We move forward with kindness toward others by first acknowledging our own right to exist. When you acknowledge yourself as you are, you are able to channel compassionate energy to allow others to be as they are.
This is the secret to making other people feel good and why for some, this seems to come so effortlessly. When you can direct this energy, in even a moment of kindness, you can freely give what so many people are desperately lacking: to be acknowledged, seen, and heard.
This happens when you stop calling random acts of performing, “random acts of kindness.” Kind acts start when your aim is connection, truth-seeking, and truth-accepting, rather than being overly “nice” to make up for your own perceived inadequacies.
But being kind to yourself is not contrite, fluffy, or weak. Kindness is making yourself breakfast the day after a major binge because you decide that you are still worthy of nourishment.
Kindness is allowing yourself to go to sleep after you have let someone else down.
Kindness is putting down the self-hate gasoline for one night, without judgment toward all those other nights when you purposefully set emotional dumpster fires in your mind.
This does not come easily.
What is kindness?
Kindness is a fierce resolve to put an end to being on the receiving end of unkind behavior, by refusing to mirror that behavior toward yourself.
If kindness acknowledges a right to exist, cruelty denies this very right by minimizing what IS as less worthy or unworthy of existing at all.
If you have been on the receiving end of unkindness, you may have internalized this unkindness to such an extent that you wish that you would disappear. This makes being kind to yourself even harder.
What’s more, kindness requires that you make eye contact with the parts of yourself that have long been misunderstood — the parts that are needy, anxious, frozen, filled with rage or consumed by shame – for long enough to realize that every single one exists because it has helped you to manage your history in the best way you could.
That they have only survived because YOU have survived.
On a day I was barely surviving, I was at Trader Joe’s, hands full, carrying cereal, strawberries, and soy milk, without a basket or a plan. I wasn’t crying. I wasn’t asking for help, demonstratively upset, or making a scene. But I’d had a very long day.
That morning, I found out that my fiancée was leaving me for another woman and managed to temporarily rent and partially move into a totally soul-less, furnished apartment on a Sunday by myself.
There are very few days when I have felt more disgusting, worthless, bereft, unwanted, and starving in every possible way, than that day.
At that moment, when I was barely capable of making eye contact with any living thing, a Trader’s Joe’s employee looked directly at me and said “you look exactly like how I feel.” He came back a few moments later and placed some flowers on top of my clumsy stack of food, said “on me,” and walked away.
He didn’t feel sorry for me. He saw himself in me.
And in doing so, he confirmed I wasn’t alone; that I was worthy of existing, and that I was deserving of some measure of happiness, even as I was.
The flowers were for both of us.
There is an incredible comfort and confidence from being seen and acknowledged as you are (by yourself and by other people).
What happens when you do this?
You have the capacity to hold space for the happiness or pain of others, because you are accepting of both in yourself.
You are less blind to the red flags of others because you are not busy being ashamed or overcompensating with regard to who YOU are.
When you acknowledge your own right to exist because of and despite your own history, your own pain, and your own reasons, you realize that other people come with their own labyrinth of these very things.
When other people become less two-dimensional, it becomes harder to judge them or make their behavior about you.
This doesn’t mean that you accept or excuse cruel behavior. It means you step into a power that is your very own. A power that separates the behavior of others from your worth. A power that says, “I am worthy to take space as I am.” The power to be kind to yourself and to walk away from unkindness. And the power to be kind to others because you have the capacity to see yourself in them, to connect with them, and to make them feel less alone.
But I get it. Maybe you don’t feel like giving someone flowers. Maybe you are tired of being patient, you have no idea how to be kind to yourself, or maybe the very phrase “random acts of kindness” makes you roll your eyes.
Some of the most used, misunderstood, and hurt people in the world are the most kind. You don’t have to set out to be a master yogi, “to kill them with kindness,” or to commit yourself to an altruistic way of life. Kindness doesn’t come from a place of weakness.
It happens exactly when you feel fed up and tired of being “the better person,” because kindness naturally happens when you start getting real.
1. On the path to seeking revenge.
In the fury of being mistreated and misunderstood, there is an underlying echo of never again. People who hurt you are as just as resistant to change (no matter what you do, what the consequences, and what their karma) as YOU are resistant to ever get on the same side of their kind of behavior. Once you accept this, you have a choice. You can either continue to recycle that energy into further pointless fury or you can channel that energy into helping other people who have been through similar circumstances and pain. To give other people, now, what you needed, then.
Even if you have no interest or no energy for this, you can resolve to never, ever treat another person in the way that you were treated. There is nothing saccharine or after-school-special about kindness that springs from pure and utter disgust when you recognize the cruelty of others. Kindness starts when you make the decision to be nothing like those who hurt you.
2. When you stop being nice.
You don’t have to grow to be old before you grow to be genuine. This can actually be a good bit of fun, especially if you have locked yourself in a cage of “nice” for most of your life. It takes courage to stop being nice because in many cases, the motivation for being nice is rooted in an insecurity that you are not enough as you are. That you have to make up for this by being an agreeable, polite, generous, predictable doormat.
If you invite me to a dinner party, I will pack a bag of gifts, grow concerned it’s not enough, and stop by the store to pick up a baguette and a bottle of wine for good measure. It’s not all bad, but it’s also not completely genuine. I am insecure that I will ever be able to truly convey how much it means to me that we are friends and that you have chosen to spend time with me.
When I show up at someone’s door, unburdened by these concerns, there is so much more freedom and energy to enjoy time together.
Being “nice” feels like weakness because it conveys an underlying message that you have to bend over backward in order to compensate for who you are. There is an incredible freedom that comes from shedding this behavior. When you do this, regardless of whether you are trying to be kind or not, you live a more authentic life.
When you stop performing, when you say what you mean and do what you believe, without regard to what others have previously expected from you, it demonstrates to other people that what you value is being genuine. The inevitable result of this, is that it allows others to be genuine in return. You convey that you want to acknowledge, see, and hear them as they are.
This has the added benefit of revealing exactly who in your life has capitalized on your niceness and who has used you as a doormat. It reveals those people who have no interest or capacity for a genuine connection.
When these people fall away, kindness on kindness exponentially grows, because kindness has been scientifically proven to be contagious. When people witness a kind act, they are more likely to perform a future kind act. Your kindness toward others will be received by those who will proliferate it…in kind.
3. When you’d like some free happiness.
Kindness is a cheap thrill. There are studies on studies that confirm that you are happier, healthier, live longer, and less stressed when you are kind. It doesn’t have to cost anything, and unlike diet and exercise, you don’t even have to do it consistently. You get a hit of happiness when you do a kind act, every time you do a kind act, especially when you are motivated by directly benefiting another person.
When you know this, you can approach all days, or some days, or even just your bad days with an eye toward doing kind acts. In a world where we are all willing to all manner of (expensive, unnatural, unproven) things to feel good, kindness is available in almost every moment, for free.
4. When you get grounded.
How you get grounded is different for everyone. There are as many ways as there are people to commune with the present. Some say that getting grounded is a lifetime practice that comes with a daily intention. Others just know that going for a run, going fishing, reading, going for a hike, or listening to birds makes them feel contented, in the moment, and alive.
When you carve space for what is peaceful and meaningful to you, you open a channel to kindness. You don’t have to deliberately become “grounded” to be kind. When you tend to what you love, kindness naturally flows from being calmly present in the moment.
While this may sound just charming, the opposite is undeniably true: when you feel particularly unkind or when you experience others being unkind, this channel has been cut off. The person who is unkind is not grounded, not calm, not at peace, and not present enough in the moment to acknowledge your existence or feelings.
Right, but what good is all this when someone cuts you off on the highway? You’re supposed to kindly let that go without using expletives? Nah, but the answer is: hopefully by using fewer expletives.
On a larger scale, the hope is that in the pause between expletives, we have a perspective beyond the immediate situation. We realize that people come with webs of labyrinths that connect like maps.
One of them is your own.
Sometimes people clash on the maps, cut you off, and do you wrong.
The labyrinths contain our stories, histories, our reasons, mistakes, and the ways we cope with pain.
Kindness toward yourself is knowing when to let people pass, as they try to scramble their way out of their own pain.
Kindness toward others is seeing your own humanity in someone else and helping them to feel less alone, in those moments when you intersect.