Updated: Sep 11, 2021
Have you ever felt confused about what it really means to be kind? In this article, I explore the real meaning of kindness and what pitfalls we should be mindful of.
Kindness is defined by the Oxford dictionary as “the quality of being friendly, generous and considerate.”
Kindness is a trait of human behaviour that allows us to work together to achieve common goals. It allows us to come together as a community, and expand our influence over the environment. From a biological perspective and as a behavioural trait, kindness is desirable because it makes cooperation possible. Kindness thrives in environments where people are able to experience empathy and compassion.
One would say, in general, that in a civilised society, “it is good to be kind.”
But...what happens when our kindness is taken advantage of?
From a psychological perspective, people can only be kind when they feel safe.
If we lived in a society that truly cared for everyone and where people were intrinsically valued for existing and being, kindness would be the result of a strong bond of interconnection to one another. This bond would be built upon from a place of strength and love. Kindness would be something we are, rather than something we do. People would be kind without fear of being abused or taken advantage of.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in such a society. The marketisation of human existence prioritises values that highlight competition, and the "survival of the fittest". It places more emphasis on your “net worth,” social status, ethnicity, gender, and physical appearance, rather than on the altruistic motivations of cooperation and caring for one another, regardless of external attributions or the material contributions we are able to make.
This narrative of the "law of the jungle" maintains that, in order to survive, one must be ruthless. It also advocates that there are people in the world who are more valuable than others. Thus, it is common nowadays to objectify people as existing simply to be "a means to an end". Expressions such as "adding value" and "branding" are applied to people´s lives, giving the following message: "you are only worthy if you have this or that." "This or that" being whatever the production machine determines it is worth having at any specific historical moment.
In such a society, kindness becomes the instrument by which a minority of individuals condition the majority to put up with abuse. They tell us to be kind because our kindness allows them to further their agenda of oppression.
Oppressors often accuse the oppressed of “being unkind” when the latter refuse to continue being abused.
Socially, people who refuse to follow behaviours that go against their values, integrity or put their lives in danger, risk being accused by some of being unkind and uncooperative. The stigma that can result from standing up for your own physical and mental health and spiritual integrity may result in becoming ostracised by a community or social circle. This poses a heavy burden that many of us are not ready to bear, so we continue to be kind in the face of abuse, even when the price we are paying is way too high.
How can we protect ourselves against such oppression?
We can protect ourselves against all forms of oppression at a collective and at an individual level.
We protect ourselves at a collective level by organising with others and standing up to oppression in all its forms.
Oppression occurs when your entitlement and beliefs of superiority cause my life and the life of my community to become impoverished and diminished.
At an individual level, those who do not want to be part of the agenda of the oppressors need to take a stand. Individuals can learn to say NO when necessary. It is important then to set clear boundaries.
Personal boundaries are psychological, emotional and behavioural strategies that protect us from physical, emotional and psychological tresspassing.
Boundaries are in many cases, ways of behaving that go against the socially conditioned “common sense”.
People who do not have clear personal boundaries in place are often victimised. Abusers of all kinds are attracted to people who do not set personal boundaries, like moths to the flame. These same individuals often accuse us of "being unkind" or "not nice" when we resist being subjected to their abuse.
It is unfortunate that we often do not learn about the importance of setting personal boundaries until we are already way into adulthood. Unless we have been fortunate enough to have had good parenting and/or solid role models, most of us have to learn the hard way. We mostly learn about personal boundaries from others by modelling what they do, rather than following what they say.
For example, if we grew up in an environment where abuse was the common currency, we are likely to have very weak boundaries in our personal relationships. We have grown up thinking this is the way things are until we begin to learn otherwise, usually through very painful experiences.
So, what does this have to do with "kindness"?
Well, the first thing to understand about "kindness" is that very often, the “common sense” understanding of kindness is not common sense at all!.
A better way to reframe the meaning of kindness is to think of compassionate service to others. Compassionate and loving people know that sometimes, to love someone means that you may be perceived as unkind by others when saying NO.
For example, suppose that someone you care for suffers from an addiction that is destroying their lives. They ask you for money to buy the thing that gives them the fix. You refuse to fund their addiction. They accuse you of being unkind and unloving. If you care for them, you will want them to overcome their addiction. You know that your saying NO has nothing to do with being unkind or unloving. It has more to do with loving them and not wanting to see them throw their lives away. In this sense, their perception of your response, which they label as “unkind/unloving” has a purpose, which is to manipulate you into accepting to give them something they crave.
Another example would be your manipulative work colleague who keeps dumping extra work on you, that you know, it is their job to do. You say no, they accuse you of being unkind, or of not being “nice” or helpful or any qualifying word they think it is more likely to push your buttons. Then, they go around the workplace gossiping about you not being a “team player.”
Would you say this person is asking for you to be kind to them?
What kindness is NOT
To be kind does not mean to turn the other cheek, to give until it hurts, to say yes to every demand or request to feed someone else’s sense of entitlement.
It does not mean to say nothing when things need to be said or to look the other way when injustices are being committed, just so that no one gets “offended”.
It does not mean to project your unmet needs and expectations onto others making them “owe” you for your “kindness”.
It does not mean to have hidden agendas and to manipulate others by "giving" them (whatever you think they need) so that you can feel entitled to make them pay in some way.
It does not mean to have weak boundaries in place, to allow others to use you and abuse you at their whim.
And, by the way, to buy food to give to a homeless person so that you can make a video for your social media channel, so that you get "likes" and people praise you for your "kindness" is not a genuine act of kindness, it is narcissism and it is laughing at the suffering of the person to whom you are doing it (who is most likely needing to eat and does not have a choice to say no to your abuse).
Reframing the meaning of kindness
To separate the social conditioning from the act of true kindness, (the real, authentic spirit of the word), we can reframe kindness as the act of: being of service to others from a place of deep compassion, humility and grounded self-responsibility.
To do this, we need to develop the capacity to respond appropriately to the actors as well as to the specific context in which the act of kindness is enacted.
We need to develop perspicacity. Wikipedia defines perspicacity as: " a penetrating discernment -from the Latin perspicācitās, meaning throughsightedness, discrimination— a clarity of vision or intellect which provides a deep understanding and insight." It is, in other words, the ability to make fine distinctions, of discerning the wheat from the chaff.
We are kind when we give to those who are in need, in the most effective way, to help them with their real needs.
This also means that you can be kind and still take responsibility for your own physical and psychological safety.
It means you can speak softly and still be firm when saying NO.
It means you can be kind to others and yet, draw a line when faced with social injustice.
It means that you can choose who you are kind to - based on their real needs and the authenticity of their asking.
It means you can say no to any man or woman who takes advantage of their position to sexually harass you.
It means you can say NO and shout if needed when someone is abusing your children, your family, or the elderly in your community, whether this be an individual, an organisation or the State.
The price we pay for not developing perspicacity is high.
"Giving your all" (aka being a doormat)
A shroud of kindness may sometimes become a mask for repressed anger or fear.
"Giving your all" because you want to be "good" and be seen as "kind" is a way to control and manipulate others.
Gabor Maté talks about this “automatic concern for the needs of others while ignoring your own”
in this talk, where he reads out the obituaries of some “very kind” people whose repressed negative emotions set them up to become terminally ill (from 10:50 in the video). I highly recommend reading his book: When the body says No.
Clarissa Pinkola Estés writes in Women Who Run with the Wolves, that the problem of equating kindness to accepting other people’s poor behaviour and looking the other way in the face of injustice, is the normalisation of the abnormal in society. Although she writes mainly about and for women, I think that her writings apply to anyone, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“Life and sacrifice go together. Red is the colour of life and of sacrifice. To live a vibrant life, we must make sacrifices of various sorts. If you want to go to university, you must sacrifice time and money and give intense concentration to the venture. If you want to create, you have to sacrifice superficiality, some security, and often, your desire to be liked, to draw up your most intense insights, your most far-reaching visions.
“Problems arise when there is much sacrifice but no life forthcoming from it all. Then red is the colour of blood-loss rather than blood-life [...]
“The problem with “being good” to the extreme is that it does not resolve the underlying shadow issue, and again, it will rise like a tsunami, like a giant tidal wave, and rush down, destroying everything in its path. In “being good”, a woman closes her eyes to everything obdurate, distorted, or damaging around her, and just “tries to live with it.” Her attempts to accept this abnormal state further injure her instincts to react, point out, change, make an impact on what is not right, what is not just. [...]
“Trying to be good, orderly and compliant in the face of inner or outer peril or in order to hide a critical psychic or real-life situation de-souls a woman. It cuts her from her knowing; it cuts her from her ability to act. [...]
“The normalizing of the abnormal even when there is clear evidence that it is to one’s own detriment to do so applies to all battering of the physical, emotional, creative, spiritual, and instinctive natures. Women face this issue any time they are stunned into doing anything less than defending their soul-lives from invasive projections, cultural, psychic, or otherwise. [...]
Then, talking about the experience of her childhood in the 1950s, when an oil barge sank in the Chicago Basin of Lake Michigan, she writes:
“Injury to instinct, normalizing the abnormal, is what allowed mothers to wipe the stains of that oil spill, and later, the further sins of factories, refineries, and smelters, off their little children, their laundry, the insides of their loved ones as best they could, and while confused and worried, the women effectively cut away their rightful rage. Not all but most had become used to not being able to intervene in shocking events. There were formidable punishments for breaking silence, for fleeing the cage, for pointing out wrongs, for demanding change.[...]
“ The normalizing of the shocking and abusive is refused by repairing injured instinct. As instinct is repaired, the integral wild nature returns.[...]
Today, we are experiencing a despondent “normalizing of the abnormal”; a major “oil spill” in our planet, our society, and our lives. Having us “to be kind” to the detriment of our lives works perfectly well for those who want to continue with the looting of the planet, the goodness in our society, and the richness of our individual and communal lives. Whereas it is true that it is desirable for us to be kind, we must be discerning as to what this really means in what context and to whom, and what potential dangerous trade-offs we may be making in the process, if, by being “kind,” we enable those who do not care about us and who believe themselves to be accountable to no one, to continue with the injustices, the impunity, the lies, the deception, the battering of the body, mind and soul, the abject contempt of life and the living.
A more humane approach, that takes into account the nature of the human condition, is to exercise compassionate service to others from a place of grounded self-responsibility.
In this way, we preserve our right to say NO when saying NO matters. We keep our hearts open to being of assistance to those who truly need us, and who are truly asking for our help.
If saying NO is what we must do to protect ourselves and our loved ones, then, setting up healthy boundaries may take many forms.
Personal boundaries and relationships
These are some boundaries to think about, adapted from Boundaries and Relationships: Knowing, Protecting and Enjoying the Self by Charles Whitfield.
I have numerous choices in my life beyond mere survival.
I have the right to grieve over what I didn’t get that I needed or what I got that I didn’t need or want.
I have the right to follow my own values and standards and the moral duty to monitor that my values and standards do not impoverish or diminish someone else’s life.
I have the right to recognise and accept my own value system as appropriate.
I have the right to say no to anything when I feel I am not ready, it is unsafe or it violates my values.
I have the right to dignity and respect.
I have the right to make decisions.
I have the right to determine and honour my own priorities.
I have the right to have my needs and wants to be respected by others.
I have the right to terminate conversations with people who make me feel put down and humiliated.
I have the right to not be responsible for others’ behaviour, actions, feelings and problems.
I have the right to make mistakes and not have to be perfect.
I have the right to expect honesty from others.
I have the right to be angry at someone I love.
I have the right to be uniquely me, without feeling that I am not good enough.
I have the right to feel scared and to say, “I am afraid”.
I have the right to experience and then let go of fear, guilt and shame.
I have the right to make decisions based on my feelings, my judgement or any reason that I choose.
I have the right to change my mind at any time.
I have the right to be happy.
I have the right to stability, i.e. “roots” and stable healthy relationships of my choice.
I have the right to my own personal space and time needs.
I have the right to be relaxed, playful and frivolous.
I have the right to be flexible and be comfortable in doing so.
I have the right to change and grow.
I have the right to be open to improve my communication skills so that I may be understood.
I have the right to make friends and be comfortable around people.
I have the right to be in a non-abusive environment.
I have the right to be healthier than those around me.
I have the right to take care of myself, no matter what.
I have the right to grieve over actual or threatened losses.
I have the right to trust others who earn my trust.
I have the right to forgive others and to forgive myself.
I have the right to give and to receive unconditional love.