I recently sat across from a client who was sobbing uncontrollably. As he struggled to breathe through his tears, he choked out memories of the ways in which he has experienced cruelty from others- from family, peers, even strangers. After years of training and experience in psychology and therapy, what stood out most to me wasn’t a theory or conceptualization of this person- the thought that kept occurring to me was that this person needed real, basic, human kindness. It won’t undo the years of hurt, and it isn’t quite that simple, but it would make a huge difference in the world of someone who hasn’t experienced much of it.
After I got over my anger toward these people, I started to think more about kindness and how much he, and all of us, could use a little more of it our lives. And so, it prompted this list on 5 things about kindness that are important to know.
1. It is important.
This might seem obvious, but it’s something we often forget in this digital age where we leave text conversations abruptly, sometimes leave messages hanging for days, or make nasty comments on a website as if there isn’t a real person behind it. One small act of kindness can change someone’s entire day. Think about the person who gets their drink paid for at Starbucks by a complete stranger- how many people do they tell that story to with a smile on their face? And one small act of unkindness can ruin a person’s entire day- A woman recently told me a story about how she overheard a man make a comment about her weight to his friends; she left the party in tears. Sometimes something fleeting and largely meaningless to you has a huge effect on others. Don’t think that your actions and words don’t have an impact.
2. It’s not always all that difficult
A smile, letting someone merge in front of you in a traffic jam, holding the door for someone. These are all small acts, but they add up to make the world a kinder place. You might just be the person who brightens up someone’s otherwise awful day and it only took seconds for you to do it.
3. Sometimes we don’t do it to protect ourselves
Sometimes being kind means we have to be vulnerable. A snarky, sarcastic comment is an effective shield against feeling vulnerable. Siting with someone in pain, acknowledging someone’s anger towards you without shutting it down, even allowing yourself to feel the true joy of an incredible moment is a raw place to be. It’s much easier to throw up our defenses and be guarded. Kindness takes courage.
4. Being kind doesn’t always mean making others happy
One misconception about kindness that seems to be common, and one that I often struggle with, is that kindness means never making others upset, never rocking the boat. But, in fact, sometimes the kindest thing you can do hurts someone else. Telling the person you went on a date with that you have no interest in pursing things further seems mean. But really, it’s far worse to string someone along and give them false hope. Sure, it’s difficult to upset someone, but over the long term, you’ve done the kinder thing. A lot of people say that they don’t do such things because they don’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings, but in fact, it’s often the case that they just don’t want to deal with their own discomfort around it- see point 3.
5. It can make you happier
People often equate being kind with being overly, sometimes insincerely, nice, which seems depleting and exhausting. But being kind doesn’t always mean being particularly nice (see point 4) and it’s often the case that being kind is more fulfilling. Some of the happiest people I know are the truly kind ones- they set boundaries for others and themselves (read: they know how to say no), they treat others with love and understanding, and, not so shockingly, people tend to like them more. When someone cuts you off in traffic, it’s easy to throw up your middle finger and get angry. In that moment, and in the moments following, you will be full of anger. It’s more difficult to breathe, laugh it off, and go on your way. But just that simple change means that you have avoided a few minutes of unnecessary anger. (It’s important to note here that being kind doesn’t mean allowing yourself to be taken advantage of; remember, being kind also means setting limits and being kind to yourself). Approaching the world with a kinder heart inevitably results in more happiness.
I could’ve responded to the client I mentioned above in many ways that I’ve learned, but I knew that wasn’t what he needed in that moment. We often make things so complicated when sometimes the solution is simple. Be kind- to others, to yourself, to the environment. If everyone lived by these rules, our world would be a very different place.