Is there such a thing as toxic goodness? Can being good be toxic? Isn’t goodness universally, well, good?

Anything that is out of balance can be harmful. Let’s take a look at why your goodness hurts you.

Everyone grows up in a family that shows them what is expected. When we behave outside of those rules, we can be shamed or punished. For example, if we share our toys, we are praised and given positive attention. If we don’t, we might be scolded and corrected. Worse, we may be told we are being bad.

Since we all have a desire to belong and no one wants to be negatively judged, we learn to toe the line.

In addition to family rules, there are social rules that vary from place to place. For example, when you order fast food in the South, you might say hello first. When you get your order, you say “thank you.” If you don’t get a smile or a “thank you” back, you might judge the person as rude or even respond with something like, “Are you having a bad day?” or respond with a sarcastic, “You’re welcome!”

So we sanction others too!

In New York, there is no expectation of any pleasantries or gratitude. It’s simply an exchange of money for product. Therefore, you can see that the rules are different from place to place.

Goodness is something that we are taught. We do it to appear acceptable, get praise or a reward, connect, and avoid shame and punishment. When we don’t get what we expect, this can create resentment, disappointment, anger, a feeling of being treated unfairly, or even disaffection.

Here are some examples of how our goodness can get us into trouble.

  • I believe we’re all equal and worthy. I want to be open to all types of people, so I enter into a relationship with someone who isn’t skilled or well enough to engage in a healthy relationship. I think that if I love him enough, am patient enough, and accept him unconditionally, things will change. They don’t. I just end up in an abusive relationship.
  • I believe that we don’t give up on people. We stick by them and honor our commitments. Consequently, my family borrows money from me that they don’t pay back. They ask me to babysit then don’t come home when they say they are going to. They totally take me for granted. Despite not being able to trust them to do and say what they say they are going to, I keep honoring my word and being available to them hoping that some day this dynamic will change. It doesn’t.
  • I know what it’s like to be hungry and alone, so I go out of my way to help people. I have ended up in unsafe situations and have gotten hurt because the people I wanted to help were not trustworthy.
  • It’s not okay to be angry, so I stuff it all inside. People think that they know me, but they really don’t. I’m actually exhausted by the end of the day and often break down when I am alone. It’s a lonely existence.
  • When I am not “nice enough,” I judge myself. My inner critic runs movies of how coulda, shoulda, woulda over and over again.
  • When something goes wrong, it’s never about what someone else does. It’s always my fault. No matter what, I think that there was something I could have done differently to make the outcome sweeter. If only I were nicer, things wouldn’t be this way.
  • I am nice, polite, thoughtful, and generous, but it’s rarely returned. People take advantage of me and expect me to do things for them that they don’t do for me. To tell the truth, I am full of resentment. When is it ever going to be my turn? Are there any nice people out there?
  • I always think about other people and put them first. When I’m with other nice people, we go in circles with everyone going, “No, you go first! No you!” When I am with people who are not polite, I never get what I want. It’s a no win.

How do you know when “good” crosses the line into “too good?”

  • You’ve violated your boundaries.
  • The exchange isn’t fair.
  • It doesn’t feel good. (sometimes, emotions can be deceptive)
  • Your needs aren’t met.

It’s up to you to set healthy boundaries. You teach people how to treat you. If someone is taking advantage of you, it’s almost always because you allow it. If you are in an unsafe situation, it’s probably because you weren’t paying attention and didn’t say no. When you give more to others than you give to yourself, you cheat yourself.

How do you stop toxic goodness?

Do what you do because you want to. Then let go of the expectation that you will get something in return. This relieves the other person of an obligation that they didn’t agree to and relieves you of resentment.

Be honest about your motivations. If you are using others to meet your need for approval, stop. It can feel manipulative.

Value yourself as much as you value others. It’s okay to put yourself first. Take care of yourself. Ask for what you want. Refuse a request. You don’t have to have a good reason to say no or any reason at all. “I don’t feel like it” is good enough.

Surround yourself with people who share your interests and values. I get wanting to be open to all people. Our lives are enriched by those who can give as well as take. We connect most deeply with those who are similar enough to connect with and different enough to challenge us. If someone is too far apart, it becomes disruptive and unfulfilling to have them in our lives.

Focus on your values, not your rules. Rules are “supposed tos” that create guilt and anxiety if we cross the line. Values are a guidelines that reflect who we are.

“Be nice” is a rule. Kindness and integrity are values. When we violate rules, we judge ourselves and others as being wrong. When we live from our values, we do things that are in alignment with our self concept. Values allow us to do good and have healthy boundaries.