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Why Is Kindness Sometimes Associated with Weakness?

Experts discuss why the perception exists, plus three ways to cope with people who lack empathy.

Credit: RobinHiggins/Pixabay
Credit: RobinHiggins/Pixabay

Uplifting words of encouragement and unexpected, helpful gestures demonstrate that kindness is all around. Kindness efforts are increasingly commonplace, from groups that deliver rocks with painted heartfelt messages to those raising funds for experiences for kids, like the man who raised over $35,000 for children in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood to see the movie, Black Panther.

However, as much as kindness is heralded as a thoughtful, caring, and generous behavior, it also tends to get a bad rap: Some people think it’s a sign of weakness. There seems to be a perception that a kind person is soft and emotionally frail, while an individual who is rude and curt — even one who disparages kind efforts — more often than not is someone who is tough, socially intriguing, and even admirable.

Why Negative Associations About Kindness Persist

“Sadly, I’m concerned that in this country there is a lot more emphasis on raising ‘strong’ kids,” says Barbara Greenberg, a clinical psychologist in Fairfield County, Connecticut. “And in many households that is synonymous with taking care of yourself, with little emphasis on the feelings of others.” She hopes that will change, but notes that this mindset may also come from the media’s influence. Greenberg says that several television characters we emulate “show little empathy,” which often means that the “bad” or “mean” person is viewed as “cool and strong.”

Julia Breur, a clinical psychotherapist in Boca Raton, Florida, adds that the kind/weak notion may also stem from human development. “A child does not view the world with self as a separate entity — there is no ‘me’ and ‘the world,’” she says. “There is only joy and curiosity in what a child sees, feels, smells, taste and hears.” It’s when humans develop, Breur explains, that they begin exploring more of a “me and the world” mindset, which ultimately gives way to anger, protectiveness, and defensiveness. “We want to protect who we are and what we think, and we can become rude or even curt to others in order to protect our self, other people, and things we care about,” she says. “Some remain stagnant in their human development as protective and others continue to develop with the realization that they can protect by being kind.”

3 Ways to Cope with People Who Lack Empathy

Communication is important. Convey your thoughts, but don’t feel obligated to justify your kind ways.

Dealing with someone who insists that your kind actions are moot, wimpy, or deserving of eye-rolls? Here are some tips to effectively cope with people who lack empathy or think kindness is on par with weakness.

1. Resist the urge to explain yourself. Breur advises that you continue being kind without feeling obligated to justify your behavior. “Simply demonstrate who you are and let your actions of kindness versus words define you,” she says.

2. Assess the situation. Breur warns against assumptions that certain responses are always about you, emphasizing the importance of not responding defensively or in haste. Instead, she suggests engaging in respectful communication to ensure both parties are on the same page, clearly understanding what was said. In fact, Greenberg adds, someone’s rude comments about your kindness may not truly reflect their overall personality or mean that they’re perpetually rude: “See if the other person’s behavior is a pattern or if they are simply having a bad day.” If it turns out they have a habit of regularly taking advantage of your kind ways, Greenberg says, it’s time to …

3. Be more assertive. This doesn’t mean lashing out when someone disrespects your desire to be kind; there’s a difference between being assertive and being aggressive. Greenberg suggests you “gently set limits and stick to them,” while making it clear that “your kindness is a gift and will be offered when deserved but that it is not something to be exploited. Continue to repeat this set of steps until you get comfortable with them and your message is clear.”

“Many people unfortunately believe that being kind or expressing kindness is a sign of weakness — I wholeheartedly disagree,” Breur says. People shouldn’t have to feel as though they must choose between being kind and being strong. It’s not an either-or concept. “One can be kind and be strong, one can be kind and be direct, one can be kind and firm and one can be kind and be tough,” Breur explains. “Are any of these ‘kind combinations’ I note expressions of weakness? No, not at all.”

Originally appeared on Psychology Today’s Human Kind column.

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