Too Nice for Your Own Good

How to Stop Making 9 Self-Sabotaging Mistakes


By Duke Robinson

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Are you, like many of us, too nice for your own good? This remarkable book will empower you to get what you need and deserve,out of life…and still be a nice person!

If you’re like most folks, you were raised to be “nice”. Yet now you find yourself asking: “If I’m so nice, why isn’t my life better?” Renowned minister and lecturer Duke Robinson has the answer. Robinson says that well-intended behavior is essential to a humane society, but carries a down side. Being nice often means we take on too much, tell little lies, strive endlessly for perfection, and fall prey to other self-defeating behaviors. Now Robinson outlines the nine unconscious mistakes nice people make daily, and he shows how to correct them and avoid unnecessary stress with life-affirming actions. Learn how to:
  • Say “no” and save yourself from burnout
  • Tell others what you want, and actually receive it
  • Express anger in healing ways that maintain valued relationships
  • Respond effectively when irrationally criticized or attacked
  • Liberate your true self.



"A 'how-to' book that breaks new ground … and shares unexpected new approaches that can open doors to more creative living."

—ROBERT MCAFEE BROWN, professor emeritus,

Theology and Ethics, Pacific School of Religion,

Berkeley, CA

"The mistakes described in this book are like the common cold …. Duke Robinson has done a masterful job defeating these emotional viruses …. Reading this book and taking it seriously could save hundreds of hours in therapy, and it's a lot more fun."

—DR. ROBERT R. BALL, executive director,

the State of California's Self-Esteem Task Force,

and author of Walking on Water

"A superb book … transforming …. In clear and simple language, Dr. Robinson shows how being 'nice' often means living by a tyranny of expectations."

—STANLEY F. HOGLE, former executive director,

Interface-Samaritan Counseling Centers

"Highly readable, insightful, and compassionate …. Duke Robinson extracts powerful, eminently practical lessons for everyday living from sound psychological principles."

—MARTIN V. COVINGTON, professor of psychology,

University of California at Berkeley

"The wit and wisdom of Duke Robinson is about to become national knowledge …. Offers more than analysis …. Attention to this very readable book can make a difference in the way we live."

—PAUL H. GERTMENIAN, CEO, Henry Gertmenian Co.

"I wish this book had come along earlier in my career …. These practical steps toward authenticity help us put our lives in order and feel good about it."

—DARRELL FLOYD, retired human resources manager,

Nissan Motor Corporation, USA

"An unsentimental blueprint for complete living as well as a provocation to the highest humanity in all of us."

—LEROY AARONS, founder and board member,

National Gay and Lesbian Journalists Association

and author of Prayers for Bobby

"Profound, provocative, and practical …. A thoughtful and deeply felt gift to all of us who get caught between the goodness of our hearts and our own naiveté."

—SHIRLEY NICE, The Corporate Coach

"Robinson seeks to counsel those who find that they often make mistakes while acting from the best of intentions …. He helps the reader to identify and overcome these foibles, noting that change may be a long, painful process."

Library Journal

"Robinson's nine chapters turn the qualities of niceness inside out: 'trying to be perfect,' 'taking on too much,' 'not saying what you want,' 'suppressing anger,' 'reasoning with irrationality,' 'telling little lies,' 'giving advice,' 'rescuing others,' and 'protecting those in grief.' Sound familiar? He says he can help you get over it without becoming an ogre."

Dallas Morning News

"Do-gooders: Here's why you burn out …. In his book, Robinson shows how too much of a good thing can lead to emotional and physical exhaustion. His goal is to liberate dogooders from their self-sacrificing bondage."

New Orleans Times-Picayune

"Duke Robinson's book on 'mistakes made by nice people' is a big hit. He shows so clearly how niceness keeps us from growing and dealing honestly with one another."

Presbyterian Outlook


TOO NICE FOR YOUR OWN GOOD. Copyright © 1997 by Duke Robinson. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage or retrieval systems, without permission from the publisher in writing, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review. For information address Warner Books, Hachette Book Group, 237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017

ISBN 978-0-7595-2205-3

A hardcover edition of this book was published under the title Good Intentions in 1997 by Warner Books.

First eBook Edition: October 2000

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To Barbara,

with whom I have worked on my "niceness" for more than forty years of marriage, whose separate sense of self allowed both of us to survive the writing of this book, and to whom I owe so much more than I am able to see or appreciate.

To Margo, Andrew, Steve, and Stuart,

our grown children, who are their own persons in spite of any nice behaviors we modeled while they were young, whom we love very much, and whose love and families bring us much joy.


Some insights in this book emerged decades ago as I pursued my formal education. Others came over nearly forty years of reading, teaching, counseling, and leading seminars on human consciousness and behavior. Some of these sources are lost from memory. A few that I've retained stand out.

I trace the key phrase accepting your acceptance to Harvard theologian Paul Tillich, certain ideas found in the second chapter to time-management expert Alan Lakein, the "I" message paradigm in the fourth chapter to Thomas Gordon and his book Parent Effectiveness Training, the five steps in the grief process listed in the ninth chapter to the death and dying pioneer Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, and the radical distinction between protecting and supporting the bereaved, also in that chapter, to fellow clergyman William Sloan Coffin. I acknowledge my debt to these creative thinkers.

For twenty-eight years, until July 1996, I served as pastor of the Montclair Presbyterian Church of Oakland, California. All that time it provided me a loving and intellectually stimulating community. It also granted the sabbaticals that enabled me to get this book off the ground. I am deeply grateful for these gifts.

My church staff colleagues were most supportive as I put the book together, especially John Hadsell, our Theologian in Residence, whose encouragement and literary criticism proved invaluable. Our secretary, Judy Fletcher, handled my copying needs efficiently. I deeply appreciate their contributions.

I also want to thank a contract group at the church that met with me for ten sessions in 1992 to discuss the behaviors I cover in this book and critique some of my earliest drafts: Doug Ferguson, Bill Ferrier, Margot Lyon, Eloise Gilland, Lloyd and Rita Perry, Marjorie Rawls, Raphael Shevalev, Linda Streb, and Jack York.

I am grateful, too, to friends Mimi Loyd, Polly Orr, and Dave Rudd, who reviewed the manuscript at various stages. And to Vern and Gloria Alexander, Hazel Angell, John Barr, Janet Clyde, Dale and Elsie Cooper, Robin Crawford, Parry Dent, Karen Flamme, Eleanor Gertmenian, Virginia Hadsell, Louise Hermanson, Robert Hirni, David Hyde, Sally Juarez, Wally Kelly, Minda Lucero, Marna McKenzie, Joy Palmerlee, Norm and Enid Pott, Dean and Dorothy Skanderup, David Vandre, and Guy Wulfing, all of whom, at various times, offered support or constructive criticism related to their personal experience or professional expertise.

I want to thank my literary agent, Laurie Harper of the Sebastian Agency, San Francisco, who both affirmed the book's strengths and told me what simply wouldn't do. Her savvy, moxie, and the widespread respect she enjoys from major publishing houses had a lot to do with getting the book into print. I also couldn't have done without her personal and professional attention that prepared me to face the sometimes terrifying publishing process.

Special thanks also go to Susan Suffes, my editor at Warner Books, who believed in this book immediately and whose care and professional skill helped make it better. I am deeply grateful for her availability, great energy, and support as she carefully led me, step by step, through the publishing labyrinth.

Many unnamed people helped give shape to this book. Some of them don't know it. Some of them I can't identify. I offer them, whoever and wherever they are, my heartfelt appreciation.


You are a nice person. You always try to do what others expect. While you'll do anything for them, you never ask a thing for yourself. You're careful not to hurt others' feelings or blow your top. When irrationally attacked, you remain reasonable and calm. You're always ready to offer good advice. Although a friend's drinking embarrasses you, you would never think of embarrassing her. And you never talk of Grandpa's death in front of Grandma. You are a really nice person.

Sometime back in the mid-sixties, I sat in my office late one night listening to a nice young man talk about the woman he planned to marry. He loved her and couldn't bear the thought of hurting her, but she constantly expected things from him that made him angry. And every time he felt this way, what he did either made matters worse between them or made him feel untrue to himself. For most of the hour he vacillated between giving up on this relationship and resolving to do better at what he had been doing, even though he knew it wasn't working. He felt confused and lost. And so did I.

Driving home that night, I thought of the other nice people whose stories I had heard recently: a widow who never said no to her friends and was all burned out; a middle-aged man who could never be honest with people who disappointed him or wanted more from him than he could offer; a woman who could never please her bedridden mother and didn't have the faintest idea how to talk with her.

I remember having two reactions as I slipped into bed. First, I thought, These are really nice people. They're smart, they have good intentions, their values are sound, they want to live productive lives, they're not crazy. But they constantly waste their time and undermine their best interests by what they say and do.

Second, I said to myself for the very first time, That's exactly what I do. I am one of these really nice people.

I knew before then that I tried too hard to impress other people with what a nice person I was. I also saw that some of my socially acceptable behaviors sometimes got in the way of my good intentions. But I had not realized the extent to which being a nice person dominated and damaged my approaches to work and relationships. My eyes were beginning to open to the negative impact niceness had on my life.

These reflections drove me to look more honestly at how being a nice person affected me. With a new awareness, I began to identify more of my self-defeating behaviors: I regularly said yes to people when I should have said no; I consistently cut myself off from others by not telling them what I wanted, by pretending I was calm when I was angry and by lying whenever I was afraid to hurt their feelings; and time and time again I frustrated myself by taking responsibility for the problems of those I cared about.

I became aware of this last behavior through another conversation that made an impression on me. Several psychologists and social workers, along with a number of my colleagues and I, began meeting weekly with a renowned psychiatrist to reflect on how we operated as members of the helping professions. At one session the doctor suggested that for us to jump on our horses and dash off to save people who had problems was damaging to both them and us. He caught me by surprise. I'd never thought seriously about that. I was trained in pastoral counseling and was gaining experience, but I had always assumed that in the normal traffic of everyday living, nice people—particularly those in my profession—should try to save everyone they can.

Again it hit me: We nice people constantly undermine our good intentions.

I started talking informally to colleagues and friends about these kinds of behaviors. Soon we were acknowledging how painful it was to think about rejection and how it drove us relentlessly to please those who were important to us. We shared how difficult it was to express our strong feelings, particularly our anger, and how this derailed our communication and put distance between us and those we loved. We talked, too, of how stymied we usually were in our efforts to straighten others out or help them solve their problems.

I became increasingly curious about these behaviors. Where did they come from and why did we act this way? Why were they so damaging? What would it take for us to stop sabotaging our good intentions and act differently?

I also became eager to develop theory and practice that would enable me and other nice people to stop acting in these ways. So I went back to basic sources in psychology, theology, and the behavioral sciences, and drew upon some of the more thoughtful literature of the human-potential movement. From these studies and continued consultations with other professionals, helpful insights into alternative behaviors for nice people began to emerge. As they did, I tested them on myself and introduced the more effective ones to my seminars and counseling sessions. Over the past several decades, these alternative ways of acting have proved helpful to a large number of people, including me. They became real as we were willing to deal with our stressful lives, our bottled-up feelings, our fear of emotionally loaded social encounters, and our failed attempts to be helpful to others. They continue to liberate us from a sense of personal failure and a great deal of frustration and dissatisfaction. They also empower the pages that follow.


In a sad, ironic twist our niceness betrays us. Call it one of life's little jokes. We sincerely want to make the most of our lives, to be close to those who are important to us, and to feel satisfied whenever we try to help others; we abound with good intentions. Yet whenever we talk and act in the nice ways we were taught—and that almost everyone accepts as normal—we are left feeling worn out, unsure of ourselves, and frustrated.

In this book, I refer to these behaviors as mistakes. They are not as heavy, as debilitating, or as dark as, say, psychoses or phobias or character disorders. So while I examine psychological dimensions of these behaviors, I am not offering psychotherapy for emotional illness or prescribing quick-fix solutions for complex inner conflicts. I am simply addressing things we well-intentioned, nice people routinely do that adversely affect our relationships and take the luster from our lives. Day after day they get in our way, drive us crazy, and steal precious time and energy from our most important endeavors. They boil down to nine self-defeating mistakes that are worthy of our attention because with relatively little insight and effort we can stop making them.

As you will see, I make no distinction between how women and men make these mistakes. I realize the sexes tend to approach social encounters differently and from different perspectives. I also know that either gender may be more prone to make certain of these mistakes, that women usually suffer more social pressure than men to be nice, and that most people think that men tend not to be as nice as women. But whether you are a nice woman or a nice man, chances are you repeatedly make these nine mistakes in all your relationships, to your own detriment.

A key to understanding these mistakes is insight into niceness itself.


Our parents, with good intentions, raised us to get along with our siblings, to have lots of friends, and to grow into persons who will be civil and socially acceptable. For the most part, they did not groom us to be insipid or saccharine sweet, but considerate, courteous, and always helpful to those who are in need. In other words, to be nice. Accordingly, they taught us—supported by our teachers and perhaps by authorities in religion—to do what we are told and to do it well, to be passive rather than pushy, and to find deep satisfaction in helping others solve their problems.

As we moved through childhood, their teachings and models of niceness—which we began to mimic unconsciously—planted strong messages in the back of our minds. These messages not only dictated how we operated in our earliest years, but became recorded memories that established themselves as our internal critics, our unconscious guardians of niceness. So even today, the moment we make contact with others, there are voices inside our heads saying things like:

Whatever is worth doing is worth doing well.

Always say yes to a friend.

Don't be selfish.

Never lose your cool.

Be reasonable.

Don't say anything to hurt others' feelings.

Help your friends with their problems.

Be thoughtful of those in pain.

Always be nice.


First, we must acknowledge that not everything about being nice is bad. For one thing, it means we are sensitive to the needs of family and friends, and psychologists tell us that those who are considerate of others are healthier and happier than selfish people. For another thing, niceness saves us from criticism, embarrassment, and rejection, and whenever we are nice, other nice people invariably think we're wonderful. Moreover, consideration and courtesy pave the way for the creation of a humane society and help make this world a bit more civil and bearable. On rare but not unimportant occasions, niceness spurs some people to be courageous, even heroic. Thus in many ways our nice behaviors serve us well. And it's this positive side to them that we admire and like to think about.

The problem is that they also collect negative tolls and cost us a lot more than we bargain for. The first two mistakes, which are related—trying to be perfect and taking on too much—drive us to exhaustion. They weigh us down so we feel like overloaded ships that are listing and sinking. I begin with these two mistakes, by the way, for three reasons: (1) They are among the toughest of the nine to avoid; (2) the need that fuels our inclination to make them causes us to some degree to make all the other seven; and (3) if we can cease making them, we will have more energy to tackle the others.

The next four mistakes—not saying what you want, suppressing your anger, reasoning with irrationality, and telling little lies—cost us real measures of our integrity because we lose touch with our emotional sides. We all agree that our feelings are important to our interactions with others. But when our feelings don't fit our niceness (e.g., we desire something, we're angry with someone, or we're afraid of losing control), we stifle them; we actually teach ourselves not to feel. Sometimes we push them so deep inside we don't know they're there, or we can't locate them. If they break out or we track them down, we often find we can't handle their intensity or size. So we go through the motions of emotional transactions generally ignorant of our feelings, denying them, hiding them, or mired down in them and stressed out, mainly because we're afraid. Indeed, it's fear of our emotions that most often holds us hostage, causing us to pretend we don't feel what we do. And as a result, we fail to experience authentic closeness both with ourselves and with those who are important to us.

The last three mistakes—giving advice, rescuing others, and protecting those in grief—cause us to subvert the interests of the people we want to help and often make their problems worse. We have no better conscious intention than to be helpful, but because these behaviors are unconscious attempts to control others while making us look and feel good, they invalidate themselves from the start.

We originally adopted these nine behaviors to be socially acceptable, to avoid emotional pain, and to help those in need. And, at first, engaging in them made us feel good about ourselves. We continue them today out of habit, because they seem normal to us and because we often don't even recognize their sometimes dreadful consequences. Yes, a few of them drive us crazy. But even when they do, we tend not to see them as problems for which we're responsible. And if we do see them as such, we're usually too busy to give much thought to how we can stop repeating them. Moreover, deep down, far from our awareness, we're afraid that if we stop behaving in these ways, we may no longer be nice people.


It's important to see that as nice people we have been trained by a well-meaning but misguided molding of our minds—we have been programmed with consciousness-controlling messages that misdirect our behavior. It also is critical to understand that we do not have to feel forever sorry for ourselves or always be blaming our problems on our parents—we are not helpless victims of heredity and early family life. Moreover, it helps to know that these misdirections are not unique to you and me—they are extremely common. And further, we do not need to keep plowing the same self-defeating ruts—there are specific ways to avoid them. By putting these nine mistakes behind us and acting on new descriptions of who we are and how we can behave, you and I can reshape the present and transform what our futures will be. With a little awareness and effort we can change ourselves in ways that will make us so much more whole than we've ever been.

It is equally important to understand that the changes I am talking about do not require us to stop being nice. Instead, they ask us to affirm the value of our good intentions and society's standards, even as we reclaim what we've lost of ourselves and begin to act differently. They call us to balance our niceness with genuineness. To make these changes we must learn to (1) view ourselves through new eyes; (2) process our feelings directly and sensitively; and (3) assist others in ways that respect their freedom and provide the genuine help they need. To do this, we must change our inner messages. And yes, this means we must have the courage to disobey our parents.


In each chapter I describe one of the mistakes nice people make, then explain why we make it and why it's important to give it up. Of course, to understand what is wrong—and even to stop doing it—is usually not enough. So along with each mistake, you'll see a life-affirming behavior you can put in its place, and in each chapter I'll demonstrate effective ways to stop making the former and adopt the latter. But even as the insights you encounter here ring true and promise to be helpful, you are the one who must decide to apply them; you are the one who must make them move from these pages and become real for you.

This book assumes that we all make these mistakes in a myriad of daily social transactions marked by complexity, unpredictability, and social risk. In each alternative behavior, therefore, there is a series of possible steps to take in a dynamic, somewhat open process. You can be, therefore, flexible about which steps to take, when, and in what order. For example, you don't always have to start with step number one. On occasion, you may want to skip a step or two, depending on when you enter the situation and on how serious it is. Sometimes you may need to repeat one particular step several times. But once you master the steps in these processes, you'll possess the skills to make up appropriate responses in each situation as you go along.

As a result of learning these skills, each of us will be able to

• Liberate ourselves from bondage to others' expectations.

• Say no when appropriate, and save ourselves from overload.

• Tell others what we want from them and actually receive it.

• Express our anger in ways that heal and maintain our relationships.

• Respond effectively when people irrationally criticize or attack us.

• Tell the truth to friends when they fail us.

• Care for others without the burden of trying to run their lives.

• Help self-destructive friends and loved ones to recover.

• Feel competent and helpful in the presence of pain and grief.


On Sale
Oct 1, 2000
Page Count
288 pages