What is Nice Guy syndrome? What are the tell-tale signs and traits of someone who has it?
In the face of struggle, dissatisfied men use the tactic they know best: Be nice. However, according to Dr. Robert Glover, “being nice” rarely yields the desired outcome, and Nice Guys’ insecurities frequently emerge as passive-aggressive or dishonest behavior.
Find out more about Nice Guy syndrome below.
What Is Nice Guy Syndrome?
Before looking at Robert Glover’s in-depth explanation of Nice Guy Syndrome, we’ll first discuss the historical and intellectual context behind this phrase.
The negative connotation around “nice guys” existed long before NMMNG. In fact, there’s an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the term and the various studies, perspectives, and stereotypes it’s spawned since the mid-20th century.
For instance, you’re probably familiar with the idiom “Nice guys finish last.” This phrase has existed since the 1940s and, although it was originally in reference to playing nice in baseball, it’s since come to encapsulate many of the negative stereotypes associated with the success and dating lives of nice men (such as being pushovers or generally bad with women). Even Glover plays with this phrase in his online class, “Nice Guys Don’t Finish Last, They Rot in Middle Management.”
Starting in the 1990s, sociological and psychological studies began examining the general success (or failure) of men best described as “nice.” These studies were usually based upon women’s opinions of different types of men. For example, one 2003 study wanted to understand why some women say they want a “nice guy” but end up pursuing those who possess other (maybe not-nice) traits. (The study found that women looking for long-term relationships prioritized nice men and those looking for casual hookups prioritized attractive men.) However, these studies mostly failed to define a “Nice Guy,” as its meaning often depended on the subject’s interpretation of the term.
Unlike these studies, Glover approached Nice Guys from a self-reflective, distinctly male point of view. Rather than scrutinize women’s opinions, he tapped into his psychotherapist background and turned instead to Nice Guys’ opinions of themselves and how that affects their approach to life. Today, our popular understanding of what constitutes a “Nice Guy” (in the negative sense) aligns closely with Glover’s definition.
Nice Guy Syndrome in No More Mr. Nice Guy
Overall, the main distinction between someone who has Nice Guy syndrome and someone who doesn’t is self-acceptance. Glover notes that an integrated man is secure in his self-image, masculinity, and sexuality, but someone with Nice Guy syndrome represses his true self (including his masculinity and sexuality).
Glover further defines the difference between these types of men via the following traits:
Nice Guy does something to appear nice → He stews in silent resentment when things don’t automatically go his way → Unable to contain his anger any longer, he eventually lashes out via tantrums, passive-aggressive behavior, or even abuse
Glover notes that because he avoids addressing the root cause of his tantrum—opting to “fix” the reactions of others instead—the cycle continues indefinitely. As such, we can see that being a Nice Guy (by Glover’s definition) is certainly not a good thing.
The Traits of Someone With Nice Guy Syndrome
Overall, repression, self-pity, and fear bring out Nice Guys’ worst characteristics. This table includes the primary undesirable traits Glover found across many people who have Nice Guy syndrome:
|Deceitful||Their passive and people-pleasing behavior drives them to lie and tell others what they want to hear.|
|Manipulative||Because they think they must conceal their needs, desires, and emotions, they employ indirect tactics to get what they want.|
|Overbearing||To avoid friction, they want you to stand back so they can micromanage and do things the “right” way.|
|Compulsive||Their repression may manifest as self-destructive, compulsive behaviors. These addictions can be drugs, alcohol, or sex (such as porn and masturbation).|
According to Glover, the Nice Guy’s misguided actions are driven by the following mindset:
Conceal your true self → Be who others want you to be → Have a perfect, fulfilling life
If this plan sounds misguided, it’s because it is. Glover noticed that Nice Guys—like most people—ignore holes in their paradigm and continue to enforce it despite evidence suggesting its ineffectiveness.
What Causes Nice Guy Syndrome?
Glover argues the Nice Guy mindset originates in childhood when a boy learns—explicitly or implicitly from his parents—that he must be “good” to be loved. How does this belief form? It’s a vicious sequence of abandonment, shame, and self-doubt:
Abandonment: Glover begins with the fact that a child is completely dependent on his parents. This—along with the childish belief that the world revolves around him—causes the boy to interpret all forms of inattention or neglect as abandonment. Due to his helplessness, he fears abandonment. And, Glover says, due to his immature ego, he’s likely to blame himself for his abandonment.
|Childhood Abandonment and Insecure Attachment|
Is childhood abandonment a crucial factor in Nice Guys’ later development of unhealthy relationships with others? Psychological research on childhood attachment may suggest so.
According to attachment theory in developmental psychology, children form a specific “attachment style”—or behaviors as they relate to our emotional bonds—largely based on parent-child interactions. The theory also asserts that we carry these attachment styles into our adult relationships.
In their book Attached, Amir Levine and Rachel S. F. Heller note this theory assumes children who were raised by responsive caregivers tend to develop a “secure” attachment style, while those who felt abandoned by unresponsive caregivers develop “insecure” attachment styles.
They describe two insecure styles: “anxious attachment”—defined by a constant need for reassurance from your partner—and “avoidant attachment”—defined by a desire to keep your partner at arm’s length.
Glover recognized similar behaviors among Nice Guys in relationships: many of his patients struggled to be fully intimate with their partner, either smothering them with attention or neglecting them altogether. Thus, we might assume these men were abandoned and developed attachment issues in childhood.
However, Levine and Heller note that since its inception, attachment theory has developed in nuance. They acknowledge that many factors in addition to the child-parent relationship play into the development of our attachment style.
Additionally, they assert that our attachment style is not written in stone, so Nice Guys who experienced abandonment in childhood are in no way “doomed” to be insecure attachers (just as those raised with attentive parents aren’t “safe” from becoming them either).
Shame: Glover continues by noting that if a boy feels he’s at fault for his abandonment, he’ll eventually believe there’s something wrong with him. From there, he’ll try to change himself to gain his parents’ attention. These self-loathing beliefs are called toxic shame.
(Shortform note: In The Power Of Vulnerability, Brené Brown differentiates between shame and guilt. While guilt arises when we feel bad about our actions, shame comes from feeling bad about ourselves. And unlike guilt, shame is something we tie to our identity. So when a boy experiences shame following abandonment, he’s not under the belief that his actions are bad, but that he himself is inherently bad. Therefore, to be “good,” he must repress his true, bad self.)
Self-Doubt: Finally, Glover discusses what happens when a child internalizes his toxic shame: He experiences self-doubt and adopts defense strategies to ward it off. Some children act out in an antagonistic manner for attention, but Glover says budding Nice Guys center their coping mechanisms around gaining approval. If a boy can only convince his parents how “good” he is—through deception and repression—surely he’ll gain their love.
|Can Self-Doubt Be a Good Thing?|
Although self-doubt can be paralyzing, it can also be helpful; a topic Melody Wilding explores in her Ted Talk on using negative thoughts to your advantage.
Wilding says that instead of approaching self-doubt as an enemy meant to be obliterated with positivity, you’d be more productive to make it your ally. To do this, she says to employ the name it and reframe it strategy: When you “name” the doubtful stories you tell yourself (for example, “I won’t be able to maintain this relationship because I’m not good enough”), you start to notice patterns across them.
It’s then easier to stop yourself from spiraling because what you’re dealing with is familiar. From there, it’s your job to reframe your self-doubt: Instead of fighting it, respond to it honestly and answer its concerns.
According to Wilding, this will help you to mentally prepare for the worst if it does happen. It also reaffirms your ability to handle that worst-case scenario.
Bringing Up Nice Guys: Examples
Glover noticed that although each Nice Guy he worked with came from a different background, each one arrived at the same conclusion: “I’m not acceptable as I am.”
In NMMNG, Glover delves into a handful of his patients’ childhoods. In order to pinpoint some of the environments that can ingrain the Nice Guy mindset early on, we’ve extracted some of the common situations found across the anecdotes:
- Controlling, distant, or abusive fathers: Whether their fathers were demanding, not present, alcoholics, or violent, many Nice Guys lack a healthy paternal relationship and develop negative opinions of other men.
- Lonely, clingy mothers: In this case, even if both parents were present, they likely weren’t affectionate with each other. Emotionally starved mothers often lean heavily on their children for support, which can lead to Nice Guys developing a codependent relationship with their mothers.
- Strict or overprotective parents: Nice Guys who grew up in rigid or sheltered environments—including fundamental religious households that instill a fear of messing up or “sinning”—often took calculated action to avoid angering their parents.
- Pressure to be the family anchor: Some Nice Guys are assigned the role of “family problem solver” and grow up believing it’s their job to fix everything. In adulthood, these Nice Guys may find themselves drawn to chaotic situations they can repair.
|Do Narcissistic Parents Produce Nice Guys?|
Although Glover doesn’t explicitly mention narcissism in NMMNG, some readers have noted how the typical Nice Guy upbringing closely resembles their experience growing up with narcissistic parents. For instance, narcissistic mothers are often “clingy” and rely on their children for emotional support.
Therapist Kathy Caprino notes that narcissistic parents—with their sense of self-importance and lack of empathy—often raise people-pleasing children with low self-esteem and an inability to set boundaries. She further explains that adult children of narcissists are so used to experiencing conditional love from their parents—love that’s dependent on a child meeting certain standards—that they rarely recognize their concept of a healthy relationship involves repression, manipulation, and unrealistic expectations.
As self-doubting, approval-seeking, manipulative individuals, Nice Guys appear to have reached a similar outcome as those raised by narcissistic parents. In fact, The Awareness Centre’s resource for adult children of narcissists states the primary belief held by those raised under such circumstances is: “I’m not good enough.” As this way of thinking reflects the Nice Guy mindset, we could add narcissistic parents as one of the many environments that could shape Nice Guys.
Problems for the Nice Guy
Now that you know what Nice Guy Syndrome is, let’s explore the main problems holding him back from a life of self-acceptance, empowerment, and satisfaction. According to Glover, being a Nice Guy involves a lot of struggles and insecurities:
Nice Guys Live for Others
Whether people-pleasing or caring for everyone but themselves, people with Nice Guy syndrome live their life for everyone but themselves.
They seek external validation: Glover says that Nice Guys use attachments, or external signifiers, to win others’ approval and become “good” in their eyes. Attachments are behaviors, traits, or things you “attach” to your personal value (like always being the first among your friends to own the newest iPhone). Nice Guys don’t value or do these things for themselves but for the sake of others.
They conceal their shortcomings and mistakes: To avoid disapproval, Glover explains that those with Nice Guy syndrome go out of their way to hide their true selves, including their perceived flaws. He says to avoid acknowledging their “bad” true selves, Nice Guys will try to fix the reactions to their mistakes rather than accept responsibility for their actions. When “found out,” Nice Guys may become defensive, make excuses, or rationalize.
They won’t acknowledge their needs: According to Glover, Nice Guys are afraid of others knowing they have needs (so much so that they’ll unconsciously avoid situations in which their needs are likely to be met). This is because their childhood abandonment issues have led them to believe that being needless and wantless is an inherently good trait.
Due to this skewed belief, Glover says Nice Guys lean on a form of manipulation called covert contracts to meet their needs. These are unspoken, unconscious agreements that, to Nice Guys, are implied understandings, but outside parties have no knowledge of their existence. The hope is that both parties will meet each other’s needs without ever acknowledging them: The Nice Guy will do something for someone, and get something back in return. A common example of a covert contract is giving a compliment just to hear one back. In this case, your kind words didn’t come from a genuine place but from a personal need for external validation.
Nice Guys Deny Their Power
Nice Guys often feel powerless because they deny their abilities and their masculinity.
They act like victims in the face of adversity: Glover says Nice Guys often think they lack control in all aspects of life, which only feeds into their feelings of resentment, frustration, and victimization. Glover adds that although unpredictability is a fact of life, Nice Guys have a particularly hard time embracing life’s ups and downs because they (mistakenly) believe life can be straightforward and smooth.
(Shortform note: If having a smooth, easy life isn’t really possible, why are we inclined to believe it is? Psychotherapist Sian Morgan-Crossley explains that this belief stems in part from our tendency to compare ourselves to others. Under the false impression that everyone around us has it easy, we wonder why our lives aren’t easy, too.)
They’re attached to their mothers: According to Glover, Nice Guys who grew up with emotionally needy mothers remain devoted to them in adulthood. This relationship is normal and healthy in boyhood, but eventually, boys must grow up and bond with men to become healthy, masculine adults, and mothers must let their sons go. If a Nice Guy doesn’t have a strong parental presence, this shift may not occur.
They’re detached from masculinity and other men: Due to their poor paternal relationships, Glover says Nice Guys grew up associating masculinity with its negative traits, such as aggression and cruelty. Not only does this lead them to suppress their own masculinity (and thus good parts of themselves), but it also makes them isolated from other men. This causes Nice Guys to miss out on the support and companionship that accompanies male community.
Nice Guys Are Unlucky in Love
They don’t know when to say goodbye: According to Glover, those with Nice Guy syndrome are less likely to leave dysfunctional relationships because they dread loneliness. They would rather stay in a familiar, toxic environment than leave and face themselves.
They assume they know what women want: Glover emphasizes that women aren’t attracted to “jerks” as many Nice Guys assume. Rather, they’re attracted to fully realized, confident humans. Nice Guys try too hard to be “nice,” “right,” and “good” all the time, which makes for a self-conscious and lifeless shell of a person.
They settle for bad sex: Glover explains that a Nice Guy may engage his partner in half-hearted (bad) sex through manipulative or sneaky tactics. He thinks if he focuses hard enough on putting her in a good mood, she will enthusiastically reciprocate no matter what. But this tactic only leads to frustrating sex. Still, to many Nice Guys, bad sex is better than no sex. They continue to engage in partner-focused sexual encounters—which Glover discourages, as it means they ignore their own sexual needs.
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Here's what you'll find in our full No More Mr. Nice Guy summary:
- Why being a "Nice Guy" isn't actually a good thing
- Why Nice Guys miss out on a life of self-acceptance, empowerment, and satisfaction
- How to know if you are a Nice Guy and how to become an "Ideal Man" instead