Having Feelings About Rejection Doesn’t Make You a “Nice Guy”

Credit: Lauren/callmekitto on Tumblr
Credit: Lauren/callmekitto on Tumblr

The term “Nice Guy” was, at one point, a very useful term when it comes to discussing sexist dating dynamics. A Nice Guy is someone who has a crush on a female friend and believes that his friendship and his (superficially) good treatment of her entitles him to sex/romance.

If his crush rejects him, he often becomes bitter or angry and claims that he’s a “nice guy” unlike those other jerks she chooses to date and he’s done so much for her and so on and so forth.

Nice Guys may genuinely have been interested in friendship with the women they’re into, or the entire friendship may have been a ruse to try to manipulate her into a sexual/romantic relationship. What they all have in common is that they believe that if they’re nice enough to someone, then that person “ought” to reciprocate their interest.

(Obligatory “yes, this can happen between folks of any genders”; however, the term was coined to talk about what is arguably the most common version of it and that’s in a heterosexual context where the guy is the one acting entitled. While people of all genders and orientations may believe that being nice to someone entitles them to sex/romance, and while this is harmful no matter what, it seems to do the most harm when it’s got the combined forces of male privilege and heteronormativity behind it.)

So, “Nice Guy” is an important concept because it allows us to describe and discuss gendered patterns that might otherwise remain invisible. “Nice Guy” is how so many women end up in relationships they didn’t really want to be in, but felt obligated to at least try out. (Of course, pressure to start a relationship often turns into pressure to stay in the relationship.) It’s also how many women’s fear of rejecting men gets reinforced. Even if the Nice Guy never turns physically violent, his guilt-tripping and verbal coercion is scary and unpleasant enough for many women, and they learn to be very careful about letting men down easy. Sometimes, though, he becomes physically violent too.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure if the concept is still as useful as it originally was, because its meaning has become diluted to the point of uselessness.

The problem is that people keep referring to others as “Nice Guys” for having crushes on their friends and then being sad when those feelings aren’t reciprocated. That is not what the term originally meant. Feeling sad, disappointed, or even angry when someone you’re interested in rejects you is normal. While I’m sure some people would feel immediate acceptance (or nothing at all), I think that for most people it’s normal to have negative feelings. People want things! Sometimes those things don’t happen! That’s disappointing. It’s supposed to be.

I think the source of the problem is that people conflate feelings and actions. When you imagine someone feeling upset or angry about being rejected, you probably imagine that they would guilt-trip the person who rejected them or lash out at them or try to pressure them, like a Nice Guy would. And yeah, sometimes that’s what happens. But you don’t see all the people who get rejected and just quietly feel like shit or talk it out with a friend or write about it in their journal and then move on.

Furthermore, some people assume that if you’re upset about not getting something you wanted, then you must’ve felt entitled to it. That’s not the case. Wanting something very badly is enough to cause strong negative feelings if you aren’t able to have what you want, even if you never felt like it was somehow owed you. Just ask anyone who’s ever gone out on a limb to apply for a dream job that they doubted they’d get, and then were still pretty upset about not getting.

Weirdly, nobody seems to think that way about breakups. If you’re in a serious relationship and your partner breaks up with you, it’s considered reasonable to be upset. Few people would seriously argue that you must’ve been some Nice Guy asshole who felt entitled to your partner’s love and attention, just because you were upset that you were dumped.

Rejection can feel different depending on whether it’s a breakup of a preexisting relationship or a “no” from someone you just asked out on a first date, but it’s rejection all the same. It hurts. Those feelings aren’t wrong.

Here are a bunch of feelings you might have when someone rejects you that I think are valid and not necessarily coming from a place of entitlement:

  • Feeling sad or upset that you were rejected
  • Wishing the person would change their mind
  • Thinking that you would’ve made a good partner for this person
  • Thinking that you would’ve made a better partner for this person than whoever they’re interested in
  • Feeling embarrassed that you were rejected
  • Feeling like you don’t want to see them or talk to them anymore

None of these is the same as “I deserve sex/romance from this person because I was their friend.”

Here are some actions you might take in response to being rejected that are not okay:

  • Pressuring the person to change their mind (which isn’t the same as saying “Well, let me know if you ever change your mind” and then stepping back)
  • Guilt-tripping them for rejecting you (which isn’t the same as being honest about your feelings about the rejection)
  • Cutting off your friendship with them because you want to “punish” them (which isn’t the same as putting the friendship on pause or ending it because it’s too painful; more on this in a future blog post)
  • Saying nasty things about the person they’re interested in (which isn’t the same as expressing a valid concern about that person and then stepping back)
  • Making them perform the emotional labor of taking care of your feelings about the rejection (although it’s okay to ask other people for support, or accept support that this person freely offers you)
  • Becoming cruel to the person to get back at them (i.e. “Whatever, I never liked you anyway, you [gendered slur]”)

As you can tell by all the parenthetical caveats, each of those could probably have a blog post all to itself. This isn’t supposed to be the be-all end-all list of Appropriate vs Inappropriate Responses to Rejection. The point is that the problem with Nice Guys isn’t their feelings, it’s the actions they take in response to their feelings. Stigmatizing the feelings themselves isn’t helpful because you can’t shame people out of having feelings (and why on earth would you want to).

I understand that many non-male people are just fatigued of hearing men complain about getting rejected by women (not to mention the emotional labor that they’re often expected to perform around this) and may mentally categorize them as Nice Guys so that they can dismiss their pain and avoid having to deal with it. I also understand that when you’ve been surrounded by Nice Guys, you may hear Nice Guy-ism in statements that aren’t in and of themselves entitled, because that’s what you expect to hear next. (For instance, “I can’t believe she turned me down” might often be followed by “…after everything I did for her.”) It’s just classical conditioning at that point.

In fact, dismissing people’s feelings as invalid is a very common way that people cope with the limits of their own empathy. We tend to believe that if someone close to us needs support, we’re obligated to provide it–unless we can show that they don’t really need it, or shouldn’t. But that’s not how it works. The fact that someone needs something–support, a listening ear, whatever–does not mean you have to give them that thing. You are welcome to say, “I’m sorry, that sounds hard, but I can’t be the one you talk to about this.”

The misuse of the Nice Guy term falls in the same category as memes like “male tears” and “feefees,” which start off making a good point (some men get highly emotional in response to conversations about sexism and yet they accuse women of being the overemotional ones) but then veer into sexism themselves by perpetuating the gendered idea that men who show emotion are ridiculous, weak, and pathetic. The counterargument here is usually, “But I don’t mean those kinds of feelings, I mean these kinds of feelings!” But look, either it’s okay to have feelings or it isn’t. Maybe it’s not the feelings that are the problem, but the way some people choose to deal with certain feelings.

Mental health is a social justice issue too, and any social justice that focuses on shaming or ridiculing people for their feelings, which they did not choose, rather than for their actions, which they did choose, is not any social justice I’m interested in.

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Having Feelings About Rejection Doesn’t Make You a “Nice Guy”

20 thoughts on “Having Feelings About Rejection Doesn’t Make You a “Nice Guy”

  1. 1

    I agree with the overall thrust of this article, but I don’t quite get this: “. . . or the entire friendship may have been a ruse to try to manipulate her into a sexual/romantic relationship.”

    I think for a lot of people, the first step when they think they might be attracted to someone is to get to know them better/try to become platonic friends first. Perhaps they think that immediately asking out someone they barely know would be weird, or have a high rate of failure. I get how this can be frustrating if you didn’t suspect their intentions, but if you frame this as “a ruse to try to manipulate you into a relationship”, it seems like you could equally frame dating or any other form of courtship the same way. It seems like the only difference is the amount of time you take to express your feelings.

    1. 1.1

      No, that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about people deliberately pretending to be interested in friendship when they already know that all they want is to fuck. It’s happened to most women I know (myself included) and it’s not the same as becoming friends with someone and getting to know them to explore the potential for a relationship. I’m not just talking about serious romantic relationships in this piece.

      1. I do think it’s worth noting here, though, that these get conflated, just as “Nice Guys” has undergone concept creep. That is to say, if you read the sort of sites where people complain about “Nice Guys”, you’ll see people complain that attempting to just befriend someone when you’re also interested in them romantically is befriending them under false pretenses, etc.

        …well, or at least so I recall. Apologies, but I don’t much feel like going trawling for examples on this one. At the very least, even if I’m totally misremembering and that isn’t said, it’s certainly an impression one can get and I haven’t previously seen it explicitly disclaimed, making it an example of the sort of failure to be clear that leads to total paralysis on the part of men who are trying to be good feminists.

        So basically I think this is a good post but I would take it further.

        (OK actually I do think there is one important thing you’re missing but that is a whole separate comment which I might not get around to.)

      2. HLG

        Your premises are spot on, but your conclusions are very one sided.

        You’ve got to admit that it happens to some women more than others. It takes two to tango, even with a “nice guys” relationships.

        I tried to be a “nice guy” when I was younger. That’s kinda what you learn when you are raised by a single mom. I was admittedly desperate for attention. Now that I’m much older and have a better perspective on things, I feel was the one being manipulated, but I should have know better.

        These platonic friendships I had were very one sided. Everything was about her and what she needs. It felt very dependent and it’s nice being needed when I was admittedly very desperate for attention. I think it’s easy to understand how someone can feel frustrated by that. But in retrospect I truly wonder if my “friends” had me around for the convenience of having desperate guy. I was around to do things and be there to vent. Now a days I can’t believe the kinda crap that I would sit and attentively listen to. I mean come on, I can’t even sit through 20 minutes of a chick flick without tearing my hair out. If a man can last more than 20 minutes and you think he wants to be friends it’s better if you just end that friendship now.

        I imagine some men don’t grow out of that phase. Now I’m admittedly an ass hole. I’m glad I grew a pair because I’m happily married with a beautiful woman and I can think back on that stuff and laugh.

        1. I mean, some people (of all genders) are definitely bad friends and make everything about them and their needs. But they’re not forcing you to be friends with them. It’s not exactly their responsibility to end a friendship that isn’t meeting YOUR needs, because they have no idea what your needs are. (And even if they did, you’re still responsible for your own boundaries.)

          1. Warning: privileged skewed viewpoint most probably (white, physically male, mentally male, etero). Willing to read though!

            I was with you in the most part of the article. The things I agree less are probably just a matter of me not understanding English or some implications because of my background, so I can accept them on these grounds.

            This answer was an easy trap I suppose. Your article as about the “Nice Guy”, the consideration by HLG was about the “Fascinating Girl” (Obligatory “yes, this can happen between folks of any genders” applies here too, … I hope you get the idea). I’m referring to some “Fascinating Girl” A that pretends confidence and intimacy to just keep the “Desperate B” around, often (ab)using B and making B think that something may happen.

            As I said, I subscribe to your considerations about the former: if you’re just pretending to be a friend for having sex, and then you don’t get it, you have the right to feel frustrated but not the right to use that frustration against the Other. I hope the summary is accurate.

            HLG, from what I can understand, is talking about what B should be considered in the “Fascinating Girl” case. Is B a “Nice Guy”? It depends on how B behaves, of course, but I would tend to think that if B was tricked into thinking about some prize at the end of the rainbow, complaining (being vocal, never physical of course) about this would be their right. It’s when “after all I’ve done for A” actually means “after all A asked/induced me to do”. It’s like when your boss asks you to “exit the comfort zone” and “push your limits” with an unspoken promise that something might be in sight (a pay rise, a promotion, or both) and then you just don’t get anything.

            The trap is that the focus seems to have shifted on A in your answer, not on whether B is a “Nice Guy” or not. This is where I’m having understanding issues.

            Dismissing the trick by “Fascinating Girl” as “they’re not forcing you to be friends with them” is something not generally accurate. What is “forcing”? Is leveraging upon the needs and guilt of a person “forcing”? Assuming the “Nice Guy” does not become physically violent, but does the bad emotional tricks you rightly talk about, is he “forcing”?

            In other terms, you seem to promote “Nice Guy shouldn’t do this and put the Other in an emotional corner” as opposed to “Nice Guy is a fool and the Other should just cease to have contacts”. I agree that the “Other” has a right to live in peace without having to fight for this.

            On the other side, you seem to promote “Fascinating Girl should just be avoided by the Other when they realize what they really are, it’s no big deal” as opposed “Nice Girl should stop trying to manipulate people and trap them”. How come B does not deserve the same level of well-being but should fight for it? Try to think in terms of “Fascinating Guy” – would you think the same when some guy uses his charm in the same manipulative way?

            From my very personal and privileged point of view, I think that people should stop playing tricks on others, but when this happens you should always feel entitled to seek help and fight back, whatever flavor of “Nice” or “Fascinating” you hit.

            Have a nice weekend!

          2. “But they’re not forcing you to be friends with them. ”

            Perhaps not in a literal pointing-a-gun-at-your-head sense, but many of them are very good at making less assertive people *feel* forced to stay in such a situation.

    2. 1.2

      Leon, if you (like most people) can understand the concept of “pretending to be someone’s friend”, then that’s a pretty good example of what she’s talking about. For instance: pretending to like things about them, their interests, the things they talk about, the things they like doing, the things they feel good about, and so on. Pretending to be a friend. I guess it’s also a spectrum (or many), from more sincere to more fake.

  2. 2

    Wonderful article.

    I would add a root part of “nice guy” syndrome isn’t necessarily about being nice enough to a person that they feel entitled to sex (though I agree that it bubbles up in that scenario). Dating and sex are in many ways as important emotionally as eating, but many people are very unsure about how to go about being successful in dating, which leads to incredible frustration.

    That’s why those goofy “red pill” sites have a following. They may be silly and misogynistic, but they do give guys meaningful advice about something people want to know, namely how to be successful with women. Contrast to pretty meaningless advice like “be nice” and “be yourself,” those sites at least have concrete plans.

    1. 2.1

      Bringing up “red pill” sites in this context is interesting, because it brings out how much frustration results from a lack of clarity about seeking sex and intimate relationships. The “red pill” folks are obsessed with seduction, but frame it in the context of seeking an ideal mate. This is inherently ridiculous, and creates a space for a lot of misogyny.

      I know when I was younger, I was looking for a level of emotional bonding that I wasn’t going to get with someone I met at a party or a bar, but I still thought that I wanted easy sex. It was a combination of hormones and narcissism, and it did not make me a happy camper.

      When it comes down to it, casual sex, intense (short-term) romances, and reliable long-term relationships are very different things, and involve very different kinds of social signals. They are also all inherently ruthless — once you’ve realized that you’re playing one of those games, you have to accept that hurt feelings are a very likely part of the drama. Anyone who is playing those games without making serious judgments about the other person is not taking the game seriously, so it makes no sense to think that you can avoid that judgment.

      This is one of the things that makes “nice guy” such an interesting trope from the point of view of rhetoric. If you are actually involved in one of those games, asserting that you’re a “nice” person shows that either you’re very naive, and aren’t familiar with the necessary ruthlessness, or you are trying to distance yourself from feeling responsible for doing something harmful to another person.

  3. 3

    I agree … about the overuse of the “Nice Guy” label and the ridiculous mind-reading that can see a secret pernicious “sense of Entitlement” in the most mundane actions.

    I don’t think it’s a case of “concept creep” . I think it’s a case of the combination of the Fundamental Attribution Error and Confirmation Bias.

    The repetitive script is almost always as follows: One person sees another engaging in some behavior that, objectively, is consistent with any number of possible causes and decides that (1) it must be reflect some fundamental character trait of that person (F.A.E) and (2) that the character trait it reflects is the one that (quelle surprise!) aligns with their own stereotype about the person engaging in that behavior (C.B.).

    When you are stereotyped as X, every action that is consistent with X gets interpreted as proof of X regardless of any other equally consistent (or better) explanations.

  4. 4

    The counterargument here is usually, “But I don’t mean those kinds of feelings, I mean these kinds of feelings!” But look, either it’s okay to have feelings or it isn’t. Maybe it’s not the feelings that are the problem, but the way some people choose to deal with certain feelings.

    Hmmm, I’m not entirely sure here. Can’t there be any nuance? Yes, having feelings is hardly something you can help, and once you have those feelings you need to deal with them in a hopefully constructive way, but sometimes feelings are entirely the result of someone’s own faulty sense of entitlement. To use an extreme example, you wouldn’t say “it’s OK to feel upset and disappointed because the little old lady saw through your telephone scam, let’s find some constructive way for you to deal with those feelings.”
    I deal with way too many young people whose fundamental sense of what is actually fair and reasonable is completely fucked up. In those cases yes, the feelings are a problem because they’re both the result of a skewed view on reality AND a big obstacle that traps people in their own sense of being mistreated.

    1. 4.1

      To use an extreme example, you wouldn’t say “it’s OK to feel upset and disappointed because the little old lady saw through your telephone scam, let’s find some constructive way for you to deal with those feelings.”

      As a therapist, I wouldn’t say that, but I wouldn’t jump straight to trying to change the person either, because that’s not effective. As a friend, I wouldn’t focus on the feelings at all, I’d just tell them that I get that they really need money but what they did was fucked up. What they DID, not how they felt.

      Either way I wouldn’t be trying to change the person’s feelings, but rather the mindset that led to the actions that led to the results that led to the feelings.

      1. No, I cannot agree here. If you feel angry at the little old lady who did not part with her meagre pension for your benefit, your feelings are bad and wrong. If you’re happy that 600 people drowned in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe, your feelings are part of the problem. They are not something that is removed from the issue, independent of thought, previous and future actions.
        I get that you look at this a lot from the perspective of a therapist and I agree that in therapy the client takes priority, but I’m looking at this from the perspective of an ordinary person.
        I agree that offering alternative solutions to express feelings are a good idea and can help a lot, I also don’t think that “feelings” and “how to deal with feelings” can always be separated clearly. The expression “blind with rage” exists for a reason.

        As a friend, I wouldn’t focus on the feelings at all, I’d just tell them that I get that they really need money but what they did was fucked up.

        How do you know? I think that’s an interesting point here: You automatically assumed that the person who did this was actually suffering from economic distress and had a legitimate need for money.

        1. How do you know? I think that’s an interesting point here: You automatically assumed that the person who did this was actually suffering from economic distress and had a legitimate need for money.

          The vast majority of the people I’ve ever met or worked with who did unethical things for money were pretty desperate. Obviously if I didn’t know that was true, or knew it wasn’t, then I wouldn’t say that. But that’s a pretty outlandish hypothetical to begin with. Most situations are not as morally cut-and-dry as scamming poor old ladies.

          1. Outlandish? Every single elderly relative/friend I have/had has been the victim of attempted/successful scams. In a country with a working social system compared to the USA. When they didn’t succeed they often reacted angrily, much like dudes who get turned down when they think they’re entitled to sex.
            I cannot agree with saying it’s OK for them to feel angry because my grandma wasn’t so naive and gave them access to her life savings which she needs for her medical care. Or that it’S OK to be happy now that they cheated a kind old couple out of the money they desperately need themselves for rent and food.
            I cannot condone those feelings because they’re unethical.

    2. 4.2

      I’d say the problem there isn’t their feelings, but the fact they were trying to do a telephone scam. Trying to frame this is terms of what feelings they are allowed to have is counter-productive.

      1. That the problem is them doing the scam goes without saying, the entire reason an example like that is picked is that the behavior is so completely unacceptable that there’s no danger of derailing to the effect of “but what if they had a good reason to try and scam old people out of all their savings”.

        That being so unambiguous gives access to the main point, which is of whether or not the feelings are valid. The hypothetical posited is an emotional reaction where someone got angry at their target for seeing through their scam and not getting cheated. It’s also a reaction that says a lot about the underlying assumptions being made, and that says nothing good.

        1. OK, so what’s the point? How does going through people’s emotional reactions to decide whether they are valid or not help anything if their emotions aren’t what’s causing the harm?

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