Written by Michelle Denise Jackson
Contribution by Anushya Badrinath
Growing up, I was a very nice girl. I was always the one who went out of her way to help her friends. I would loan them money, offer them advice, give them rides, and help them with school assignments. I usually did not expect anything in return. I avoided rubbing others the wrong way. And I rarely spoke up when friends hurt or offended me. I wasn’t a perfect angel—I had my bratty moments and bouts of diva-dom. But for the most part, I tried very hard to appease everyone. I prided myself on being nice.
And then that shit got real old, real fast.
For the past few years, I have been a Reformed Nice Girl. Like many, I equated being nice with being kind. I thought being a good friend meant overextending myself and being a good person meant having relationships without boundaries.
Being nice is an expectation that we often exclusively impose on girls. It primes us for a lifetime of being subordinate to men, of keeping the status quo firmly in place. Nice girls do not talk back. Nice girls do not have opinions. Nice girls, in many ways, are stripped of their agency and humanity. We are taught to give and give and give, until we are depleted, exhausted, and resentful. This is especially true for Black Women. We are socialized to take care of everyone… except for ourselves. And if we do have the gall to talk back and declare our boundaries, then we are labeled “sassy” or “hostile” or “mean.”
It is often a delicate balance between being nice and a pushover, between assertiveness and bitchiness. These restrictions are meant to police all women’s behavior. But my lived experiences as a Black Woman have taught me we have it a little rougher. Historically, we have been expected to be the world’s nice girl and happy, compliant servant. Or else.
Eventually, the threat of “or else” no longer scared me.
High school made me realize that maybe this Nice Girl business wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. I had a few longtime friends who had been taking advantage of my chronic congeniality, while they rarely provided the same courtesy. I distanced myself from them and found a group of people whose friendship was not as draining on my emotional wellbeing and resources. I also began tackling my fear of confrontation. I learned to assert myself, to speak up when I felt wronged by another person. This was an important lesson for me to learn: friendship is reciprocal. For too long, I had been the giving friend when everyone else took. I began to seek out friendships where we were both mutually invested and generosity was a shared quality.
In college, I continued my quest to take back the “nice”. For the first time in my life, I had uncomfortable and tense confrontations with close friends. I went head-to-head with roommates. I was not afraid to let people know how I was feeling. I was not afraid to tell someone no. It was difficult. I battled feelings of guilt, wondering whether I was being an asshole. Or worse, a “bitch”. (Another word used to regulate women’s ability to stand their ground and have agency in their lives.) I worried that by expressing myself and telling people where I drew the lines, I would lose friends. And sure, some friendships certainly changed. But the important people in my life stuck around. Our relationships became stronger because there were no hoarded resentments and no passive aggressiveness.
I am still fairly generous with my friends. I will pay when we go out from time to time, especially if I know someone is struggling financially. I offer to drive my friends around… or at least pick them up and drop them off at the nearest train station. I enjoy giving them advise and listening to their rants. I offer support when it comes to writing, sexual health information, budget tips, or what’s going on in pop culture. But I also have my boundaries. I am more forthright in expressing when I can and cannot do something. I do not feel the need to apologize for having needs or opinions (as much). And if someone is getting on my last damn nerve, they will know it.
These days, I pride myself on being honest and having great personal boundaries, just as much as I pride myself on being a good friend. I learned to redefine what being a good friend means. Now, I can be generous and loyal without feeling obligated or drained. I also enjoy being a little “selfish”, because I know it is not really selfishness—it is self-care and self-preservation. And as Audre Lorde once said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Michelle Denise Jackson is a writer, performer, and storyteller from Southern California. She is a graduate of NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. She has performed her work in New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Washington D.C., and Southern California. For more information, please visit her website at michelledenisejackson.com.