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The Virtues of Not Being Too “Nice”

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“The more I practiced these in my new life as a monastic, namely, being honest with myself and others by communicating my values through clear and firm boundaries, the better I felt on a daily basis.”

Upon being ordained as a Buddhist monk in the Vietnamese Zen lineage students are given a name that identifies a significant character flaw to help them consistently train their mind and develop new character traits. In the monastery, you must give up all your money and possessions and you even give up your family, yet hold onto and continually develop your integrity. As a Buddhist monk for close to six years I was taught that integrity, over time, leads to wisdom and that wisdom eventually leads to the alleviation of suffering. This is the core of the Buddhist practice. I practiced kindness and generosity, actively listened to others, and strove to be patient and wise — yet the name I was given ended up teaching me more than anything else I learned during my time as a monk.

I was given the name Hue Gioi. Hue Gioi translates to mean “wisdom of virtue/boundaries.” By giving me this name the zen master was essentially telling me I needed to learn how to assert my own wants and needs and stop being so accommodating to others. Learning how to hold to my own values and set boundaries around these has been a practice that has benefited me more than anything else I learned in those six years as a monastic.

Unfortunately, this does not happen overnight. Much to my disappointment, shaving my head and putting on a robe did not all of the sudden make me a happy and peaceful monk. My time immediately after moving into the monastery were by far the most difficult. In the first few years I was confronted with all my demons day after day. As a young monk, I continued to devalue my own opinion, allow others to tell me what to do, take advantage of me, tell me what I felt, or who I was.

Even monks who have been practicing for a decade are still human — people with their own agenda and their own internal flaws. All this eventually compounded into a realization that by not asserting my own boundaries and choices, I had been creating the majority of the suffering I had felt most of my life. While becoming a monk did not help me escape this root cause of my frustration and internal anger, it did help me confront it for the first time in my life.

I used to buy into the mantra, “go with the flow,” and often did what other people wanted me to do in an attempt to be accepted as part of the group or to make someone else feel better even if — when I was honest with myself — I would rather do something else.

During those first years I had to give up all my usual coping mechanisms that helped me deal with the anger and frustration of ignoring my needs. And as far as coping mechanisms go, I had many — namely, smoking, drinking, sex, burying myself in work, and blaming others. Most importantly, I started consciously trying to stop doing things I regretted and blaming others for my plights.

The Visuddhmagga is a key meditation text in the Buddhist tradition. In this book ‘virtue’ is defined simply as, “acting in a way that you will not regret.” It goes further to say the first way to start cultivating virtue is to make appropriate personal boundaries. As a monastic you have to follow a certain set of personal boundaries called “sila.” Sila is defined in the Visuddhmagga as, “vows” or “appropriate personal boundaries to encourage virtuous behavior of body and mind.”

Ultimately, you are the only one who can determine which boundaries are appropriate but the text helps to give a head start with a few key points: be honest with yourself and others, don’t steal, don’t inflict self harm, don’t kill, etc. Not too difficult to buy into for most people. The more I practiced these in my new life as a monastic, namely, being honest with myself and others by communicating my values through clear and firm boundaries, the better I felt on a daily basis. Often, this manifested in simple daily choices to take better physical care of myself, communicating how I feel about something even if it makes the other person slightly uncomfortable, and getting more comfortable with saying “no.”

To act in a way that improves self-worth, self-confidence, and overall contentment the first step is to make clear boundaries for your own behavior and how you treat yourself. You can probably think of someone you know who does this very well. Perhaps they hold to a more strict personal code, schedule, exercise routine, or values compared to most. They might deviate a bit from the norm or from what others are doing around them, yet this somehow gives them an unmistakable waft of integrity. It encircles them like a perfume and beams out like sunshine attracting others to them like an invisible force field.

Man reading from open book

But how do you identify your own personal values in order to create true, lasting boundaries in your own life? It starts with beginning to make time in your day and in your busy life, to do the deep work of looking inward. Take a time out for a few moments to understand your own inner life and reap the rewards. As you begin to feel the benefits of doing this, you will be driven to develop a system for doing this on a regular basis. Every person I’ve met who would define themselves as successful, in their own terms of the definition, has done this.

Think about what happens when someone asks you a difficult question. You want to answer honestly, but you know they want you to say something other than what you believe, or you get put in a difficult situation at work where your boss or colleague asks you to do something you do not feel comfortable doing.

This internal struggle is your set of values running up against a competing set of someone else’s. What do you do when following such a request explicit or implicit would be sacrificing your own values, cause you to go against your word, or, take even a second of the precious time, energy, and attention of this one life away from what is most important to you? I will give you a hint… it’s not to “be nice.”

There is a deep need for human beings to maintain their integrity. When we are able to hold to our own values, our word, and personal values against all odds it brings us a deep sense of accomplishment that comes with a calm sense of safety and contentment. It is the beginning and end of loving yourself, finding motivation in life, and all things worth pursuing. This is so undisputed that all psychological models of behavior change and other systems of philosophy and ethics, including, sales, parenting, sports psychology, law — potentially all domains of intellectual study — are built on this fundamental innate human principal.

In his book, How to Practice: the way to a meaningful life, the Dalai Lama wrote, “enlightenment is when what you want to do and what is the most effective action for the wellbeing of yourself and others become the same thing.” This pursuit has since become my mission and my new life mantra that, even after leaving the monastery, I’ve continued to carry with me ten years later. This often requires me to go against the norm, not tell others what they want to hear, and become firmer in many ways— ironically, this often ends up being the best decision not just for me, but for the whole.

William Jackson, PsyD, founder of SkillfulMeans and licensed clinical health psychologist

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