"Be Nice"

My entire childhood was formed around the interests of my father. My mother worked very hard to make him happy, and to ensure that my brother and I fell in line to please him. Like so many toxic parents, they worked together to abuse their children in a classic codependent pattern.

My father was angry and aggressive, solely focused on who wasn’t giving him the right kind of attention and reverence at any given moment. He viewed the world through a lens in which everyone and every thing was created to please him. He drank through the weekends in search of some escape from himself which never seemed to come. I tried to escape him, too, but I did it through making myself as invisible as possible. The only attention in my family was negative attention. It was much less stressful to be ignored. When I did catch his attention, often it was because of something wrong that he perceived (read: made up) that I did or did not do. On trash day, he’d rage about the trash not taken out soon enough, even though last week he raged about the cans taken out too soon. Whatever he was angry about was usually not rational, and always out of proportion with the issue.

My mother’s advice on how to handle my father’s irrational rages was for me to “be nice.” “Be nice” meant don’t challenge him. Don’t fight back. Don’t argue. Whatever you do, don’t point out what’s real or true. “Be nice” was the way to deny and minimize the abuse all around me.

For me, “be nice” turned into a mental prison. It meant that if I was not “nice,” I was bad. I was wrong. There was something wrong with me for pointing out reality. I wanted to be nice. Moreso, I wanted my parents to see me for my niceness, because maybe then they would like me.

The thing is, I really am nice. I am agreeable. I am diplomatic and kind. And it is precisely my agreeableness that made me a target for narcissistic abuse. Yet, no matter how “nice” I was, or how much self-control I possessed, I could not win a single shred of love or compassion from my cruel, out of control, narcissistic father, or my robot of an enabling mother.

“Be nice” has had so much control over me over the course of my life,  I think it has become more damaging to me than the overt abuse.  It has meant that in situations of conflict, I freeze up. I am overly worried about how others will perceive my intentions. I expect people to be irrational about simple things, so I take responsibility for far too much. It means if someone reacts in an irrational way, that I must have failed in “being nice.” Somewhere I had picked up that “being nice” was life and death stakes. To my traumatized two year old self, it probably was. Even though I saw it and knew exactly where it came from, I felt powerless in its control over me. It was the source of my anxiety and hypervigilance.

Recently I had a huge breakthrough, in which I was able to confront “be nice” and strike it from my identity. And finally, a new, beautiful, powerful, and life-giving word was allowed to surface.



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