Tag Archives: Professor Franz De Waal

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