- 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.
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 →
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:
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.
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:
- What am I afraid of?
- 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.
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:
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. →
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.
- Report The News – Don’t Act it Out
- Happy Families
- Self Leadership
- When Does A Relationship Need Help?
SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity
- 5 Non verbal Cues You Need To Know
- How To Change Someone Else
- 2 Magic Ratios for Great relationships
- Is Understanding Overrated?
SKILLS FOR CONNECTING SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation
- Five Conversations
- How To Never Be Boring
- The 5 Principles For Great Conversation
- The 7 Deadliest Fights & How To Fight Fair
SKILL FIVE ~ Learn How To Listen With Your Whole Self
- 5 Ways To Be A Better Listener
- Listening To Yourself
- Who’s Listening
- Beyond Emotion Coaching – Listening For Your Child’s Needs
SKILL SIX ~ Crack The Empathy Nut
- Thriving Through Tough Times
- Teaching Empathy to Adults
- Teaching Empathy to Children
- Living Empathically
SKILL SEVEN ~ Practice Kindness
- Kindness Is Key
- Cultivating Kindness
- Can We Ever Be Too Kind?