Kindness is a word that we use frequently. “In a world where you can be anything, be kind” and other such quotes frequently grace our social media feeds. Especially now, given our current Corona-climate, we’ve all realised the power of kindness.
Kindness was the theme for Mental Health Awareness week this year. We know the world needs more of it, but what does it actually mean and what does it have to do with our mental health? As a recovering people pleaser, my relationship with kindness has evolved from being unhealthy and draining into something that has been a key tool in developing my self worth and managing my own mental health.
This has been made possible by not just knowing that it is important to be kind, but by developing my own understanding of why and what it means to be kind.
Here is what I have come to know about kindness and our wellbeing.
Kindness is a part of feeling connected and supported
Kindness connects us to other beings. As the recipient, it makes us feel significant and supported. As the giver, it enables us to contribute positively to something outside of ourselves. In either case, it confirms our own existence and our relationship with others in a positive way.
Even if we are just observing kindness, it deepens our sense of connection. It encourages our belief that the world is safe, that we are ‘all in this together’, and provides us with a sense of reassurance. There are some aspects of our present situation with COVID-19 that have exemplified how kindness can reinforce our sense of comfort in the face of adversity.
Feeling connected, supported and significant are basic human needs and thus play a critical role in our overall wellbeing.
People pleasing dulls our ability to connect through kindness
Now that we’ve highlighted the warm and fuzzy, let’s face a less comfortable learning.
For the longest time I thought that being kind was doing anything to make others happy. People pleasing at its finest. Until I learned that the intention behind the act of kindness is what makes it truly kind.
When we people please, our acts of kindness are driven by a need to be accepted and loved. By an intense fear of being rejected or abandoned. The desire to do something nice for another is muddled with this need to protect yourself. It becomes another thing we think we ‘should’ do.
If this resonates with you, please don’t blame or shame yourself. That is not helpful and it is certainly not kind. The intention here is to simply make you aware of how this behaviour might be playing out. How does it sacrifice your own health and happiness? Are you suppressing your own voice and needs in favour of someone else’s? How is that affecting your relationship with them and with yourself?
When we people please we are stripping away the power that kindness has to genuinely connect us.
Boundaries are a form of kindness
Following on from the above, kindness is not about always saying yes, especially when what we really mean is no. Setting and communicating our boundaries are a form of kindness.
By saying no to others, we are saying yes to ourselves. We are shifting our perspective from the fear of abandonment by others, to recognising that by ignoring our own needs we are abandoning ourselves. We are recognising that we matter and that kindness is also something that extends to ourselves too.
Setting boundaries also allows us to be our best selves when we do say yes. We aren’t resentful and we are able to give wholeheartedly. It makes space for more kindness.
It might feel daunting at first. You might worry that others will see it as unkind. I encourage you to persist past the feeling because what you might find could surprise you and transform your relationships. You might find that others don’t even question it or are genuinely happy that you are taking time for yourself. You might be inspiring them to do the same.
If a relationship suffers because of you putting up boundaries, don’t let yourself believe that you were wrong. Look at how you are communicating your boundaries. After doing this, look at how equal that relationship is.
Either way, the end result is greater connection.
Kindness towards others is easy, kindness towards yourself is much harder
We value kindness as a noble attribute, yet we don’t extend that value towards ourselves. In my experience, part of the reason is that we worry that being kind is ‘being soft’.
To illustrate, when I first saw a therapist, I was burning the candle at both ends. Pushing and people pleasing. I never felt good enough. My therapist told me that I needed to slow down and be kinder to myself. To my detriment, I didn’t fully grasp that concept. I thought being kind to myself was a cop out. How could I be successful if I was kinder to myself? I would never talk to another person the way that I talked to myself, but I was scared that everything I achieved to date was as a result of that pushy internal voice.
After continuing to push and reaching breaking point, I finally got the message. I have learned that beating myself with a stick in order to get something done is not sustainable and it isn’t kind. In fact it’s a pretty sure path to poor mental health. It may get you places in the short-term but it certainly won’t be a joyful process and it could end in tears.
Instead I use encouragement and kindness to motivate myself. Has it made me less ambitious? No. In fact, it has increased my resilience and my productivity, and most importantly, not everything feels like an uphill struggle.
Being kind to yourself, and to others is not weak. It takes courage to establish boundaries. It takes guts to back yourself. But the payoff is not only better mental health, it is deeper and more meaningful connections.
Kindness puts us on an equal footing with each other. It acknowledges your needs as equally important as those of others.
Kindness is a powerful thing.