What Are We All So Afraid Of?

“Be not afraid.  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)

Attribution: Donna CameronAs I continue to re-examine some of the key ideas that emerged during my initial year of living kindly, I note how often fear emerges as a barrier to kindness—both to our expressing it and to our receiving it. And beyond inhibiting kindness, fear is also very often at the root of unkindness and incivility.

Why is fear such a big factor in keeping us from being our best selves?

Extending Kindness

We’re often hesitant to extend a kindness because we fear the result. Is it the right thing? Will I say the wrong words? Is it enough? Is it too much? Will it be rejected? Will I be rejected? If I offer assistance to someone, will they take offense that I perceived them as incapable? Fear can be paralyzing and our opportunity to express it passes by swiftly.

We also fear embarrassment. Kindness may take us out of our comfort zone; it may ask us to do something new. Perhaps we’ll be clumsy or awkward, or we’ll call attention to ourselves in an unwelcome way. If I stop to hand a couple of dollars to someone in need, will my companion scold me and call me a bleeding heart?

The question we all too often fail to ask is, “Could my kindness here make a positive difference?”

Receiving Kindness

On the receiving end of kindness, we may fear being perceived as weak or needy. Or perhaps we want to maintain a distance between ourselves and the giver; we fear strings may be attached to the proffered kindness. Receiving can be just as awkward and clumsy as giving—maybe we fear we don’t deserve the kindness, or it is out of proportion to our own smaller generosity. Maybe we’ll embarrass the giver, or ourselves. Accepting the kindness of others with grace and appreciation is itself an act of kindness. And a pretty easy one, at that. But it takes practice. Whether you are offered a material gift, assistance, or a compliment, do your best to receive it courteously and savor the kindness.

Perhaps the question to ask here is, “What’s the most gracious response I can offer?”

Behaving Unkindly

When we see unkindness, at its root is often fear. When someone lashes out at another person, it may not be for anything the person has or hasn’t done. They are simply the nearest individual on whom to deflect blame, embarrassment, or anger. Not so long ago at a downtown hotel parking lot, a number of people were in line at the payment kiosk. The person who was trying to pay could not get his credit card to work. He turned it one way, then the next, he inserted it slowly, then quickly. He tried a different card with the same result. People behind him were beginning to get impatient, though they tried not to show it. Finally, someone suggested pushing the button that would summon an attendant. When the attendant arrived, he helped the fellow process his payment in less than 30 seconds. Instead of being grateful, the man just got angrier. He berated the attendant for the machine’s poor quality, and for the exorbitant price of the parking, and finally for the inconvenience he was subjected to. Perhaps he was angered over the inconvenience, but it appeared more likely that he was embarrassed and feared the judgment of people waiting behind him to pay. Were they thinking he was incompetent? After all, none of the people ahead of him had experienced any problem with the machine.

Many of the things we fear are threats to our pride, to the image we have of ourselves. When our pride is threatened, when we fear that others—or even ourselves—will see that we are not as strong, smart, capable, or lovable as we believe ourselves to be, we often strike out or strike back. We act unkindly.

The question to ask here is, “What am I afraid of?”

I think one of the best moments of our lives is when we stop worrying about what other people think of us or how we are being judged. The truth is that most people are far too concerned with themselves to spend much time appraising others. And those who do want to belittle, snicker, and sneer simply aren’t worth worrying about!

Change the Question

When I first wrote about how fear inhibits our kindness, I suggested that the question we often ask ourselves in the face of fear, “What’s the worst that could happen?” is the wrong question to ask. I still believe that’s true. Much better is to ask, “What’s the best that could happen?” Focusing on best enables us to see the potential our kindness holds—to brighten a life, to alter the tone of an encounter, to change the world. We need to remember that kindness has ripples far beyond our awareness. A seemingly small action could trigger others, which trigger still more, and, ultimately, might be the tipping point that transforms the world.

Focusing on best diminishes our fear and also keeps our desired goal front-and-center in our mind. If we focus on worst, our subconscious points toward it. If we focus on best, all our capacities conspire to make that happen. All it takes is practice and confidence that the path of kindness will lead us where we want to go.

The Power of Kindness

Many people still choose to see kindness as a sign of weakness. They erroneously equate it with being wishy-washy or a pushover. If I exhibit kindness, I’ll be inviting others to take advantage of me. Nothing could be further from the truth. Kindness takes strength, it takes resolve and courage, and the willingness to be vulnerable.

When fear threatens to deter our kindness, or to incite unkindness, we need to remember that kindness has the ability and power to vanquish our fears. Then, step past the fear and claim our kindness.

“A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees.” (Amelia Earhart)

Bippidi-Boppidi-Boo: The Magic of Kindness

“When you open a door for others, you sometimes open doors for yourself.” (Donald L. Hicks)

CinderellaImagine if Cinderella had been too shy to go to the ball. It would have been a very different story, or, in fact, no story at all. Had she demurred when her fairy godmother offered her a shimmering gown, glass slippers, and a golden coach, her fate would have been to continue as servant and drudge to her demanding stepmother and selfish stepsisters. Years later, tired and worn down by life, she might have thought regretfully about the night she said no because she was too afraid to say yes. So much for happily ever after.

Fortunately for her—and for six-year-old girls everywhere—Cindy was confident and eager to suit up and ride her pimped-out pumpkin to the palace where she became belle of the ball.

But there are thousands of people who face Cindy’s choice daily—though on a smaller and less-Disneyesque scale—and they hold back, out of fear and social anxiety. They feel a paralyzing dread at the thought of entering a social situation—be it attending a party, meeting new people, or speaking out at a meeting. Help is at hand, though, in the form of new research from our friends to the north, showing that kindness alleviates social anxiety.

Social anxiety is more than shyness. According to the Social Anxiety Institute: ”Social anxiety is the fear of interaction with other people that brings on self-consciousness, feelings of being negatively judged and evaluated, and, as a result, leads to avoidance, … feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, embarrassment, humiliation, and depression.” It is a debilitating condition, isolating the sufferer and often preventing them from developing intimacy or close relationships.

A study recently published in the Journal of Motivation and Emotion by researchers Jennifer Trew of Simon Fraser University and Lynn Alden of the University of British Columbia revealed that engaging in acts of kindness reduced levels of social anxiety and social avoidance.

The study divided college students with social anxiety issues into three groups. One was directed to simply keep a diary of their experiences and emotions, another was exposed to different socialization situations, and the third was instructed to perform acts of kindness—three acts of kindness a day for two days a week over the course of four weeks. The kindnesses could be as simple as mowing a neighbor’s lawn, donating to charity, or washing a roommate’s dishes, and were defined as “acts that benefit others or make others happy, typically at some cost to oneself.”

After a month, the group tasked with performing acts of kindness reported lower levels of discomfort and anxiety about social interaction than either of the other two groups.

The researchers concluded that “acts of kindness may help to counter negative social expectations by promoting more positive perceptions (and expectations) of the social environment. This is likely to occur early in the intervention as participants anticipate positive reactions from others in response to their kindness, decreasing the perceived need to avoid negative social outcomes.”

So… we feel better about ourselves and our environment when we extend kindness, and we also expect better reactions and results. Thus, we are less fearful. Makes sense.

I suspect, also, that when we are engaged in kind acts, our attention is on the act or the object of it, and we are less aware of our own worries. While this study didn’t specifically look at people performing kindnesses in the social situations that frighten them, I imagine entering such situations with the intent of finding opportunities to be kind would go far to alleviate the fear. It would divert us from feeling self-conscious and worrying about how we are being judged.

While most of us don’t suffer from debilitating social anxiety, this study of kindness can likely be extrapolated to anyone who experiences discomfort in social situations—whether a cocktail party, public speaking, weddings, funerals, or the dating scene. If we replace worrying with looking for opportunities to be kind, we may very well discover that the event we dreaded was enjoyable and painless. And perhaps we’ll be the proverbial belle of the ball.

As Cinderella might, say, “If the shoe fits….”

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.  If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”  (Dalai Lama)

Rejecting Kindness

“Kindness can become its own motive.  We are made kind by being kind.” (Eric Hoffer)

Attribution: Donna CameronIt can be upsetting and bewildering when someone rejects our kindness.  An act which was meant to be helpful and benign is rebuffed or rejected.  Sometimes, the intended recipient even lashes out at us.  What did we do wrong?  Are we in some way at fault, or inadequate?

As a result, the next time we want to extend a kindness, we hesitate—fearing rejection or scorn.  Our act of kindness dies before it is born.  Some weeks it feels like there is worldwide scarcity of kindness, and we must do our part to keep the impulses alive.

There is a simple saying that I use often in working with groups or in one-on-one situations:  We assume one another’s good intent.  So simple, and yet so powerful. If only we could always remember it!

The Seattle Times runs a daily section call “Rant and Rave.”  It invites readers to share examples of good and bad behavior and positive and negative encounters in our community.  The raves are frequently descriptions of generosity and kindnesses experienced and witnessed—they’re often uplifting and touching, little vignettes that reinforce our shared humanity.  Here’s an example: “For the Men’s Warehouse employees who helped my developmentally disabled son have the senior prom he’d dreamed of, and for his teachers who made it all happen. It was a night he’ll never forget!”

The rants, on the other hand, often describe careless, rude, or unscrupulous deeds or situations.  A rant caught my eye recently: “To the guy in the VW who flipped me the bird, mouthed obscenities through the glass and then sped off when I was knocking on his window to let him know his tire was flat.”

Who knows why the driver reacted as he did.  He may have been frightened, surprised, or embarrassed.  He may have thought he was caught doing something naughty.  He may have been having a lousy day and the knock on his window put him over the edge (if that’s the case, the dawning awareness of a flat tire a short time later can’t have added to the day’s enjoyment).  But how sad it is that the first reaction some people have to unexpected contact by strangers is to strike out at the individual.

Road Rage

We’ve all heard of road rage precipitated by a honking horn when someone fails to notice the light has turned green.  A tap on the horn is a kindness under those circumstances, one to be responded to with a wave of thanks as the driver proceeds through the light.  Too often it initiates an angry gesture, a curse, or even a brandished weapon.

For those reasons, we are often wary.  I’ve seen lines of cars patiently waiting through two green lights for the oblivious driver to notice that the light has changed (this is Seattle, remember, we are boundlessly courteous).  Rather than honk, I once saw a man get out of his car and politely tap on the driver’s window of the car ahead.  For his effort, he was rewarded with an unkind gesture and screech of tires as the driver shot through the now-yellow light.  I’m sure the driver was embarrassed, but what is it about embarrassment that makes some of us lash out.

Embarrassment

Embarrassment is part of the human experience.  It’s also what makes us human, whether an unzipped fly, a broccoli-adorned tooth, or a verbal gaffe.  It happens.  We’ve all been there.  To not risk embarrassment is to shun human contact entirely.  It seems to me that grace is the ideal response to those embarrassing moments.  More broadly, though, isn’t grace the best response to almost anything?

I hope the driver who knocked on the window of the VW isn’t deterred from doing so the next time s/he thinks a stranger would want to know what s/he has noticed.

And I hope we all (myself most definitely included) can learn to react with grace when someone tries to help us.

 “He who sows sparingly will reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will reap bountifully.” (St. Paul)