Kindness Begins With … Who?

“Self-care is never a selfish act – it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give the care it requires, we do it not only for ourselves, but for the many others whose lives we touch.”  (Parker Palmer)

Attribution: By zenera ( [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia CommonsI can’t effectively extend kindness to others or graciously receive kindness from them if I don’t have a solid relationship of kindness with one very important person: me.

Seems obvious, but how many of us are really pretty mean to that person we live and breathe with 24/7?  Sometimes we’re downright abusive; other times, we’re indifferent or neglectful.

I’m going to employ one of the most overworked analogies around—one we encounter every time we take to the friendly skies:  “Should there be a loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will drop from the overhead compartment … be sure to secure your own mask before assisting others.”

We’ve heard it a thousand times, not just from our amiable flight attendant, but it is part of the repertoire of every motivational speaker on the circuit.  Yes, it’s overworked and trite, but, as so many overworked and trite things are, it’s also true.

Think about it in its original and literal setting:  If you were a child or someone who might need assistance donning an oxygen mask, would you prefer to get that help from someone breathing calmly and offering the assurance that this is a minor inconvenience which we will handle together, or from a wild-eyed martyr who may pass out at any moment.  I’ll take the former, thank you.

And in more earthbound circumstances, I find it more pleasurable to receive a kindness from someone who is steady and self-assured than from someone whose attempt at kindness seems to be born more out of desperation or obligation than of genuine caring.  And I find it easier to extend kindness to someone who is able to receive, than to someone who can’t because they don’t feel worthy.

There is not a one-size-fits-all method of being kind to ourselves.  What works for some won’t for others.  Let’s explore just a few:

Knowing When to Say Yes to Saying No

Saying yes to our own lives sometimes means knowing how to say no to others.  When we give so much to others that we have nothing left to give ourselves, we must follow the advice of the Dalai Lama: “…for the sake of everyone … withdraw and restore yourself. The point is to have a long-term perspective.”  Likewise, there are times when we need to speak a gentle “no” to ourselves, when we are poised to embark on a self-destructive action, or when we simply need permission to get off the merry-go-round.

Margot Silk Forrest, author of A Short Course in Kindness, offers a wonderful list of 42 ways to say no.  Here are just a few.  You’ll find the whole, handy list on her website:

  • I wish I could help you out, but I’m overextended/overcommitted right now.
  • Not in this lifetime!
  • The part that wants to make you happy wants to say yes, but the rest of me won the vote. I’ll pass.

Changing Our Self-Talk

How many of us say things to ourselves that we would never say to another human being?  We call ourselves stupid, clumsy, ugly, fat.  We criticize our slightest error.  We tell ourselves that we don’t deserve the good things that come our way, and that we do deserve the bad.  If we happen to look in the mirror and notice that the person looking back at us is looking pretty hot today, we immediately look for the flaw: check out that hair, brushed it with a cattle prod, did you?  We need to notice when we’re engaging in verbal self-abuse and change it on the spot:  Dahling, you look magnificent!  Come, let the world see how beautiful you are!

Finding Our Own Satisfaction Triggers

Everybody has different self-care activators, and they are as diverse as the population is: reading, exercise, bubble baths, being in nature, listening to music, writing, walking the dog or petting the cat, romance, travel, swimming, tennis, meditation, spending time with friends, spending time alone.  These are just a few.  What are your satisfaction triggers?  We all need to recognize the activities that replenish and re-energize us and then activate them with some frequency.  If we don’t take care of ourselves, who will?

Self-care and self-kindness is a big issue.  In the next post, we’ll look at a few more means of being kind to that VIP who is us, and we’ll talk about what gets in the way.  Please share your own ah-has and thoughts about self-kindness.  What happens when you don’t practice kindness with yourself?  What do you do to be kind to yourself?

“Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.” (Dr. Seuss)

Kindness Counters Indifference … It Requires Engagement and Action

“They say philosophers and wise men are indifferent. Wrong. Indifference is a paralysis of the soul, a premature death.”  (Anton Chekhov)

Attribution: Donna CameronWhile the opposite of kindness is, logically, unkindness, I think equally opposite is indifference.  One cannot be kind if caring is absent.  Unless we are willing to suspend our spectator status and jump into our lives, we will probably wallow in a state of relatively comfortable indifference.

And indifference and kindness cannot coexist.

An anthem to indifference, entitled, “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends,” was written and sung by Phil Ochs in the 1960s, in response to the horrific murder of a young woman named Kitty Genovese in New York.  Dozens of people were awakened by her screams, and even watched from their windows as she was attacked and stabbed over a prolonged period.  Yet none tried to intervene or even picked up the phone to call the police.  It seems unbelievable that no one would step up to help in any way.  But they didn’t want to get involved; they couldn’t be bothered; they were afraid; perhaps they assumed someone else had already taken action.

Ochs’ song satirizes our indifference not just to a crime such as the Genovese murder, but also to poverty, inequality, and the needs of others.  Like so many of Ochs’ songs of protest (and he was a master of the protest ballad), the song is outdated now, too strident and a bit corny.  But it still has a bite.

Today’s “anthem” to indifference might be a one-word phrase that is generally delivered with an accompanying shrug and a roll of the eyes: “Whatever…”

There is so much packed into that little word: who cares? … I can’t be bothered … what’s the big deal? … so what?

“Whatever,” delivered with the accompanying tone and gestures of indifference, is not a kind word.  At best, it’s a lazy word; at worst, a door slamming on potential kindness.

We learn indifference and phrases like “whatever” from the people around us.  Children, especially, model what they see, and from the time they are very young, they see a great deal of indifference.  But just as indifference is learned, so is kindness.  The earlier we start learning kindness, the sooner we are able to practice it, thus staving off indifference.

Teaching Kindness

According to neuroscience expert Patty O’Grady, PhD, of the University of Tampa, children can learn kindness in school through the teaching of empathy.  She cites many classroom experiences that can demonstrate and reinforce kindness, among them simple acts such as charting kind actions, noticing kindnesses, teaching tolerance, and group participation in activities that spread kindness.

In an online article on the Psychology Today website, O’Grady notes: The neuroscience and social science research is clear: kindness changes the brain by the experience of kindness. Children and adolescents do not learn kindness by only thinking about it and talking about it. Kindness is best learned by feeling it so that they can reproduce it. Kindness is an emotion that students feel and empathy is a strength that they share.

Kindness and empathy are an antidote to indifference.  We cannot force kindness, any more than we can force love or respect.  But, the sooner we can replace shrugs with caring, and “whatever” with a smile and a genuine response, we will be on the way to countering indifference and engaging in the precious life that is only ours to live.

“Indifference.” Jerusha surprised herself with the answer. “Indifference, Gundhalinu, is the strongest force in the universe. It makes everything it touches meaningless. Love and hate don’t stand a chance against it. It lets neglect and decay and monstrous injustice go unchecked. It doesn’t act, it allows. And that’s what gives it so much power.” (Joan D. Vinge, The Snow Queen)

On the Receiving End of Kindness…

“One who knows how to show and to accept kindness will be a friend better than any possession.”  (Sophocles)

[As I wrote this post, I had the distinct impression that this might be a gender-specific issue.  So to any men who happen to read it, take what you will, and perhaps there will be something that you can relate to.  Accept that you are wise, and handsome, and remarkably accomplished….]

Attribution: Donna CameronEven if we don’t have the resources to give all that we would like to give, we always have the capacity to receive graciously.  It sounds so simple, but it can be surprisingly hard.  Think of the times someone tried to give you something and you demurred—perhaps because you didn’t think they could afford it, or you didn’t feel worthy, or it was simply your initial reaction to an awkward situation.  Maybe the gift wasn’t something you wanted; perhaps you didn’t want to feel indebted.  Or maybe you are among the cynical who wonder what’s the catch?

Did your refusal of their offer please them, or did it disappoint?  In retrospect, would a gracious thank-you have made both of you happier and immensely more comfortable?

Giving is such a pleasurable act.  Yet we often deny our friends and acquaintances—and even strangers—the joy and satisfaction of giving by being such terrible receivers.

And the gift doesn’t have to be something material.  How often do we devalue the gift of another’s words by refusing their compliments?  We deflect kind words about our appearance by saying, “No, I look terrible!  My hair needs cutting and I need to lose ten pounds, and look, I’ve lost a button on this shirt.”  Do you really think they complimented us just to hear us point out all our flaws?  I seriously doubt it.

How much better to respond with, “How nice of you to say so,” or “Thanks for your kind words, they make me feel great!”

In his book, Imperfect Alternatives, Dr. Dale Turner quotes a friend who chided him for brushing off a compliment: “When someone gives you a compliment in words, don’t disagree or minimize what he says, for words are gifts, too.  Accept them gratefully, even though you don’t think you deserve them….. A compliment is a gift not to be thrown away carelessly unless you want to hurt the giver.”

We also reject compliments on our achievements by down-playing them.  We say, “No, it really wasn’t anything special. Anybody could have done it.  I was lucky.” It’s as if we are saying, No, you dolt. Can’t you see I’m really an incompetent nincompoop?  It’s always great to share credit—that’s another form of kindness (not to mention decency)—but minimizing the overall accomplishment serves no one.

How much better to say, “Thank you, I’m really pleased with the result, too,” or “Yes! Don’t we have a fabulous team!?”

As I pose the question of why accepting compliments is something most of us aren’t very good at, I realize this is a much larger issue for women than for men. When was the last time you complimented a man on his new suit and he responded by saying that it makes his butt look big?  Doesn’t happen.

Most of the men I interact with know how to accept compliments about their work.  Hell, they expect kudos … and good for them for having those expectations.

A lot of women were raised with the direct or indirect instruction to hide their light under a bushel.  Our mothers told us to be modest.  Our teachers encouraged humility and restraint.  Somebody else kept mumbling that the meek will inherit the earth.

Let’s Reframe Our Response to Compliments

Perhaps if we reframe our response to gifts and compliments we can learn to receive them.  Instead of questioning whether we deserve them, or fearing that we will appear conceited, or that we are getting more than our share, let’s stop thinking about ourselves and think instead about the giver.  Think about the kindness we can extend to them by accepting their gift with grace.

Why don’t we all set an intention of receiving compliments graciously for the next 21 days and see how that feels.  No demurring.  No downplaying.  No false modesty.  And while we’re at it, let’s extend some compliments.  I don’t know anyone who couldn’t use a few.  Do you?

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” (Leo Buscaglia)