Category Archives: Kindness

Can We Ever Be Too Kind?

  • Do you ever wonder where the line is between kindness and enabling?
  • Do you ever worry you’re becoming a doormat whilst believing you’re being kind?
  • Do you ever sense that someone’s apparent “kindness” feels sticky or needy in some way?
  • Do you ever find yourself torn between being kind to yourself OR being kind to someone else?


I think there is a deeper story about kindness and it’s worth exploring. Dr. Neil Young (not the musician) taught in the psychology department at Seattle University in the late 1980’s while I was getting my masters degree. He was both well traveled and an excellent observer of human nature. He collected fascinatingly brief, succinct verbal-images of some of the more unusual people he met.

One, I’ve never forgotten. Screen shot 2015-07-14 at 7.51.37 AM

A gentleman standing outside Kings Cross station. He wore a long woolen coat, a bowler hat, and carried an umbrella. He looked comfortably off, but not wealthy. There was an overall threadbare air and the sense that things had once been better.

In my imagination he looks like this →Screen shot 2015-07-12 at 1.50.31 PM

He stood greeting people as they hurried into or out of the station. He’d tip his hat if he felt he’d caught someone’s eye and offer them something.

Neil was curious, so caught the gentleman’s eye.

The gift was a regular sized business card on which was printed:

Screen shot 2015-07-14 at 7.38.53 AM

Neil thanked the man and asked him about the sentiment. Why did this man feel compelled to hand out cards telling us that we can never be too kind?

Apparently, the man’s eyes moistened in response and he patted Neil on the arm but said nothing. He didn’t wish to add anything to the message on the card. This was his life’s lesson. Summed up on a small card, and offered free to those who were open to receiving the message.

Neil found it very moving and brought the card back to our class so we could investigate this idea with the question:

“Can we ever be too kind?”

Without boring you with our lengthy process, what we discovered in those discussions is wonderfully relevant for exploring those muddy edges of kindness that show up as the questions I posed at the beginning. Here’s what I learned about kindness.

  • Being NICE and being KIND are two very different things.
  • Being NICE stems from fear. Being KIND stems from love.
  • One can certainly be too NICE. One can, indeed, never be too KIND.

Let’s break that down.

1.  Being NICE and being KIND are two very different things.


The origins of the word “NICE” are not nice at all. In fact, it’s a highly imprecise chameleon of a word. It’s earliest roots are Latin, and if a Roman described you as “nescius” they meant you were ignorant or incapable as in “not-knowing,” from ne- “not” + stem of scire “to know”; The term then evolved as follows:

  • 1100s – (in old French) careless, clumsy, weak, poor, needy, simple, stupid, silly, foolish
  • 1200s – foolish, stupid, senseless, and timid
  • 1300s – expanding from timid to fussy & fastidious, “nice” went on to acquire more culturally valued traits such as dainty and delicate
  • 1400s – then precise and careful
  • 1500s – and so it was cleaned up even more and preserved in such terms as a “nice distinction” and “nice and early”
  • 1769 – to agreeable and delightful
  • 1830 – all the way up to blur the lines with kind and thoughtful.

What a journey!

Today the adjective “nice” packs some combination of being pleasing, agreeable and pleasant yet there are some subtle, sticky overtones to the quality of “niceness.”

We are rarely “nice” in private. Being nice matters to the extent it is viewed. Being nice is about making a particular impression on the recipient of our niceness. It’s an externally driven behavior having to do with “perception management.” It is, in brief, “an outside job” produced within a context of judgment.

Parents plead with their kids to “be nice” when Grandma comes, and tell their little darlings that “nice people don’t do that” as toddlers do what toddlers do, but in public.


Kind has a – well – “kinder” pedigree. It first shows up in middle English having been born in the dark ages to emerge around 900 AD meaning natural, well-disposed, genial.

Kindness is presumed to arise from within and the term describes an internal state of benevolence. There is first this natural state of consideration, indulgence, geniality and helpfulness toward others from which proceeds kindness. It is, in brief, “an inside job” up-welling and not motivated by judgment.

Parents who invite their children to be “kind” are usually involved at the level of conscience, and might be gently nudging their little ones to dig deep within themselves to take an action no one will praise them for. I vividly remember my mother taking me aside after some sort of tiff with a friend and asking me, “What’s the kindest thing you could do here my darling?” And whatever it was that I chose to do was definitely not something that saw the light of anyone’s praise, or even knowledge.

2.  Being NICE stems from fear. Being KIND stems from love.

So, if being “nice” is a state where we behave in a way that is designed to have our audience think well of us, and being “kind” is a behavior that wells up from within a heart that is full of benevolence, I think it’s fair to say ~

  • NICE is motivated by fear &
  • KIND is motivated by love.

So what?

Returning to the questions I began this article with ~

  • Where’s the line is between kindness and enabling?
  • When am I being a doormat in the pursuit of “kindness”?
  • What’s up when someone’s apparent “kindness” feels sticky or needy in some way?
  • Why do I have to sacrifice kindness to myself in order to be kind to someone else?

Let’s see how this idea plays out by way of a guide in discerning the answers to these wonderings.

There are two questions worth asking right off the bat:

  1. What am I afraid of?
  2. What’s the most loving thing I can do, for all involved, in this situation?

I’ll take you through a personal journey to illustrate my point. After Mark and I had been married about 14 years we hit a pretty serious low. Mark had started a hydrogeological consulting company and commuted into Seattle from our home in Port Townsend several long days a week. I worked half time at the local Community Mental Health Center as a marriage and family therapist. By mid 1997 we had two children aged 2 and 6. We thought we’d found a good balance of personal-to-couple-to-family life by organizing each weekend so Saturday was a “day off” for one of us, and Sunday was family-day. And my part-time schedule allowed me to do the household management while Mark commuted.

But, as Mark grew increasingly stressed by long days, high-stakes projects and the inevitable dip in marital satisfaction that comes for 67% of couples with small children, I let “niceness” set in. Weekend after weekend I offered Mark “my” day off. Months went by when Mark would take one day each weekend and we’d have a family day the other, yet we both grew increasingly burned out. I thought I was being kind to Mark – surely he could see how I was “sacrificing” my weekend day for him? But, was this kindness?

  • Was I enabling an unhealthy pattern?
  • Was I being a doormat?
  • Was my “kindness” sticky with gooey unspoken resentments?
  • Why did it  feel impossible to be both kind to myself and kind to Mark?

OK, so let’s try those two questions.

1. What was I afraid of?

  • I was afraid that Mark’s stress would make him grumpier and grumpier (which was happening).
  • I was afraid we’d fight.
  • I hated the distance I felt when he was exhausted and drained.
  • I felt resentful since I worked half-time and had full time home-and-kid duty.
  • I was afraid, deep down I suppose, that he’d burn out on his job and put us in a precarious financial position.

So, the truth was, I was being “nice” to Mark because I was far more fearful for us than loving of us.

2. What was the most loving thing I could have done, for all involved, in that situation?

  • Love myself enough to listen to my resentment and doubt.
  • Share these deeper truths first with myself, and then with Mark.
  • Talk together about what was the most loving thing for all of us – the children, Mark and me.

In fact, I slowly did this. I committed to an inspiring Artists Way therapy group and admitted I was frustrated, resentful and afraid to rock the boat. And then began a journey back toward what felt most true about who I was and how I wanted to live.

Eventually I began to talk with Mark. Each one of us digging deep toward an honest self-reflection  until bit by bit we were able to release our fears and share from a place of love once more.

This resulted in a radical lifestyle change, and when our children were 5 and 10, we rented out our Port Townsend home and took a family sabbatical in a small beach-side Mexican village for a year.

Screen shot 2015-07-14 at 7.57.21 AM

But that’s another story.

3.  One can certainly be too NICE.

So yes, in light of all this, I believe there are all sorts of dangers to being too nice. If you choose to behave a certain way because you are fearful of the truth and you wish to present an acceptable “image” the odds are good you are being NICE, not KIND. And with NICENESS comes all those tough dilemmas I began with, and you run the risk of;

  • Enabling unhelpful patterns, false beliefs, and distance from someone who deserves your deepest truth;
  • Doing the martyr thing, behaving like a doormat whilst believing you’re helping;
  • Manipulating with sticky false behavior designed to be judged favorably;
  • Seeing the world as a “me” versus “them” scenario, which denies that there might be a thoughtful, genuine and honest win/win.

One can, indeed, never be too KIND.

NICE is born in fear and expressed by denying the deeper, honest truth.

KIND is born in love and expressed by engaging honesty with courage.

So yes, I agree with the Kings Cross gentleman’s business card: Screen shot 2015-07-14 at 7.38.53 AM

NEXT WEEK A reader’s question. “What’s the difference between independence, co-dependence and interdependence. How do you create a relationship where you can rely on your partner without losing yourself in them, and be sure your partner also understands and strives for the same balance?”  

FIRST TIME HERE? This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.”

Click the box for the full list.  →Top 12 Relationship Skills

If you’re interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.


SKILLS FOR UNDERSTANDING SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity

SKILLS FOR CONNECTING SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation

SKILL FIVE ~ Learn How To Listen With Your Whole Self

SKILL SIX ~ Crack The Empathy Nut

SKILL SEVEN ~ Practice Kindness

Cultivating Kindness

It’s not hard to make the case for kindness.

People are yearning for it.

  • Personally, it’s the vital glue in my close relationships;
  • My article Kindness is Key got more “hits” than anything I’ve written for over a year;
  • Google reports that searches for “kindness quotes” and “acts of kindness” are rising rapidly.

It’s good for us.

  • The study of positive psychology has gathered persuasive hard evidence about the benefits of qualities like kindness, compassion and happiness, a small sampling of which can be enjoyed (and even studied) at The Positive Psychlopedia;
  • An Atlantic article is calling kindness and generosity the Masters of Love.

Humans are possibly hardwired for it.

Primates do it.

  • Professor Franz De Waal has been studying emotions in primates, including cooperation, altruism and fairness, for over three decades, touching off a whole field of primate cognition that continues to inspire.
  • There are fresh new studies of pro-social behavior in primates which continue to reinforce the idea that our close animal relatives instinctively exhibit “altruistic” looking helping behaviors.

So – if kindness is yearned for, good for us, innate at birth and alive and well amongst certain primates, why does it become so hard to come by between people who love one another?

One clue to answering this might lie in the research of David Rand, assistant professor of psychology, economics, and management at Yale University, and the director of Yale University’s Human Cooperation Laboratory

In his paper spontaneous giving and calculated greed Dr. Rand discusses his findings that given a brief decision-making window, people will instinctively choose the pro-social (or kinder) option. But, give them time to think it over and they’ll be more selfish.

So, let’s slow that down.

Our first, innate instincts are pro-social and kind.

But once we get to thinking, we over-ride this instinct.

And we tend to over-ride this instinct a lot with the people we love:

in our long-term relationships where familiarity can breed discontent.

Right there in that pause between stimulus and response when your partner (to continue the examples from last week) ~

  • Looses the car keys – again
  • Trumps your punch line and finishes your story – again
  • Burns the fresh wild Alaskan King Salmon fillets – again
  • Forgets your birthday – again
  • Surfs the channels until you’re dizzy – again
  • Grunts at you over morning coffee – again

and you’re frustrated and disheartened because you’ve tried a thousand different ways to communicate that this behavior drives you nuts,

and right then you quell any instinctual kind response and instead go Hamlet and ask yourself a version of “To be (kind), or not to be (kind)?”

In that moment of thought, your natural kindness instinct is gone – Pooft!

And instead you feel an upsurge of anger and think to yourself,

How the blazes do I play the kindness card when I’m frustrated and disheartened and my partner is unreasonable and forgetful?

Screen shot 2015-07-07 at 12.30.55 PM

And in that moment of thought

a huge gulf opens up within you

and your heart divides.

On one side lurks the story you tell yourself about what has happened.

On the other side lies your ability to respond kindly.

As an IFS-trained couples counselor, I think David Rand is onto something important about what happens when we replace instinct with reason.

The moment we stop to think, we open our inner Pandora’s Box. And this box is always very full of opinions and judgments, the belief in which allows us not to feel what we feel. Particularly our thinking protects us from feeling the pain of ~

  • isolation
  • vulnerability
  • unworthiness
  • unlovability
  • shame.

See if any of these feel familiar.


  • The blue script is the thought that interrupts your instinct to be kind
  • The red script is the feeling you may be trying not to feel.

* * * * *


  • My partner’s needs and chaos are interrupting me and my life far too much.
  • I feel overwhelmed by all the demands on my time.


  • Why does my partner have to steal my thunder all the time?
  • We get so competitive around others. I feel like I’m not interesting enough.


  • My partner can’t even focus and accomplish one thing for “us” at home.
  • I feel so alone when we can’t pull off a simple team effort like a meal .


  • I make a big fuss over everyone’s birthday in this family, so why can’t they do the same for me?
  • I feel invisible, unlovable & too vulnerable to remind folks when my birthday is coming.


  • He’s so twitchy and uncentered. Why can’t he just settle on a program?
  • I feel ashamed that I waste time like this but can’t find anything more interesting to do for myself.


  • I have to make all the decisions around here – my partner’s non-functional every morning.
  • I feel so isolated when I can’t connect with my partner before we both leave for work.

So now you’ve got ~

A behavior in your beloved that you once found endearing and met with kindnessyou used to help find the keys, and you used to find it reassuring when your beloved knew your stories so well  they could finish them

is now immune to your original kindness response  – because your story about this behavior interrupts your initial pro-social instinct

and instead your story about this incident triggers your core vulnerabilities – and the accompanying not-so-great-feelings inside of you

and you lash out, tilting at the windmills outside of you, when actually the pain is all internal.

Because your cup is empty. Because you are not happy. Because you have not been kind enough to YOU.


My new friend and Buddhist teacher Kathleen Rose of the Boise Institute for Buddhist Studies connected me with a wonderful teaching I’d love to share briefly here, with a link to a fuller article.

In the face of inner overwhelm when you are underwhelmed by kindness for yourself or others, remember the RAIN of Self-Compassion. I quote briefly from this article here, or click that title link for the whole piece.

The acronym RAIN, first coined about 20 years ago by Michele McDonald, is an easy-to-remember tool for practicing mindfulness. It has four steps:

Recognize what is going on;
Allow the experience to be there, just as it is;
Investigate with kindness;
Natural awareness, which comes from Not identifying
with the experience. Or, more simply Non-attachment.”

To cross that enormous gulf of pain that opens up when thinking interrupts your instinct and separates you from your original pro-social drive, you only have to eliminate the story!

You already have everything you need to be kind.

You are an innately kind person who has lost touch with your instinctual ability to be kind because you’re drained. You’ve exhausted yourself by first creating these inner protective beliefs and then by believing these tales you tell.


in yourself and others, the next time someone in your life does what they do that you normally find so irritating, try 3 things:

  1. Recognize anything other than a kind instinct within as a self-diagnosis of inner overwhelm. All is not well if you are separated from your naturally compassionate self.
  2. Remember RAIN of Self-Compassion.
  3. Turn toward this person with a refreshed heart and remember what you used to do that was instinctively kind. You’ll know. If not, simply say “You know, here we are again – with you doing this and me on the verge of reacting. But I’m done reacting negatively. I’m sorry I’ve been so grumpy. I’ve been running on empty but I’m taking better care of myself. What do you need right now?”

See what happens.

I’d love to hear about it!

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.”

Click the box for the full list.  →Top 12 Relationship Skills

If you’re interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.



SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”

SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.

SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity


SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation

SKILL FIVE ~ Learn How To Listen With Your Whole Self

SKILL SIX ~ Crack The Empathy Nut

SKILL SEVEN ~ Practice Kindness