First published on elephant journal.
All of the spiritual teachers preach it. And the happiness experts endorse it. Kindness has power—the power to transform a moment, a day, even a life.
True kindness doesn’t cost the giver. It lifts them up and nourishes them internally. True kindness, therefore, is something we can give easily, without fear of any kind of loss for ourselves.
But true kindness and socially conditioned kindness are two different things.
There is a movement that promotes acts of kindness and it is well motivated. I am fully behind embracing random acts of kindness as we are inspired in the moment to do so.
But maybe sometimes we can be too kind. I think, when acts of kindness are motivated out of a sense of duty rather than a true and innate impulse in the moment, we can become depleted by our own acts of kindness.
And that is no good.
True kindness doesn’t deplete anybody. True kindness fills us all up.
If we find our acts of “kindness” draining us, then we need to examine what’s really going on. Are we being kind, or are we putting the needs of others at the expense of our own? Kindness does not require us to do that. We must be kind with ourselves first and foremost.
A lot of what looks like kindness in the world is people fulfilling their own sense of duty, or fighting off a sense of guilt. It’s a trap we can all fall into easily enough. It happens when we aren’t strong or courageous enough to be honest about what we need ourselves, or what we are willing to contribute.
I’m talking about sacrifice.
Any actions that feel like a personal sacrifice, although they might appear to others as kindness, are not true acts of kindness at all. Because sacrifice—which is not the same thing as compromise—is not being kind to ourselves.
Compromise involves give and take on a two-way basis. Sacrifice is one-way—one party gives and the other takes.
Because we don’t feel comfortable about how our authentic actions might be interpreted by others, we sometimes choose actions that appear to meet the criteria of kindness, but are actually meeting the needs of others while ignoring our own. This, we’ve got to stop.
Because such acts of “kindness” can gradually fill us with resentment. They can erode our sense of goodwill and leave us not only unwilling but, in time, unable to contribute in as meaningful a way as we might otherwise do. We’ll get burned out and reject the concept of kindness, because we confused it with sacrifice.
“Be there for others, but never leave yourself behind.” ~ Dodinsky
Duty is not something we can ignore just because we don’t want to fulfill it. Duty requires us to look squarely at the matter, determine what needs doing and devising a plan to ensure that what needs doing gets done, while also catering for our own needs.
Sacrifice is when we don’t build our needs into the plan and we must reject that as an option. Sacrifice is when we don’t really feel like we have a choice in the matter. We feel manipulated or forced into something. Sacrifice depletes us, rather than nourishes us.
Kindness is always optional and when we see it as a genuine choice we find ourselves more inclined to extend it. And if we want to be truly kind, then we will do two things:
We will be kind to ourselves, as a foundation to extending kindness to others.
We will not guilt anyone else into making a sacrifice that makes our own lives easier. Instead, we will compromise and work in partnership with them.
Kindness is important. The world needs more of it. But let’s be clear about what it is—and what it isn’t.