Martha. She was indeed free of the scandal, but the price was terribly high for this gutsy woman. Martha wanted her voice to be heard. She had passion. She was smart.
Martha became physically sick after the ’75 trial and died the following year. At her funeral in 1976, one of her admirers sent a large white chrysanthemum arrangement that spelled out “Martha was right”.
“To many she was a brazen and bombastic woman, to others she was a heroine who attacked a liberal permissiveness they felt had brought chaos to the land.”
Myra MacPherson, The Washington Post
DID YOU KNOW?
The “Martha Mitchell effect” –when a psychiatrist either willfully or mistakenly calls a patient’s true but remarkable claims delusional—was named after her. Sad but true.
A bust with a plaque (engraved with "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free ) was erected in Pine Bluff’s Civic Center five years after her death from multiple myeloma cancer.
The phrase “to gaslight” refers to the act of undermining another person’s reality by denying facts, the environment around them, or their feelings. Targets of gaslighting are manipulated into turning against their cognition, their emotions, and who they fundamentally are as people. Jacobson, Neil S.; Gottman, John M. (1998). When Men Batter Women: New Insights into Ending Abusive Relationships