The Dangers of Being Too Nice | Gabor Maté, MD

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From Way of Thinking: “There’s a deep need to belong, a deep need to be loyal, and a sense of betrayal when that loyalty is somehow insulted. Because if you didn’t get the love that you needed, you’ll be consumed by being liked, and then you’ll be very likable and very nice. And you might become a helpful, very helping individual, which is a coping pattern. Now, you can be genuinely nice and genuinely supportive of others, and still look after your own needs — that’s human nature, I think. But a lot of people are very nice and likable and helpful by suppressing their own needs — that’s a coping mechanism. Everybody says how nice they are… and when they die at age 50 of cancer, everybody shows up at their funeral and they weep about how nice they were, how selfless they were.

The child basically has two needs. We have the need for attachment, which is the seeking of closeness and proximity with another human being; and fundamentally the attachment dynamic is the most powerful dynamic in human life. Its basic purpose is the protection and nurturing of the young, so that infants attach to their parents and parents attach to their infants, for the purpose on one hand of being taken care of and on the other of taking care of. So that’s attachment, and we’re wired for attachment all our lives; it’s the most important dynamic we have. And as General Petraeus could tell you . . . sometimes when our attachment needs get sent in certain directions, it’ll trump everything else. That’s one need that we have, for attachment; without attachment, there’s no human life, it’s just impossible. And without mating, without communities, we would not have survived as a species . . . So, you know, the whole idea of human beings as competitive and aggressive is total nonsense.

But the other need that we have is for authenticity: to be ourselves. And that again has to do with survival. If you’re not in touch with yourself out in the wild, you don’t survive. So authenticity is being in touch with yourself and being able to act on the awareness of self in relationship to the environment. So if I feel something, I pay attention to that; if I don’t, I’m in danger. So we have this need for authenticity. But if a child is confronted with a dilemma: that if I’m authentic, express my feelings, then my attachments are threatened — because my parents can’t handle it, because they’re too stressed, depressed, or traumatized themselves — then perforce the child will automatically (but not consciously) suppress their authenticity. And so the suppression of gut feelings and authenticity is a coping mechanism. That means I’m no longer in touch with my needs, I no longer pay attention to my feelings, my emotions, I will no longer be aware of them, I won’t express them, I won’t know what I need. Which has all kinds of implications, but one of them is that I may then compulsively serve the needs of others, ignoring my own, hence disease. Or I may then develop all kinds of false needs, which then really are what addictions are all about.

So it’s that irresolvable tension between authenticity and attachment that many children in our society are faced with, that results in their self-suppression. And one of the outcomes — not the only possible outcome, but one possible outcome — is that niceness is a coping mechanism.

Almost anybody when they’re being inauthentic has a sense of [themselves] being inauthentic. How do we know that we’re being inauthentic? Like, years before I had any of these concepts formally worked out in my mind or had read much about it, I already knew when I was betraying myself and being less than myself and being other than myself. How did I know that? There’s some inner knowledge for many of us, simply because the authentic self . . . when we’re not in touch with it there’s a kind of a shame, there’s a kind of a suffering that happens. So that shame and that internal suffering, that sense of self-betrayal is our sure guide that we’re not being ourselves on one level. That happens to a lot of people. And then we may look good in the eyes of others, and yet internally we suffer shame because we know that we’re not being ourselves. When we say ‘how do we know,’ for many of us there’s an internal knowledge that arises. Now why? Because that essential self hasn’t gone away, and it’s calling to us. And we don’t feel right when we betray it or when we’re out of contact with it.

Now, that doesn’t happen for many people — that doesn’t happen for everybody. For some people, it takes some catastrophe. So what I’m saying is that at some point or another, if you’re not in touch with that inner voice, if you don’t hear it, the body will speak to you loud and clear; you’re gonna get something happen to you. And sometimes that’ll happen in the form of illness or symptoms. Then the body’s talking to you; the body’s saying ‘no’ when you’re not saying ‘no.’ If the voice doesn’t speak to you directly or if it speaks and you don’t listen, your body at some point is gonna kick in. Or you’re going to get depressed, or anxious, or something else. Or something will happen in your personal relationships. And at that point you can say, ‘Well, I’m not with the right partner, screw them, it’s all their fault,’ which many of us say. Or for some people it becomes the opening of a door where we begin to look, ‘Okay, what in here wasn’t authentic, what in here wasn’t genuine, how did I create this situation, how do I keep creating these situations over and over again, am I just a victim of bad luck or is there some pattern here?’

In other words, something happens, some difficulty happens to shake you out of your complacent belief that things are just fine the way they are. And as the California-based great teacher A. H. Almaas says, the most difficult things that happen to us are also the most compassionate things. Because basically — how he puts it — a part of us that loves us more than anything else puts these roadblocks in our way, saying: that’s not the way, that’s not the way, that’s not the way. So there’s roadblocks in the way to bring us to ourselves. And so we can look upon our difficulties as problems to get rid of, or we can look at them as teachings to bring us back to ourselves.”

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4 COMMENTS

  1. I’ve lately have mixed feelings about Gabor mate. There’s absolutely nothing I disagree with, but at the same time I think some of the criticism from “cruel optimism” could apply. This piece reads like a spiritual piece as much as anything else.

    It’s all very well to say we need authenticity and to own our feelings, but to keep repeating that without being honest about the real punishments in our society about being authentic (if you don’t have high status) can be cruel. Gabor is high status and thus deals with privilege – the ability to not have to do mental or emotional effort to understand the reality of the everyday living of those with overwhelming trauma. We need more practicality than high flying concepts that can be coopted by marketing and other influences.

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    • That’s an interesting point.

      Gabor Mate implores people to recognise when their niceness is a damaging coping mechanism for failing to make authentic attachments with others.

      Matthew Spears objects that that level of authenticity is only available to a privileged few for whom fawning through life is unnecessary, or less a requirement to survive.

      Maybe then we need a World Honesty Month, in which for 28 days everyone can be as brutal and jerky and self-obsessed as a very rich person.

      A bit like The Purge but instead of widescale killing it’d be widescale and chaotic truth-telling.

      “Clean your own car, parent your own children and cook your own food you bone-idle, entitled ***** of a ***** *********.” and so on.

      Or, simply social commentators like Mate are merely cowards that stop short of denouncing the real problem… which is one of Class and privilege?

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      • Definitely one of Class and privilege.

        Generally, I like what Gabor Mate says. However, I always had the strange sense that he’s missing something, which always left me wondering: Does he not appreciate the way most people are forced to live?

        I could never decide if he was being cowardly, or if it just never occurred to him how much deferential treatment he receives because he has “Dr.” in front of his name.

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  2. True.
    Often people with money and/or advanced education (the so-called “elites”) either don’t know or have forgotten what it’s like to be low man on the totem pole and the consequences that real people can face if they dare call out the powers that be.

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