What does kindness mean to you? When I was younger, I thought I knew what kindness meant. It involves being nice to other people, making them happy, and doing the right thing and the good thing as often as possible.
Well, not exactly. As I’ve grown older and gained more life experience, I’ve discovered that kindness comes in many forms that don’t always look “kind.” I’ve also discovered what counts as “right” and “good” to one person might not to the next.
We all know kindness is important. But I think it’s also important to acknowledge that while often the kind thing to do is crystal clear, sometimes it’s a little murkier. It can be tricky to know what counts as kindness, towards ourselves and other people, and which behaviours might seem like kindness but do more harm than good. In this post, I want to share a few thoughts on the true meaning of kindness towards ourselves and others, especially for those grey area situations of life in which kindness feels less clear-cut and less, well, kind.
Wikipedia defines kindness as: “a behavior marked by ethical characteristics, a pleasant disposition, and a concern for others.” Let’s unpack this definition…
Kindness starts with yourself
Kindness starts at home. It’s about living with integrity, knowing what your principles and important “ethical characteristics” are, and what right and wrong means in your life.
It also means treating yourself as you would anyone else you care about. We usually talk about and hear about kindness in relation other people, but kindness towards yourself is just as important. You might have heard the sentiment you can’t love other people until you can love yourself. While I don’t believe this is 100% true, I think how you treat and talk to yourself becomes the foundation from which you approach your other relationships. So kindness isn’t just about how you treat other people, it’s about extending the same intentions and behaviours to our yourself too.
Being “kind” isn’t the same as being “nice”
I think this is one of the biggest confusions around the true meaning of kindness. Being kind does not always look like being ‘nice.’ Having a ‘pleasant disposition’ does not mean always making other people happy. Sometimes kindness means disappointing other people, even making them angry. The way I see the difference between being kind and being nice is this:
- “Kindness” is based on your own ethics, your own values, and your own beliefs.
- “Niceness” is based on how other people see you.
Sometimes kindness is difficult. Sometimes it means saying: “No.” One of the most common situations in which this is the case involves the line between kindness and enabling. For example, if someone keeps asking for money then spending it on drugs, alcohol, or racking up unnecessary debt, it’s kinder to refuse to lend them more money and look for other ways to support them on their journey than it is to keep enabling them. It might be nicer (and feel more comfortable) in the short-term to lend or give them more money, but that’s not helping them in the long-term (and it’s probably not helping you either). If someone is struggling with unhealthy behaviours or patterns, sometimes it is kinder to let them face the consequences of their actions than to keep enabling them to continue.
The same principle applies to your relationship with yourself. There’s a subtle but important difference between self-care and self-indulgence. Self-care rarely looks pretty or feel comfortable in the moment. Sometimes kindness means telling yourself to get out of bed and go to the gym, even though it’s cold, raining and you’d much rather stay in bed and veg out in front of Netflix.
True kindness can be tough, and it might leave you feeling less than kind. But even when you say no to yourself or others, you can do so from a place of love and compassion. That’s because…
Kindness is rooted in empathy and acceptance
The definition of kindness I shared above mentioned a concern for others (and, I would add, yourself). That’s not a judgement of others (or yourself) or a rejection of others (or yourself), even when you’re saying no to something or someone.
Empathy is the ability to understand someone else’s situation, experience, feelings, and behaviours, and it’s the foundation of this concern. If you want to be generous towards or help someone, first you need to understand where they are and what they’re dealing with—the good and the bad. Even if you don’t agree with someone’s choices or behaviours and you decide not to enable them going forward, you can still empathise with them.
This starts with empathy for yourself. If you’re all tapped out on helping someone, you feel frustrated, angry, or resentful, you need to be honest about this, at least with yourself. Kindness is finding compassion and understanding for where the other person is in their life and their journey while maintaining your own boundaries and respecting your own needs.
And when you want to help someone, it’s doing so based on a genuine compassion for a fellow human being or creature, not to create a debt or try to make yourself look good. Kindness is acting without expectation of reciprocity or recognition although there’s nothing wrong with enjoying those things or the good feelings showing kindness generates within us.
Kindness is a wonderful, beautiful complex, quality. It’s also something that is deeply personal to you. If you’d like to find out more about your most important values and discover how they impact your life, I invite you to check out Discover Your Values, a free workbook in the Becoming Who You Are Library:
What do you think is the true meaning of kindness? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.
Photo by averie woodard on Unsplash