Nice Guy Burnout: Why Good Guys Go Bad

A few weeks ago, The Good Men Project printed an article by Paul Hudson titled A Cured Hopeless Romantic’s Take On Where All The Nice Guys Have Gone. I made the decision to post it on my wall to try to give it attention. There were several people who where confused or upset that I would repost it and that I would ask people to consider what he wrote seriously. So here is the point I wanted to make about that article: the article is not important because of the conclusion the author drew, it is important because he leads you through the experiences he had that brought him there. These experiences shed a light on some problems that not only produce bad conclusions like the Paul drew, but also lead people to worse decisions.

The author of the article is burnt out. When people burn out, they make disastrous decisions. They become emotionally compromised and as a result they compromise their character and the feelings of others. A pain has grown to the point that they are willing to do whatever it takes to end it, and are willing to justify these actions away to remove the responsibility of those desperate decisions. Their unwanted conclusions are based on overwhelming pain. No one makes good decisions with that level of pain.

So what burnt him out?

We did. Society as a whole. Not women as a gender, not men as a gender, not good boys or bad girls, but our society as a whole did. We all share some responsibility, and when we are willing to accept that responsibility, we can finally see where we have the power to make changes we need to make

1) We, as a society, still don’t like to acknowledge male emotionality.

We are willing to talk in depth about male sexuality, but we still don’t spend enough time admitting male emotionality. The alpha male is still portrayed as the dangerous but desired dominator, and the male who is emotionally intelligent is still portrayed as weak and less of a man. Paul spoke of an empathic joy that came from doting, that he felt good when he made others feel good. He also wrote of the many times that empathy was not returned. He wrote about the desire to connect, and the pain from that lack of connection. Our society does not let men admit to that kind of pain, so we do not allow men to heal from it. In the discussions I have had over the article, that pain is constantly overlooked. Ironically, people seem to think he should have just manned up, sucked up the pain, and not allowed himself to be injured. They don’t seem to get that that is the mentality that contributed to his burnout in the first place. We regularly abandon men to that pain, and then abandon them to that abandonment when men make mistakes in that pain.

2) We, as a society, suck at dealing with rejection and loss.

We don’t like to be rejected, and we don’t like to reject others. Humans, after all, are a social species. We need connections, and our connections kept us alive from out first steps as a species. To experience a break in connection evokes a fundamental terror. Rejection threatens us with such a break, and that’s why we cannot stand to be rejected, and that is also why we, as a society, cannot stand to reject others.

Yet men are expected to constantly set themselves up to be rejected as part of the millenial dating scene. I have at times discussed with female women about the concept of meeting men half way when it comes to dating. Some agreed that would solve problems, others looked at me like I was foolish for suggesting such a thing, and still others reacted with a terror of being rejected by trying. This is part of the reason why many become attracted to the “bad boy”. Bad boys don’t seek out to have their emotional needs met, so they can’t get hurt. Bad boys don’t care if a woman turns him down, because they just bounce to the next woman. The bad boy ideal removes the guilt related to rejection for a lot of people. If they don’t have feelings to hurt, you can’t hurt them. This is not just supposition, rather is is drawn from conversations I have had with women. What was explained to me was “I can’t date anyone I am close to as a friend, because I expect relationships to end badly am afraid of losing them if we were to break up.” (For me, the irony is, that same fear of rejecting is what has often landed me in the situations where I am the unrequited friend. The pick-up/hook-up culture threatens me with the terrifying situation having to reject a woman because the physical attraction does not match the more substantive emotional attraction. Trying to get to know the woman first before expressing an attraction is an attempt to filter out women I would have to hurt by rejecting).

But because society is terrified of rejection, we don’t come together to help people with rejection. Instead of normalizing the experience of rejection in modern dating, and then helping people to learn to cope with rejection, we flee from it and abandon people to the rejection. As such, people are forced to figure out how to deal with it themselves. Some luck out, and find ways to cope. Many, however, load themselves up with a shame, which can be internalized to produce withdrawal and suicide, or can be externalized to produce bitterness or violence.

3) We, as a society, like to stereotype, hate to admit we stereotype, and hate to confront those people in our own groups who strive for the stereotypes.

There are a lot of bad people out there out there. There are guys who are fake nice guys who are just trying to trade niceness for sex. These guys have ruined it for the real nice guys. There are genuine nice guys are not out for the sex, but for the connection, and we do dote for the empathic joy of seeing joy in someone else (I personally will also dote on female friends with whom there is no romantic interest, and will also dote on guy friends just for that empathic/connective experiences). But those fake nice guys ruin it for us, and it is so bad those fake nice guys are now the norm thought of when people utter the word “Nice Guy.” Because of them, our authentic motivation to be nice to others is suspect, and so there is actually a social barrier to nice guys being who they are. And there are also women who do use nice guys and reject them for the bad boys. It happens. I personally have had women snuggle and cuddle with me, get offended when I express interest while chasing after abusive alcoholics. I have been the guy the woman calls when she needed support and care, assertively expressed an interest (while making sure she knew my support was not contingent on her returning my interest), only to watch her go through a string of devastating relationships with guys who mistreated her every step of the way. But these women also do not represent all women as a whole, and it is just as wrong to stereotype all women as wanting “project guys” as it is to stereotype all nice guys as wanting to trade niceness and favors for sex. But we stereotype anyway.

The reason we stereotype, however, is that the stereotypes both attempt to protect us from reliving a past injury, and because stereotypes make it easier to reject people. The fake (or burnt out) nice guys or the girls who play with the good guys and go for the bad boys eventually end up hurting us or someone we care about (vicarious pain). But at the time when in relationships with them, we did not see specific signs that there was going to be an injury. Because we did not see the specific signs, we will focus on all the general characteristics we can remember, and overgeneralize into a stereotype. Just as a person who is attacked by a German Shepard may form a fear to any dog, down to a tiny chihuahua, a person hurt enough in a relationship will generalize to form the stereotypes above. In addition, stereotypes allow us to reject people easier. Since the pain we get from rejecting others is empathic, that pain can be avoided if we can stereotype because that stereotype causes the other to be other. Maybe that nice guy really wasn’t trying to trade niceness for sex, but turning him down is easier when we can be angry at him for doing so. Maybe that woman clung to you because you were a rare source of safety for her in an otherwise threatening world of toxic romances, but it is much easier to negate her rejection of you romantically when you can write her off as someone who was just using and playing you for favors.

For guys who have burnt out, for whom rejection has become too painful, the temptation to stereotype all women as just wanting the bad boys is born out of this pain, the desire to lash out against that pain, and the desire to protect themselves against future pain. It was not a good decision to adopt that stereotype, but is is understandable. And where we have failed these burnt out nice guys is that we’ve allowed them to be stereotyped so that it makes it easier to ignore the pain that gets caused when they are rejected. People have tried to explain away the rejection several ways, such as that nice guys are boring, that they are only trying to trade favors for sex, etc. but none of those reasons are true. (the real reason for rejection is that rejection is inevitable in modern dating). But those are easy explanations because they produce a stereotype that helps remove the guilt that comes from the rejecting them. The stereotypes are born out of pain, and therefor can be understandable, but in both scenarios are neither universally true nor good.

4) Finally, we have failed to provide you the guidance nice guys need to not burn out.

Because we don’t like to admit male emotionality, we don’t teach men how to deal with the pain when it does occur. We don’t teach men emotional self care, nor are we willing to contain their pain and help them when they are emotionally injured. We leave them alone in their pain, and then chastised them when they don’t react perfectly when they are hurting. Ask any professional care worker (nurse, therapist, etc), and they will tell you how they were taught the importance of self care as part of their training. This self care is necessary because they put so much of themselves out and get so little back in return. If care workers don’t learn these skills and develop these supports, they burn out. Nice guys are, in many ways, amateur care workers, often required to give out a lot and get little in return. But society does not teach self care, and in the case of men, teaches the opposite (repression, denial, etc), and so set them up for burn out. A nice guy is not owed sex or a romantic relationship for being nice, but he is owed a shoulder to cry on when he does get rejected (note: that shoulder is not to be that of the person who rejected them, that is inappropriate for many reasons). We don’t give them that, and so we abandoned them.

Because we are so terrified of rejection, we don’t acknowledge the injury of rejection, nor to we provide the guidance and support to help men heal from that injury. Rejection is going to happen, that is the nature of modern dating. When a person is rejected, he will be hurt and sometimes angry. That is called being human. Ideally, people should have empathized with that pain, and help the person to contain that pain to help him to express it healthily rather than letting it turn toxic. For men especially, the mechanisms to do so are not there, and the result is burn-out.

Finally, because we love to stereotype, counter-stereotype and counter-counter-stereotype, we don’t help men to understand what really happened when they get hurt to help them from thinking that there is no hope but to burn out. The result it overgeneralizing, men don’t see the individual characteristics of that very specific woman that lead her to reject him for the bad boy. Personally, I’ve come to realize looking back that many of those girls who have hurt me have had some specific traits that led them to seek me out to provide my niceness while simultaneously seeking out the bad boy. But I’ve come to understand why these women tend to dominate my attention so much that I didn’t notice all the other women who were not like that. But I have had to learn that for myself and it took 35+ years to do so. The sad thing is that every other nice guy in the world is stuck trying to figure this out from scratch, and a lot of people fall in the process and come to a number of disturbing decisions. But rather than help men to learn these lessons, we stereotype them, deny their desire to connect. In the case of the nice guy, we also accuse them of not being genuine, of sexual predation, or of being boring.

So what is the solution?

First, we need to stop being afraid of male emotionality and start discussing in a real way. This is not just about having feel good discussions. Rather there is a very complex discussion that needs to be had about social roles and definitions, and will involve examining our own expectations. In this discussion, we need to face the role expectations placed on men, and how those expectations serve to isolate men from their emotions, and in turn the feelings of those around them. In terms of the nice guy, we need to recognize his desire to connect to others, the genuine drives for his doting, and pain he receives when he is rejected. It is not the responsibility of the person who rejected the nice guy to take care of his feelings, but the other people around him need to understand and know how to help contain them when rejections occur. After all, this is the guy who would do the same for you. The trick is, we need to do this in a way that won’t threaten his worth as a man, or shame him for having feelings that could get hurt.

Second, we need to start providing the guidance to help men know how to act in the face of rejection. The modern male role model is still the one who dominates, always beating the enemy and winning the woman. The dating advice that dominates popular discourse focuses on pick-up lines and manipulation. Even the more “enlightened” advice tells you to “be confident” and “just ask her.” What we don’t have is guidance on how to get to have the conversations to properly build relationships and eliminate mixed signals, nor do we provide guidance on how to cope and maintain self-confidence when asserting feelings positively results in rejection. What we end up with is a society where rejection is seen as a failure of character and a failure of manliness, even though it is an unavoidable consequence of dating. We need instead to see the man who compromises and shows how to assert himself while respecting the autonomy of the women he is in a relationship with. We need to see the hero that risks failure and, when it occurs, accepts that failure and learns to grow from it. We need to provide the role models who normalize getting hurt, and provide the guidance to recover from that injury without injuring others in return. We need to men who can teach men to be emotional and still be men. We need the role model who can tell the nice guy that is sucks they got rejected, that they are allowed to feel the pain they do, that they can survive the pain, and then teach them how to still be the nice guy while seeking connection again.

Finally, we need to re-examine the pressures that create burn-out situations. We live in a society that is simultaneously shaming and shame-phobic. We love to shame. It takes the form of insult, bullying, mobbing, gossiping, trolling, etc. We shame people for being too fat, too thin, too poor, too religious, too non-religious, too smart, too weird, etc. Because we shame, we are terrified of being shamed back, and respond with counter shaming. Nice guys are constantly stuck between being shamed for not being aggressive enough and shamed by the betrayal that can be felt if their feelings are proclaimed. The women they are attracted risk being shamed by society if they are romantically assertive and risk being shamed for rejecting him. When the nice guy gets hurt, we shame him for being hurt. Remove shame, and the risks of rejection and rejecting would become lessened. Remove shame, and a person burnt out could be seen as injured, not evil, and his pain could be understood, not chastised. Remove the shame, and maybe all parties involved could express, understand, and even accept the emotions that have emerged (accepting someone’s feelings does not mandate returning them). But removing that shame would require us to understand and challenge all the other areas we apply shame.

*Update 4/12/15 *
I recently came across this article discussing the anxieties of being with a nice guy from the side of the anxious woman. I’m still working to integrate it, and am just putting it here until I can work it into other thoughts.

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3 thoughts on “Nice Guy Burnout: Why Good Guys Go Bad

  1. Johnd169

    Very informative post.Really thank you! Awesome. gekkebekfbec

  2. Pingback: Blaze of Glory: The Making of a Killer | Dr. Zack's Blog

  3. Pingback: The Dangers of Righteous Anger | Dr. Zack's Blog

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