What Keeps Us from Being Kind?

“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded … sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.” (George Saunders)

I’ve had a lot of opportunities over the last year to talk with groups about kindness. One of the questions I’m often asked is, “Why is it so hard? . . . . Why is something obviously desirable and seemingly easy sometimes so difficult to actually do?”

I generally respond by describing the typical barriers to our kindness, the first of which is fear. And fear comes in many flavors: Fear of having our kindness rejected or misunderstood, fear of doing it wrong, fear of drawing attention to ourselves and causing embarrassment. Beyond fear, we may not know the right thing to do, or we claim not to have time, or we’re often simply oblivious.

Our brains can find any number of reasons for not doing something that may cross our minds as an impulse or notion. Just as it can rationalize having that third piece of chocolate or delaying making a needed doctor appointment. While there’s nothing wrong with being lazy, pleasure-seeking vessels, sometimes we need to move beyond that comfortable, sluggish state. The world needs us to get off our butts.

A recent study conducted by the Singapore Kindness Movement showed that our barriers to kindness can vary by age. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms before, but it makes a great deal of sense. The Singapore study showed that young people (ages 15-24) refrain from extending kindness primarily because they are afraid of being embarrassed. They fear looking stupid or being mocked on social media. It’s not that they don’t want to be kind. Many of these same young people volunteer their time to charitable organizations or donate money to worthy causes. But they are deterred from publicly performing kind deeds by fears of being ridiculed, taunted, or criticized. While they are uncomfortable acting alone, they were, however, more willing to engage in kind activities as part of a group.

Study participants from older age segments were far less likely to be concerned about embarrassment. For them, the primary reasons for not extending kindness were feeling unsure of the right thing to do or simply not noticing that someone needed help.

Again, this makes sense. Older people are generally less concerned about what others think of them, while younger people just want to fit in (remember high school?).

As for the impediments we older individuals claim, these can be overcome with intention.

Obliviousness: Pay attention—yes, it’s that simple (though not necessarily easy). Set some boundaries on when and for how long you will have your eyes glued to your devices. Let go of some of the internal drama that so captivates you. Consciously look at the people and situations around you and choose to be a participant in this big pot of human stew. You will see countless opportunities to extend kindness—as well as notice how many kindnesses are sent your way.

Uncertain of what to do: If we wait to act until we are sure it’s exactly the right thing, we would be pretty inert most of the time. There are times when we must move forward, balancing confidence with a willingness to alter the plan as more information becomes apparent. The key is to not overthink a situation to the point of paralysis or missed opportunity. Life is a big barrel of risks. Dive in.

Time: The Singapore study doesn’t seem to have addressed this factor as a deterrent to kindness, but I’ve talked with enough people who cite it to believe that concerns about time are genuine. There’s no question that some acts of kindness do take time: stopping to help, exercising patience while someone ploddingly learns something new, stepping out of our comfortable routine to lend a hand, listening to an elderly relative tell a story we have heard twenty times before. Here, we can tweak the way we think about both kindness and time. Instead of being an add-on, something we do when it’s convenient, kindness is simply how we approach life—always alert to opportunities to offer our best selves. And if kindness is a priority, then the time it takes is simply the time it takes to be a good human.

I haven’t come across a similar study conducted in North America, but I suspect the results would parallel the Singapore study. Kindness, I’ve seen, transcends borders and boundaries. We seek it for ourselves, wish it for our loved ones, and aspire to spread it in our communities. At times, it is hard, but so are most things that truly matter.

What do you find to be the biggest barriers to your kindness?

“A kind life, a life of spirit, is fundamentally a life of courage—the courage simply to bring what you have, to bring who you are.” (Wayne Muller)

15 thoughts on “What Keeps Us from Being Kind?

  1. Unpredictable and limited energy because of fibro/fatigue is the biggest barrier I have to overcome and it’s often difficult getting someone in need to understand that what I can do one day or one minute, I can’t do the next. Interesting post!

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    • So very true, Ann. Perhaps if we focused more on the kindnesses we do instead of the ones we don’t do, we might be more inclined to expand our efforts. Hmmm . . . I’ll have to ponder this. Thanks!

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  2. As usual, some really great nuggets in there. My own barrier is my struggle to engage with people. Although I’m most definitely not what you’d call a people person, nothing causes me greater upset than to see someone in pain, distressed or confused. So recognising that barrier pushes me towards other ways to offer kindness. I have time to listen, and through the marvel of the internet I am able to campaign, donate and engage remotely. It’s a really useful tool for those who find it difficult to offer hands on help. Without it, I wouldn’t have discovered you and all your though-provoking insights!

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    • And I’m so glad you did find my blog! … and I found yours. You’re right that there are lots of ways to express our kindness and our support for others. And if we find the one(s) that we’re most comfortable with, it will be easier for us to act. The world needs more people willing to take time to listen!

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  3. Whenever someone is unkind himself I guess it is not that easy to be kind yourself – eventhough such people usually tend to need kindness the most.

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  4. In my culture, I find it most difficult to be kind to people who think they are entitled to your kindness. There is kindness, and there’s being abused for your kindness.

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    • That sense of entitlement among some people appears in our culture, too, Theresa. Some people are–and probably always will be–clueless. Probably wise to avoid whenever possible. Thanks!


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