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What it Really Means to be Kind

Kindness isn't about making other people happy — it's about showing people they are valued.

Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash

A couple months ago I got myself in a little bit of a pickle where I was going to have to disappoint one of the two other people involved in a minor predicament. Though I was hoping to satisfy everyone, including me, the situation unfolded such that it appeared I could either make Person A happy, make Person B happy, or make neither happy. Each option had its consequences and trade-offs, making it a tough choice. As I weighed the pros and cons of my options, a more inspired question entered my deliberations:

What would be the kind thing to do?

For me, doing the kind thing would be the right thing because it would align with my desire to show up in the world as loving and compassionate in all I do. But in asking myself this question, I had to stop and think about what kindness really means and how I will know if I am truly being kind. What emerged was a new way for me to think about kindness that had little to do with making other people happy and lots to do with simply showing people they are valued.

Why kindness isn’t the same as being nice

Kindness is often conflated with being nice, but these are not always the same thing. Being nice can certainly be kind, but when it is coming from a place of wanting to be deemed acceptable or liked by other people, being nice can come at the expense of being true to yourself. This could include compromising what’s right for you in order not to disappoint someone, avoiding conflict or disagreement, or ignoring cruel or unjust behavior. For women in particular, being nice often means being agreeable and people-pleasing in order to be found feminine, which for a long time meant docile and submissive. Sugar, spice, and everything nice…

But what is “nice” may not be what is kind. Think about the “nice” boss whose performance reviews are all about how amazing you are. You might feel like a badass, but ignoring the areas where you could do better doesn’t help you grow or advance. The “nice” boss may avoid hurting your feelings, but a kind boss compassionately gives the feedback that will help you be your best. Similarly, some people will string a romantic partner along after they’ve lost interest thinking they are being nice. But how is it nice to deceive someone into thinking you have a future together when you know you don’t?

When people prioritize being nice over being truthful or disappointing someone, it is usually because they are afraid not being nice will cost them something.

Perhaps it is what someone thinks of them, an opportunity, or something else they want. In this case, being nice isn’t so much an expression of kindness as the fear of being judged or not getting what you want. In contrast, real kindness isn’t based on giving people what we think will please them or what we get in return.

Why kindness isn’t about being selfless

Some definitions of kindness talk of being selfless, as in putting the feelings and wishes of other people above our own. Again, there is nothing wrong with making people happy and sometimes the kindest thing will be putting what is fair or good to someone else above our own desires. But making kindness all about other people’s feelings assumes we know and can control how other people feel. Just as being nice can really be a fear of what other people might think, tying kindness to how it is received lets other people judge what kindness is for us. Does an action I take from the heart that is misread by someone make me unkind?

Ultimately, none of us are responsible for how others interpret something or the meaning they give it. We can’t control how other people think or feel, nor do we really know what is best for them. But I am not saying we should disregard other people’s feelings or wellbeing. We should want people to feel honored and if our acts of kindness are repeatedly having the opposite effect, we probably need to look within and adjust our approach. The point is that when we look to others for validation of our values and behaviors, we are undermining our own sense of self-worth, which isn’t kind to us.

Since we are the ones most impacted by our thoughts and deeds, what matters most is how we feel about how we have conducted ourselves.

And not because we want to spare ourselves self-judgment but because: (1) how we feel is how we will know if we’ve acted with kindness, and (2) that is how we grow and become “better” versions of ourselves. We act and observe how it makes us feel and what results we get. Maybe we learn how to say something more gently or when is the best time to raise an issue. That self-reflection allows us to be the kindest kind we can be, which is a solid step toward joy. We are kind, first and foremost, for what it inspires within us, which radiates out to inspire others.

What kindness does care about

While we can’t control how another person receives our words or actions, we can do our best to show people that we respect and value them. While that may look a little different for each person, I think the website Kindness is Everything summed it up beautifully when they wrote, “kindness is love in action.” It is the demonstration of care, consideration, and compassion and the absence of judgment or condemnation.

Kindness is seeing and treating people as important and deserving of the same respect and courtesy we want for ourselves. It says, “I see you, I hear you, and I want the best for you.”

To me, kindness has its roots in camaraderie based on the universality of the human condition. Part of that is recognizing that each of us is on our own journey with our unique challenges, baggage, and perspectives. To be kind to someone is to acknowledge their experience as true for them and totally valid, even if we don’t see it the same way. It is a predisposition toward benevolence, goodwill, and understanding, where we seek to uplift one another and reflect back to them their worth. A kind conversation might start with something like this:

I understand that this is important to you and it is bringing up lots of uncomfortable emotions. I am coming from a different place, but I value our relationship and harmony between us. Let’s talk about how we can move forward together.

When we are kind, we also honor the light in us. We feel most happy and fulfilled when we are aligned to our values. When I am kind to myself or others, I am expressing my true nature and being more of who I know and want myself to be. I am opening myself to connection, fostering community, and practicing cooperation. While I hope my actions are received as kindness, at the end of the day, knowing that I did what I believed to be kind is what will bring me peace.

Holding a personal standard of kindness

Though we can occasionally misread gestures or take words the wrong way, we generally recognize when kindness is present. We recognize the energy of generosity, gentleness, respect, and goodwill. Real kindness translates across cultures, transcending language, custom, and geography, because it is the native language of the human heart. A smile, hug, assuring tone, or tender glance needs no explanation.

Kindness is Everything teaches that the best way to understand kindness is to practice kindness. For me, that means committing to a personal standard of kindness in how I treat myself and others based on honoring their innate dignity and worth. The answer to the question of what is the kind thing to do may not always be obvious, but when I come from love, integrity, and wanting to do good, I trust that whatever I choose will be the right thing, even if people don’t like it.


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