At an abandoned golf course near London’s Heathrow Airport, a short, sixty-something Indian man is berating me with cutting insults and venomous rage. Moments earlier he was a timid, soft-spoken, gentle creature. But his demeanor has abruptly shifted. “Turn around, you fucking dumb American!” he barks, spittle gathering at the corners of his mouth. “You think you’re so big, but I piss on you! Who the fuck do you think you are, walking up to me like this? Take one step closer and I will cut your balls off!”
Likewise, seven other men are being rebuked nearby — told to “go fuck themselves,” “eat shit,” “burn in hell,” etc. — while a giant 6-foot-8, salt-and-pepper-bearded 44-year-old Dutch man named Bjorn Heijligers looks on and offers context: “Your wives and children are asleep upstairs, and this man has arrived with a machete. Help is arriving soon so you only need to stop him for 30 seconds using only your words and masculine energy. If you don’t, he’s headed upstairs to rape your wife and daughters, leaving you as a corpse on the floor.”
I’m told to stand my ground better, connect with the earth and breath.
“Grab your balls Brian, I know you got them,” Heijligers commands. “Squeeze them a bit!”
It’s Day One of the 48-hour No More Mr. Nice Guy® Breaking Free Bootcamp hosted by Heijligers and Rowan Andrews, a slight, bearded British personal development coach and founder of No More Mr. Nice Guy® UK, a men’s coaching and support group with more than 700 members designed to help men free themselves from the limits of their “Nice Guy” personas. The workshop is based on a 2003 best-selling book, No More Mr. Nice Guy: A Proven Plan for Getting What You Want in Love, Sex and Life, written by psychotherapist Robert A. Glover. In it, Glover diagnoses the “Nice Guy Syndrome,” a belief that if men are “good,” they will be loved, have their needs met and experience a problem-free life. The wrinkle is, this strategy typically fails, which results in Nice Guys trying harder and harder, only to become hardened by resentment after all of that continual failure, causing them to be anything but nice.
For example, Nice Guys are dishonest, hiding their mistakes and avoiding conflict, while saying only what they think people want to hear. Nice Guys are secretive, hiding anything they believe might upset anyone. Nice Guys are manipulative, since they have difficulty asking for what they want in clear and direct ways. Nice Guys are controlling, since a priority for them is keeping their world smooth. Nice Guys give to get, since their generosity usually has unconscious (and unspoken) strings attached. And Nice Guys are passive aggressive, expressing their frustration in indirect, roundabout ways, repeating the same annoying behaviors while promising to never do them again.
Glover explains that you likely know a Nice Guy: He’s your relative who lets his wife run the show. He’s your buddy who will do anything for anybody despite his own life being in shambles. He’s your boss who tells you what you want to hear, only to reverse himself moments later to please someone else. He’s your friend who was dumped by his partner because he’s so afraid of conflict that nothing ever gets resolved. He’s the guy whose life seems so under control until one day he does something to burn it all down.
It’s no wonder, then, that Nice Guys seek help at workshops like No More Mr. Nice Guy® Breaking Free Bootcamp. While Andrews and Heijligers’ is the largest in the U.K., it’s hardly the only one worldwide. On any given day, you’ll find recovering Nice Guys seeking support in L.A., Salt Lake City, New York City, Austin, San Diego, Washington, D.C., Tucson, Boston, Denver, Houston, New Orleans, Munich, Sydney, Melbourne, and Toronto. Not to mention, the plethora of online courses, websites, subreddits and Facebook groups related to the Nice Guy Syndrome.
Back on the golf course, Heijligers explains why Nice Guys have an unhealthy relationship with anger. A lifetime of the aforementioned frustration and resentment creates a pressure cooker of suppressed rage that leaks out in passive aggressive, unhealthy ways, often erupting at unexpected and inopportune times. In fact, the point of the home invasion scene is to realize that anger can sometimes be healthy — essential even. Same with the next roleplay. Heijligers explains that we’re in a trench during World War I and will soon have to run over a hill to attack the Germans. We pair off again, and one of us — me, in this case — is scared and refuses to move since machine-gun fire will surely mow us all down. When the whistle blows, my partner, Hector (a pseudonym), a thirtysomething gay Spaniard (yes, we gays can be Nice Guys, too) is tasked with changing my mind.
He lays into me with frustration: “Come on, man, let’s go!” he shouts, struggling to find the right English words before shifting to Spanish. “Venga! Eso es por el país! Tenemos que perdernos! Tu conmigo y yo contigo!” (Come on! This is for our country! We have to hang on together — you with me and me with you!”).
It’s inspiring, if confusing.
The goal of this exercise is to embrace both our fury and fraternity. As Heijligers says, it’s not enough to have men encounter their rage, they need to do so with another man. He points to Iron John: A Book About Men by Robert Bly, leader of the mythopoetic men’s movement, in which Bly looked at 10,000 years of male initiation rites designed to separate boys from their mothers. To counter maternal manipulation and feminist badgering, Bly encourages men to reconnect with “positive images” of masculinity that are cast in the most aggressive tones possible, urging them to recapture their “fierce,” “harsh,” “wild” and Dionysian energy and become Zeus-like warriors and kings. All of which is problematic since, as Gerda Lerner explains in her feminist classic, The Creation of Patriarchy, it “means the manifestation and institutionalization of male dominance over women and children in the family and the extension of male dominance over women in society in general.”
Nevertheless, Heijligers insists that Western society is short on male-initiation practices nowadays, robbing boys of the imprint of a masculine, emotional connection. That’s essentially what he’s attempting to recreate here on the golf course (at least symbolically), taking men who are still very much boys (at least psychologically) out into the darkness of the unknown. He references Freudian theory that says every man subconsciously wants to crawl back into the mother’s womb. Nice Guys, Heijligers and Andrews maintain, lose their ground — or “give their power away,” as they put it — when this desire is projected onto adult partners. “It takes balls to face the harsh reality that no, you can’t go back to the nurturing teat of your mother,” Heijligers says. “You have to step into the cold darkness of the unknown. Through that, you become alive.”
I would say, though, me and my 13 fellow recovering Nice Guys feel more wobbly than alive after an hour of male-initiation rites designed to pry us away from mommy. “This is what our brotherhood is about,” Heijligers explains, gathering us in a huddle. “Holding each other accountable. Each of you can see the power in your brother that they don’t see in themselves. Okay on three… One, two, three…”
“Hoo-ah!” the Nice Guys instinctively respond in unison.
“We just touched our balls and felt our hearts,” Heijligers whispers in a low baritone. “Now it’s time to integrate.”
That is, breaking free from Nice Guy patterns doesn’t involve being “not nice.” Rather, it means “being integrated,” which Glover broadly defines as an ability to accept all aspects of one’s life. “An integrated man is able to embrace everything that makes him uniquely male: his power, his assertiveness, his courage and his passion,” he writes. “He has a strong sense of self. He takes responsibility for getting his own needs met.”
That’s eerily familiar to Men Going Their Own Way (or MGTOW) mantras I’ve come across. And while there’s no direct link between the MGTOW and Nice Guy movements, some on the r/MGTOW subreddit definitely recognize the similarities. “Awesome book,” reads a comment under an animated No More Mr. Nice Guy video seemingly narrated by Arnold Schwarzenegger. “Dr. Glover knows what he’s talking about,” the commenter adds. “Everyone should read this, it’s a MGTOW essential.”
The integration begins by putting one foot in front of the other, literally, as we’re directed to silently walk single file back to bootcamp headquarters — the Kennedy Conference Room at the The Crowne Plaza Heathrow — while minding our posture and feeling every footstep on the craggy terrain. “Lead with your cock and balls,” Heijligers orders. “If you do this consciously it’s like fucking in every moment.”
That’s a stretch, but “lead with your cock and balls” is a constant refrain here. Andrews tells me it’s because the typical Nice Guy posture (i.e., chest slouched, shoulders forward) changes the angle of the pelvis and retracts the groin. “Cock and balls out,” therefore, is a recovering Nice Guy battle cry.
One at a time, we ascend the Crowne Plaza steps to the second-floor conference room, a mid-size meeting space with two round tables in the center. A makeshift stage is flanked by two vertical “No More Mr. Nice Guy U.K.” banners bearing Andrews’ trademarked logo, while a series of framed quotes — including those from Winston Churchill, William Faulkner and Robert A. Glover — line the walls like a set of commandments.
Glover says the Nice Guy Syndrome rarely affects boys who have a father or masculine role model growing up. But due to a variety of factors — e.g., an ever-increasing divorce rate throughout the 20th century (globally, the divorce rate more than doubled between 1970 and 2008), and an education system dominated by females — a sizable portion of the Western male population has experienced some form of abandonment, which Glover calls “a child’s greatest fear” and which they cope with by hiding their “badness” from themselves and others to make sure they’re never abandoned again. (They also tend to blame themselves for being abandoned, a bit of faulty logic Glover describes as “toxic shame.”)
As such, he argues, the progression from “perfect little boy” to “Nice Guy” occurs in three stages:
- Internalization of toxic shame
- The creation of survival mechanisms (i.e., “Nice Guy Tendencies”) to avoid ever revisiting that shame
Much of the bootcamp then is devoted to identifying a childhood experience, down to the day, when the trauma first occurred. For example, Ben (a pseudonym), a mild-mannered British physician in his 40s who grew up as an only child, explains his toxic shame spawned from a mother battling mental health issues who delegated maternal responsibilities to a team of nannies. He remembers being constantly handed over to older women he didn’t know and going to dad for comfort, who was also unavailable much of the time due to alcoholism.
Pausing to suppress tears while clutching his core with his left hand, Ben admits it makes him deeply sad to talk about this and creates “a massive, body-shaped hole in my chest,” which he attempts to fill with money, professional certifications and porn. The world still feels unsafe for him due to an unceasing compulsion to get his mom to pay attention to him, he notes. (This isn’t his first bootcamp.) “To do that, I think I have to be really fucking good — never cry, never get angry, never be any trouble,” he explains. “Just be good. Which is ruining my marriage.”
Andrews nods understandingly. “You made a decision about yourself that you’re nothing,” he says.
“I’m nothing and unlovable,” Ben agrees.
Andrews asks where the hole is, and Ben points to his sternum. Andrews presses on it while Heijligers stands behind Ben to stabilize him. Almost immediately, Ben begins to weep.
“Just breathe into it,” Andrews whispers, adding more pressure. “Recognize that’s just a story you made up about yourself. What do you get out of holding onto it?”
“I think you get justification for carrying a pattern that’s been very comfortable — always trying to be good.”
Ben nods and takes his seat.
For Petr (another pseudonym), a 30-year-old Romanian IT executive, his toxic shame developed after his father died in a freak accident when he was seven. In an attempt to avoid being a further burden on his mother — and to differentiate himself from a troublemaking older brother — Petr made sure he was always well-behaved. “That was a horrible year for my mom,” he says. “I never asked her for help with homework because I knew she was too sad.”
“What decision do you think you made?” Andrews asks.
“To hide myself and not make mistakes,” Petr responds. “I didn’t allow myself to be myself.”
“What are you hiding from?” Andrews wonders. “Because you’re still doing it now. You made a decision that hiding and perfection equates to safety. Feel that decision deep inside you and breathe into it.” Heijligers once again assumes the position, flanking Petr from behind, as Andrews performs another toxic shame exorcism.
This goes on all afternoon, as one by one, the recovering Nice Guys recall heartbreaking tales of childhood abandonment, and with Andrews assistance, identify a corresponding decision they made about themselves based on it. (Of course, women are also abandoned and carry childhood trauma into adulthood; they, however, are more likely to be labeled a “people pleaser” or “codependent” rather than a “nice gal.”)
Greg, a doughy, middle-aged man sitting next to me who tears up when introducing himself, has among the more gut-wrenching moments of bootcamp. After his dad left his family for another woman when he was a toddler, Greg was raised by his mother and her sisters who constantly reminded him that all men are “evil” and “only interested in sex.”
“What about me?” his mom would snap whenever Greg had a problem, like when he was in excruciating pain following a circumcision at age four for medical reasons. “What about my needs?!?!”
Thus, Greg internalized that he was wrong for wanting anything having to do with his penis. As an adult, he now regularly enters into what Glover calls “covert contracts” with women, particularly in the bedroom. “If I give my girlfriend oral sex, I get nasty if she doesn’t do the same for me,” he says softly. Also, due to his fear of abandonment, he constantly feels the need to prove to women that he isn’t “evil.”
As Andrews applies pressure to Greg’s sternum he begins to cough. “I can’t breathe so well right now,” he gasps.
“Just breathe into it,” Andrews whispers calmly, humming in his ear with a deep bass growl. “What did it feel like to be ignored after your circumcision? Feel that pain as you exhale.”
Greg is now choking through tears and dry heaving — it’s intense.
Later, I ask him how he’s feeling after such an emotional day. His ever-present neediness has been lifted, at least temporarily, and his voice seems deeper. “Something’s different,” Greg reports with newfound confidence. “I know the pattern is still there, and I’ll always need to keep in check with that. But it hasn’t got the same power over me.”
When I run all of this by C.J. Pascoe, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Oregon, who among many other things has debunked the notion that nice guys — or “good guys” — can’t be rapists, sighs. “This sounds like what those of us who research men and masculinity hear again and again about how nice guys never get the girls due to the ‘friend zone.’ It’s a psychological solution to the problem of gender inequality by which men can look past their structural privilege by claiming individual victimization.”
Regardless, it begs the question: What do these men become if, and when, they shed their Nice Guy persona? For his part, Andrews promises a clean slate for a new life — or a “vision,” as it’s referred to here — based on authentic masculinity. Doing so, however, requires learning to avoid feminine distractions.
To demonstrate, we pair up again and are directed to use our left eye to stare into the left eye of our partner — mine, a middle-aged German named Otto (like all the other male attendees throughout, a pseudonym) — allowing all thoughts to dissipate as we become present with another man. When we feel that our partner is distracted — no itching or scratching (a tough one for me) — we’re to give him a swift slap on the shoulder. (I receive multiple from Otto.)
I’m briefly confused by a thunder of shoulder slaps but quickly realize why: An elegant Dutch woman — Freya Sieben, Heijligers’ fiancée — has entered the room and is slowly walking by each pair of men, occasionally stopping to comment. “I like the way your clothes fit on your body,” she whispers in my ear. I, though, successfully remain fixed on Otto’s left pupil.
This exercise, Andrews explains, is meant to illustrate the interplay between masculine and feminine energy. “Nice Guys are easily distracted by and deferential to femininity,” he says. “We fall in love with it as though it’s the most important thing in the world. What’s more important for recovering Nice Guys, though, is learning how to connect with masculine energy and be true to themselves.” It’s that, we’re told — as opposed to neediness and people pleasing — which will attract women.
Illustrating how this interplay works IRL, Andrews invites Ben, the unlovable British doctor with marriage problems, to work with Sieben on something that’s confounding him: how to initiate makeup sex with his wife. Sieben stands at the front of the room with her back to us, clearly annoyed. Andrews asks Ben how he’d typically attempt to make things right with his wife. Ben walks up timidly to Sieben and puts his hand on her back-facing shoulder. “I’m really sorry,” he says sheepishly. “I fucked up this time. I really want you to be happy and will do anything for you…”
There’s no response from Sieben.
“Relax,” Andrews says, urging Ben to slow down and connect with his masculinity.
He takes a deep breath and tries again: “I really love you, and I’m really here for you. Whatever you want from me, I’m here to give you the very best that I can — ”
“When I say relax, don’t collapse,” Andrews corrects. “Chest up, cock out. Turn her around and look her in the eye.”
When he does, his Nice Guy grin suddenly disappears. “Look,” he says firmly. “I’m really sorry about this. But I need you to tell me what’s going on and let me help you. How can I hear you better?”
Sieben wells up and falls into Ben’s arm. “Hold me tighter,” she directs.
“I’ve got you,” he whispers over a smattering of sniffles in the room.
“See?” Heijligers says to us. “Before he was still trying to be liked. Now he’s relaxed and grounded.”
Sieben agrees, adding, “You said, ‘Tell me what you need, I’m here for you.’ That’s gold. You opened my heart by just being there. And I don’t even know you.”
“That’s a powerful lesson,” Ben says, proud of himself. “I wish I’d learned that a long time ago.”
Reviewing everyone else’s teachable moments in the final session, Andrews points to a list of goals on the wall created by the group in the first session:
- “Don’t be so needy.”
- “Trust people.”
- “Connect with other men.”
- “Let my mother go.”
- “Set boundaries in relationships.”
- “Have more confidence.”
- “Don’t take things personally.”
- “Stop people pleasing.”
He pauses after each to ask whomever set the goal what his roadmap is to reaching it.
Obviously doing so will take more than two days, Andrews says, which is why he urges everyone to join a WhatsApp group setup for this workshop, follow the No More Nice Guy U.K. Facebook page, and for Londoners, attend biweekly IRL Nice Guy meetups.
I stop by one the following Thursday and find 12 men sitting in a circle with Andrews, taking turns sharing their respective Nice Guy struggles. It’s reminiscent of the 12-step meetings I use to work out my toxic shame (previously done by hoovering 8-balls of cocaine and tanks of Jack Daniels). Tonight’s session is about visions: Who am I without my Nice Guy, and how do I share this new identity with the world?
“We’re all Nice Guys at heart at different stages on the journey to integration,” notes Simon, a 40-year-old engineer whose father committed suicide when he was seven.
That journey, of course, can’t conclude until it’s properly led by the cock and balls.