The Nice Girl Syndrome
Publisher: Beverly Engel
In this day and age you would think that women had learned enough about assertiveness, boundaries and codependency that they wouldn’t continue to be used and abused. There certainly are enough books on the subjects. So why is it that women continue to be victimized and taken advantage of by lovers, partners, family members, friends and coworkers? The main reason certainly lies in the fact that we still allow men to abuse women. Although there has been some progress when it comes to exposing and treating abusers, there are still far too many men who believe they have the right to abuse “their” women. We’ve come a long way since the time when men believed that their wives and daughters were their property and they had the “right” to treat them any way they saw fit. But there needs to be more pressure put on abusive men to get the treatment they need. In spite of a great deal of public education, we are still dealing with a huge problem when it comes to the abuse of women. Statistics tell us that women continue to be abused in record numbers. For example:
- The American Medical Association estimates that over 4 million women are victims of severe assaults by boyfriends and husbands each year.
- Around the world, at least 1 in every 3 women have been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime.
- Nearly one-third of American women (31 percent) report being physically or sexually abused by a husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives.
- Approximately 1 in 5 female High School Students report being physically and/or sexually abused by a dating partner.
- Three in four women (76 percent) who reported they had been raped and/or physically assaulted since age 18 said that a current or former husband, cohabitating partner, or date committed the assault.
- Nearly one-fifth of women (18 percent) reported experiencing a completed or attempted rape at some time in their lives.
- Annually in the U.S., 503,485 women are stalked by an intimate partner.
- Seventy-eight percent of stalking victims are women.
In addition to not enough being done to expose and treat abusive men, I propose that another reason women continue to be victimized is that they are too nice for their own good. This “niceness” attracts the wrong kind of people and sends the message that they are an easy target to be taken advantage of, controlled, and even emotionally, physically and sexually abused. It also prevents women from standing up for themselves and keeps them in relationships that are unhealthy or abusive.
During my long career as a psychotherapist I’ve often heard clients describe painful, shocking and even bizarre experiences. After 30 years of practice, specializing in abuse, I have become somewhat hardened to just how cruel we human beings can be to one another. And yet there is something that I never seem to get used to—how often women put up with unacceptable, often horrible treatment from others, especially men. Every time I hear a woman describe the mistreatment, abuse, even sadistic cruelty that she has endured, it saddens me. Even though I know the answers, I often find myself thinking. “Why does she put up with this?” Even more upsetting to me is that often these women, who are themselves being abused, are worried about their abusive partner. “I don’t know what he’ll do without me” they often respond when we talk about them getting out of the abusive relationship. Or, “I know that my leaving will kill him. He can’t stand to be alone.” In the midst of their own personal crisis they are more worried about their abusive partner than they are themselves.
I’ve written numerous books, many about recovering from some form of abuse. In most of those books, in addition to offering survivors advice and strategies on how to cope with, or get away from an abuser, I have asked them to look at their part in the situation. Always stressing that I do not mean to blame the victim in any way, I encourage them to look for the reasons why they have stayed in an abusive relationship and why they chose an abuser in the first place. In this book I will ask victims and survivors to go one step further—to look for the roots of their “Nice Girl” behavior.
It is my contention that “Nice Girl” behavior sets women up to be misused and abused. This does not mean that women cause men to become abusive. It does not mean that women are masochists. What it does mean is that by being too nice, women send a strong message to those who already have a tendency to use and abuse. The message is: “My need to be seen as nice (or sweet, or innocent) is more powerful than my instinct to protect myself.”
The hard truth is that women cannot afford to be Nice Girls. It simply is not safe. Yes, we need to insist that abusive men get the help they need, but in the meantime, women continue to be abused. And there are too many people (women as well as men) who will take advantage of any weakness they find in another person. Being too nice is certainly viewed as a weakness.
In The Nice Girl Syndrome I write about the difference between Nice Girls and what I call Strong Women. I teach women how to put aside their Nice Girl thinking and behavior and to instead adopt what I call Strong Women thinking and behavior. While not every Nice Girl gets raped or is emotionally, verbally or physically abused in her relationships, every Nice Girl is putting herself at risk by continuing to believe and act as she does. Nice Girls tend to put up with inappropriate or abusive behavior, to minimize the damage they are experiencing and to make excuses for their partner. The Nice Girl Syndrome will help women to stop being nice and start being strong, to stand up for themselves and to refuse to be treated in abusive ways.
The primary audience for The Nice Girl Syndrome are women who have been or are currently being emotionally, verbally or physically abused by their partner, women who have been raped or date-raped, and women who are being or have been stalked by an intimate partner. But nearly every woman has some Nice Girl still left in her. While younger women (aged 18-30) will be especially attracted to the book, women 30 and up will also find the book interesting, provocative and helpful. Unfortunately, Nice Girls don’t tend to grow out of this behavior all that easily.
In addition to covering the psychological reasons for niceness (guilt, shame, low self esteem, fear of confrontation, fear of rejection, intense fear of being alone) I also focus heavily on the societalreasons, such as the fact that women and girls are conditioned to become Nice Girls. I focus specifically on the beliefs and attitudes that set women up to be used and abused. I offer a specific program for unearthing and discarding these deeply buried false beliefs and attitudes and replacing them with the truth. And I offer “Remedies”—exercises and steps women can take to heal themselves of the brainwashing that created these false beliefs in the first place. Finally, I offer an Empowerment Challenge that will help women develop what I call the four C’s: confidence, competence, conviction and courage. The Nice Girl Syndrome is available now in paperback. You can order through Amazon.com or many other online bookstores or you can order the book from your local bookstore.
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- Check out my “blog” on the Psychology Today website. My blog is entitled “The Compassion Chronicles.” Check out my recent blogs by going to https://blogs.psychologytoday.com
I hope you enjoyed this issue of Working Together to Create an Abuse-Free Future.