Being Kind When Being Kind is Hard
[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
I am not a patient person, but I'm also not a malicious one so I'm not naming names or specifying personhood.
There are certain people or situations that are outside your control, or my control, or anyone's control. But last week, I saw a decades old confrontation bubble up to the surface. The confrontation did not involve me, but because I am near it often enough I can see the complexity of the issue. I can imagine how deep the animosity and hurt run. I can understand too, that the easiest path is to ignore the confrontation, to let the tension hang heavily, indefinitely. I can see how both parties involved point to the other person as the sole cause of the animosity, but as my high school sex-ed teacher told us, "it takes two to tango."
Sometimes life smashes two people together who are so dramatically different that they seem irreconcilable. Their reasons for doing things are so dramatically different that they end up hurting each other. The reasons, whatever they are, get lost in translation and cease to matter. Addressing the reasons would be the best but most difficult path. Because people are prone to avoiding difficulty, we skirt the issues forever until they nearly swallow us whole.
I can understand that, when someone is cruel to us, the easiest reaction is not a kind one. The easiest path forward is to respond in-kind, to harbor a grudge, to move forward in a passive aggressive manner, to label the other person "bad," or to simply be mean. But the world is cruel enough already, don't you think?
It is often very difficult to be kind to the people who are unkind to us. But I'm here to tell you that the most unkind people are probably the people who need kindness the most. And, if someone is chronically unkind they don't deserve your attention, much less your unkindness.
It seems obvious that being kind is easier than being unkind, and most of the time it is. But sometimes it's not, and I wanted to know why. According to Dr. Kevin Pho, MD, there are seven common obstacles to kindness that are rooted in modern neuroscientific theory. They are:
1. Distraction. We are internally distracted by our wandering thoughts and obsession with ourselves. And, we are externally distracted by our devices and countless forces competing for our attention. We can get so busy doing that we forget how we want to be.
2. Frustration. Humans are easily frustrated, especially if things don't go our way. When our desires and needs aren't met exactly as we'd like them to be met, we become emotionally reactive.
3. Rumination. Rumination is when we worry too much about things that happened in the past or things that are outside of our control. It's difficult to be kind to others when you're stuck in a negative-feedback loop.
4. Anticipation. If we're rushing through life, it's hard to be kind. Our focus becomes our to-do list instead of the people around us.
5. Exhaustion. This is an especially pertinent one. Being exhausted from a lack of sleep or from constant busyness means less energy to expend, a shortened temper, and general irritability.
6. Fear. When we don't feel safe, it's difficult to override our emotions. We tend to err on the side of worry and fear (evolutionarily), and worry about social connections. Outsiders or strangers are especially threatening to social ties. This type of fear is difficult to override, but we might also be fearful of being treated poorly by someone if they've treated us poorly in the past. this type of fear is useful in keeping us safe.
7. Judgment. The human mind is a judging/predicting machine designed to ensure our survival above all else. It's incredibly easy to judge others, and ourselves, which leaves little room for kindness.
After reading more of Dr. Pho's work (read more for yourself here), I realized that real kindness towards others is hard if you're not kind to yourself. Once a person has truly nurtured self love, they won't be so prone to any of the above seven obstacles to kindness.
And I realized something else that might not be so obvious: it takes energy to be kind, but just as much energy to be unkind. They both require time and attention, but one will sap your own love, energy, and self-worth while the other will build it up. How you behave colors how you see the world, and you get to decide exactly what you see. And, if you feel like most people are unkind or uncaring, I'm here to tell you that the problem is probably not the rest of the world; it's probably you.