Can you be too nice? Yes. In an effort to be nice, HSPs can stop being honest with ourselves and others. This creates trouble in our relationships. 

In a recent session, I shared with my spiritual director a challenging situation I was struggling to deal with. In response, he said, “Don’t take this the wrong way. But sometimes, it’s possible to be too nice.”

He proceeded to tell me the parable of the snake that refused to hiss. The short version (in my words) goes like this:

A holy man passes through a certain Indian village on his wanderings each year. One year, the villagers beg him to talk to the snake, who is terrorizing them, eating their livestock and even their children. The holy man speaks to the snake, who reluctantly agrees to back off.

A year later, returning to the village, the holy man is dismayed to find the snake lying in the road. He is half dead, covered with dust and cuts. “What has happened to you, oh snake?” he cries.

The snake replies, “I stopped attacking anyone, like you told me to. But now they attack me. They kick me, cut me, and beat me with sticks.” The holy man replies, “Ah, snake! I told you not to bite! But I did not tell you not to hiss!”

This story changed my life overnight. I realized I had been telling myself I had two options in my relationships: be a conciliatory doormat, or be an abrasive troublemaker. And I know I’m not the only highly sensitive person (HSP) holding that belief.

Self-care can create conflict with others

Let’s face it: all the self-care in the world won’t help us if we don’t know how to care for ourselves around other people. You can’t care for yourself effectively unless you can be authentic with yourself and with the people around you.

If you are authentic, though, you are bound sooner or later to step on someone else’s toes. This is a key moment for a sensitive person, because we find conflict intensely unpleasant. Stressful. Overarousing.

We really want people to like us, and we want harmony and peace in our relationships. As my spiritual director put it, we like to be agreeable. In fact, we value agreeableness so highly that it’s worth taking a moment to unpack what we mean by it.

Agreeableness holds a place of honor in the Big Five theory of personality, which is currently the most widely accepted theory of personality. As described in Psychology Today, it posits five personality attributes:

  • Openness to experience (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious)
  • Conscientiousness (efficient/organized vs. extravagant/careless)
  • Extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved)
  • Agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs. critical/rational)
  • Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. resilient/confident)

As I read this list, I can feel my hackles rise.

Why the Big Five theory makes me crazy

The very thought of the Big 5 personality theory sends me into a fit of disagreeableness, for several reasons:

  • The theory claims to be universal, despite being based entirely on studies of affluent Western white people.
  • Because it is so general, the theory cannot generate any helpful path for change. The Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram systems have been criticized for being unscientific. Yet they have helped many people because each clearly lays out what spiritual teacher Richard Rohr would describe as a “path of redemption” for each type.
  • The fifth trait, neuroticism, means that you “worry about things, are easily disturbed, have frequent mood swings, get irritated easily, often feel blue.” Many HSPs, including me, will recognize that description: it’s us, on a bad day. The last thing we need is to be labeled neurotic: we are simply highly sensitive, and need to learn how to manage our sensitive trait.
  • Worst of all, the Big Five theory employs judgmental dichotomies: inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious; efficient/organized vs. extravagant/careless; outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved; friendly/compassionate vs. critical/rational; and (yes) sensitive/nervous vs. resilient/confident.

I can be curious, inventive, and cautious; sensitive and resilient; outgoing sometimes, solitary other times. I loathe being pigeonholed by these false, judgmental dichotomies.

All this brings me back to the topic of hissing. In the Big Five system, your “agreeableness”—the first trait— is identified through your agreement with statements like “is compassionate, has a soft heart.” The linguistic implication is clear: to be anything other than soft-hearted is disagreeable. As I’ve noted, HSPs (me included) are all too ready to believe this, without “help” from anyone else.

No wonder I felt elated hearing the story of the snake that hissed. My horizon of possibility had just undergone a dramatic expansion.

What does it mean to hiss?

We know what a snake’s hiss sounds like. But what does it sound like when a person “hisses?” In the broadest sense, you use your words. Just like they told you in kindergarten.

First, though, you will need to establish perspective. Sensitive people know all too well what it is like to feel the “bite” of another’s words, and we remember this when it’s time to express our own upset. We try to avoid saying anything that could possibly sound harsh.

In the process of trying to be too nice, we can end up being so roundabout—so edited, vetted, and sanitized—that our authentic upset gets lost in translation. As you learn to hiss, you may need to seek perspective and feedback from trusted friends or relatives. Are the words you are considering saying truly harsh or “mean?” Or are they merely direct?  

Subconscious self-editing: an HSP challenge

To get to this point of asking for perspective on your words, though, you may first need to allow yourself space to be upset. Otherwise you will edit yourself so early and so effectively that you don’t even realize you are upset in the first place….which is exactly what I did when we made our plan a few weeks ago to paint the kitchen.

Our kitchen runs the whole width of the house, has six windows and sliding glass doors, louvered doors into a laundry area, and all the usual cupboards. You couldn’t possibly cram more trim work into a single room. Looking at the room, we grasped that it would be a big job. We were wrong: it was a huge job.

Now, I am a terrible painter. I’m way too persnickety. At the same time, I’m prone to making messes. The fumes make me wonky. The truth is, given all I’ve got on my plate right now, putting in 16 hours of painting on a weekend is more than I can do.

In short, I should never, ever have volunteered to help paint the kitchen. Certainly, I could support my partner any way I could, I could help with cleanup, provide timely snacks, and bestow ample “oohs” and “ahhhs”— as long as I didn’t have to apply actual paint to an actual wall.

But did I tell my partner any of this when we made our plans? No. Because I did not even admit it to myself. As a result, the topic became inexplicably tense between us. We began to argue over strange things, like “Should we move all the stuff off the top of the refrigerator tonight? Or tomorrow?”

A real-life example of hissing

Ugh. Inexplicable arguments are, in my experience, a sign of unacknowledged needs. Those, unfortunately, tend to get expressed in unskillful ways. Not until I was actually holding a brush to the wall did I find the clarity to be more direct.

We had already been griping at each other (I can’t even remember what about) when I heard a stream of truth coming out of my mouth: “I hate painting! I’m terrible at it! The pressure is too high, and the pay is way too low! I can’t afford to take all this time on the weekend!”

In short, I forgot to be too nice. Instead, I hissed. I found this a most interesting experience internally. I felt upset, yet at the same time I was aware of keeping my sense of humor (the part about the low pay.) I didn’t call my partner names, or say anything “mean.” I simply said the exact truth, and the effects were powerful and immediate.

I instantly felt better. And, to my surprise, my partner reacted not with defensiveness, but with kindness and concern. We both knew what I was saying was true. Our inexplicable snarking had in fact stemmed from me not being honest with myself or with him.

After that, we were able to problem-solve together. I did trim work until I hit my limit four hours later. My partner kept going.

In the end, after discovering the entire ceiling would need a second coat, he gave up trying to finish the job that weekend. Instead, he did enough to allow us to move most of our stuff back into the kitchen. (Both of us—like many HSPs— find mess stressful, so this was a big gift.) In the meantime, we had not a single snarky interaction the rest of the weekend.

Don’t be too nice. It’s OK to hiss.

None of this—especially the conflict transformation part—could have happened as long as I believed it was unacceptable for me to not want to paint. I had to tell him what was going on for me, once I got that figured out for myself.

There’s a key lesson here for HSPs: you can say what’s on your mind. In fact, you need to. As my spiritual director puts it the divine is truth, beauty, and goodness, by its very nature. Therefore, the truth always points you towards the divine—even when it feels messy at first.

To get to “Point B”—wherever we want to go next—we must first acknowledge our “Point A”—where we are now. In our relationships, “Point A” is our truth, at this moment. If I’m telling my partner I’m willing to paint, when truly I’m not, we are never going to be able to get where we need to go in a non-conflictual way.

I’ve now realized the only time I’m truly disagreeable is when I don’t hiss. I try to be too nice, and then I get resentful. Don’t let this happen to you. Give yourself permission to be a bit disagreeable.

As you begin to reap the rewards of being authentic with yourself and others—including hissing, if you need to—you’ll realize that what you thought was “mean” is simply honest…and good relationships thrive on honesty.

Photo by James Wainscoat on Unsplash