• Empathy and kindness are traits that help us contribute positively to the lives of those we love

  • But can you be too nice? Counsellor Caeredwen Gregson-Barnes makes a compelling case that you can be

  • We have therapists and counsellors available to support you here

We like to be nice, don’t we? It means people like us and we feel good about ourselves. But there’s a potentially heavy cost.

Dr Gabor Maté is a medical doctor and psychologist practising in Canada, who has extensively studied the link between stress and physical illness. In his book When the Body Says No he talks a lot about diseases such as cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as motor neurone disease – what Professor Stephen Hawking had. One of the things he says is that everyone who has worked with ALS comments that it uniformly attacks nice people. To the extent that people testing samples for signs of the disease would say ‘this person can’t have it, they’re not nice enough’ and would invariably be right, while the ‘nice’ patients would generally turn out to test positive.

On the surface it sounds ridiculous that a serious illness could in any way be related to how nice someone is. And of course it’s not quite that simple; it’s not niceness that makes you sick, but the emotions and the effort behind it. The problem isn’t being nice, but rather being too nice. 

So what is being ‘too nice’?

Being too nice is when you sacrifice what you need for what other people want. You may do this consciously or not. The nicest people don’t realise that they’re doing it. They may even feel that they want to. Others will do it, but resentfully. They’re nice because they think they have to be. Both are bad for you.

How can you tell if you’re too nice?

If you recognise yourself in any of these statements, there’s a high chance you’re too nice for your own good.

  • You don’t stop to think before you agree, or offer, to help anyone with anything
  • You never stop, even when you’re ill – people are relying on you
  • The idea of not helping someone or fulfilling all your thousands of responsibilities doesn’t just prompt a feeling of discomfort, but an overwhelming sense of horror or shame
  • It’s unthinkable that you wouldn’t work way more hours than you’re employed to do
  • You would simply never ask anyone to do anything to help you out
  • You dislike being offered help. You say things like ‘I couldn’t let you do that’
  • One of your worst fears is letting someone down
  • You don’t express – or possibly even feel – negative emotions like anger, resentment or frustration
  • You don’t tell people when you’re unwell, even if it’s really serious

Any of the above in moderation is not a bad thing. We all have those special people who we’ll drop everything to help out when they need it. Most of us don’t like it if we’re obliged to back out of an agreement or don’t manage to do something we said we’d do, although we know that sometimes it’s necessary. That’s balanced. But people who are too nice don’t wait to be asked for help by anyone. They don’t back out of agreements, no matter what it might cost them. They’ll drag themselves out of a hospital bed to cover an extra shift for someone they don’t even like, and won’t mention they’re not well. This is taking selflessness to an extreme.

I’m not saying that if you’re too nice you’ll get cancer or ALS, or that you should embrace selfishness as part of a healthy lifestyle. But if you’re consistently too nice then it will take a toll on your mental and physical health that you may not be willing to pay. Your body is not designed to take that level of stress. And it is stressful to repress your own needs and feelings, whether or not you realise you’re doing it. Most of the people who develop serious illnesses have been doing it for years.

My clinic is filled with people who are too nice, and worry about the effect it’s having on them. But more concerning are the ones who don’t come to see me. They may not be willing to disappoint everyone by curtailing their niceness to a reasonable level, or they may not even realise that they are being too nice. They may think their overwhelming helpfulness is a strength, but it’s a strength over-applied and that actually makes it a weakness. So if you’ve recognised yourself in this blog, please stop. You may be doing yourself serious damage.

Caeredwen Gregson-Barnes is a verified Welldoing counsellor, coach and physical therapist based in Coleford in the Forest of Dean

Further reading

What's the downside of empathy?

Setting boundaries will set you free

5 self-care tips for highly sensitive people

Why we feel shame and how to let it go

Can you change your attachment style?