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)

Where Will It End?

“I have this theory that if one person can go out of their way to show compassion, then it will start a chain reaction of the same. People will never know how far a little kindness can go.” (Rachel Joy Scott [1981-1999], student, first victim of the Columbine High School massacre)

Even to me, kindness sometimes seems puny and powerless against the relentless bigotry, hatred, and anger that surround us. I believe with my whole heart that kindness will eventually triumph, but even with my whole heart thus convinced, I feel it shatter after so many senseless deaths—those of the last week and the cumulative violence here in America and worldwide.

It’s making some of us numb, while at the same time arousing even more anger in others. We have become vastly polarized—politics, ideology, culture, race, religion. The diversity that makes us so robust, so richly varied, and, yes, so strong, is also our Achilles’ heel. Where. Will. It. End?

This week, Representative John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia and renowned civil rights leader, said, “It doesn’t matter whether black or white, Latino, Asian-American or Native American; we are one family living in one house. We must learn to live together as brothers and sisters. If not, we will perish as fools. We have too many guns. There has been too much violence. And we must act.”

“Perish as fools.” Is that to be our fate? Sometimes it feels like it.

Fear is at the heart of so much of this violence: fear of people who look different or think differently, fear of losing what one has or of never having what one wants, fear of being disrespected, fear of being wrong, fear of appearing weak. What would happen if we could put aside our fears?

Each horrific act we’ve witnessed has incited more hatred and violence, but each has also spurred countless acts of kindness. We must multiply those kindnesses, we must share them and savor them. When I become discouraged, and when puny kindness seems no match for ever-growing anger and hate, I will remember the courage of people who stand up to aggression and violence armed only with kindness, and I will try to emulate them. We must always remember them…lest we perish as fools.

Tiananmen Square, 1989

Tiananmen Square, 1989. Source: Wikipedia, photographer: Jeff Widener, Associated Press

“The simplest acts of kindness are by far more powerful than a thousand heads bowing in prayer.” (Mahatma Gandhi)

9 Barriers to Kindness

“I expect to pass through life but once. If, therefore, there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again.” (William Penn)

kindness highlightedWhen things get out of hand, we all have different ways of regaining control of our lives. When I am feeling overwhelmed, I organize.

I need to make a distinction between organizing and cleaning: I don’t clean, my husband will be the first to tell you that, so to prevent him from posting an unflattering—but entirely true—description of just what a slob I am, I will repeat: I do not clean, I rarely straighten, I tend to be entirely oblivious to clutter. I’m not proud of that fact, but sadly, it’s absolutely true.

However, when I am besieged by deadlines and overcome by the sheer volume of tasks and responsibilities facing me, I get busy organizing. Once I have organized my life, I feel like I am back in control and able to tackle all of my obligations steadily and timely—and even enjoy doing them.

My first step in organizing is to make a list, or, more accurately, multiple lists. I make lists of everything I need to do and then sub-lists of the various steps to doing them. I make lists of things I need to remember. I make chronological lists, shopping lists, task lists … and when things get truly overwhelming, I make a list of lists I need to make. That is the point I have reached this week.

It was in this list-making frenzy that I realized I haven’t made many lists related to kindness. Maybe I hadn’t yet reached the stress-level needed for that. Fortunately, the universe has conspired to remedy that, and kindness has joined the ranks of lists that I employ to organize and bring order to my life.

The first list I sat down to write enumerates the barriers to kindness—the things that get in the way of our being kind or compassionate. I’ve identified nine factors that might keep us from being our best self. They are in no particular order, but the first is probably the biggest:

Fear – I could write an entire post just about fear (oh, in fact I did), but to condense it here, there’s a smorgasbord of fears to choose from:

  • Fear of Rejection – the gift of our kindness might be misunderstood or spurned. Ouch!
  • Fear of Embarrassment – what if I extend kindness clumsily and look foolish? Ouch, again!
  • Fear of Judgment – people will say I’m weak or maybe gullible. More ouch.

Better to do nothing than to risk the vulnerability…or is it? Part of the solution to dealing with fear is to focus not on the bad things that might happen but on the good outcomes you are seeking to bring forth. That’s a sure way to banish fear.

Laziness and Inertia – While there are certainly kind actions we can take that don’t require a lot of energy (a smile, a compliment, a door held open), many kindnesses do require that we extend ourselves. They require that we get off our butts, go out of our way, and sometimes even leave our comfort zones. Usually it’s just a matter of taking the first step and then our intentions take over and kindness ensues. But the hurdle is that first step and overcoming the inertia to take it.

Indifference – The antithesis of kindness, indifference is a barrier to living a kind life. One cannot be kind if caring is absent; one cannot be kind if one is willing to shrug and say, “It’s not my problem.” Indifference may be how we protect ourselves from strong feelings, from the caring that moves us to action. It may be comfortable to wallow in indifference, but kindness requires that we stop being a spectator and jump into life.

Entitlement – Sadly, there are many people who see kindness—if they see it at all—as something that can be selective. It’s not as essential to show kindness to the clerk, the cashier, or the homeless person as it is to the VIP who can help one get ahead or feel powerful. There’s an adage that says “a person who is kind to you but rude to the waiter is not a kind person.” It’s so true; selective kindness isn’t kindness, it’s opportunism. Kindness is something we extend to everyone at every opportunity.

Obliviousness – It’s easy to miss opportunities to be kind if we aren’t paying attention to what’s going on around us. We may not notice that there is a person behind us for whom we can hold a door, or that someone needs help carrying their groceries, or that a child is frightened or sad. Too often, we allow technology to take precedence over human connection—we are constantly absorbed in our hand-held devices, oblivious to the life around us and the myriad opportunities we have to offer the gift of our kindness. We can even be oblivious to our own need for self-care—unaware that we have depleted our energy and need to engage in some personal renewal if we want to be able to care for others. Paying attention to our lives is easier said than done, but it’s one of the essential elements of a kind life.

Habit – If we are in the habit of saying no, it’s hard to say yes—to someone who asks for assistance, for our time, or for a dollar or two to help them make it through the day. Of course, we can’t say yes to everything or everyone, but whichever answer we choose should come out of conscious conviction, rather than robotic routine.

Not enough timeIt takes time to be kind—to pause and think about what the kind response is, to offer assistance knowing that it might delay us from our tightly-packed schedule, to connect on a human level with the people we encounter throughout the day. It even takes time to be kind to ourselves—an essential quality to being able to extend kindness to others. In the face of so much hurrying, it helps me to remind myself that my number-one job is kindness; all else comes second.

ImpatienceImpatience might be a subset of feeling one doesn’t have enough time, but it’s more than that. We may have all the time in the world and still be impatient with someone who lacks skill or understanding in something. It’s just easier to roll our eyes and do it ourselves than to extend the kindness—the patience—to teach, or coach, or watch while someone fumbles or stumbles. Offering genuine patience is always a kindness.

FatigueResearch has shown that when we’re over-tired we’re not only more prone to accidents, have difficulty learning, and feel stressed, but we are also more likely to commit unethical or unkind acts. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to value sleep more than ever—and knowing that it helps make me kinder just makes my bed even warmer and cozier.

Having made a list, I already feel better. No OCD tendencies here. Have I left anything out? When you miss an opportunity to be kind, can you ascribe it to any of the above, or are there other reasons?

“Constant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust, and hostility to evaporate.” (Albert Schweitzer)

Kindness Requires Courage: Part 2 of an Interview with Sandra Ford Walston

“It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.” (Mark Twain)

Attribution: Donna Cameron

Wallace Falls, August 2015

Last week I posted Part 1 of my interview with Sandra Ford Walston, who is internationally known as The Courage Expert. Sandra is an author, speaker, human potential consultant, and courage coach. In this year of living kindly I’ve seen countless times that a life of kindness often requires courage. There are times when kind actions make us vulnerable, or when our kindness is rejected or even ridiculed. Sometimes kindness means standing up to a bully or acting contrary to what is expected of us. Sometimes it means speaking up, and sometimes remaining silent. Courage is required if we are to overcome all of those risks and extend the kindness that comes from our most authentic self.

If you missed last week’s introduction to Sandra Ford Walston and her work on courage, you can read it here. Now, we pick up where we left off…

YOLK: It’s clear from your work that it takes courage to live with intentionality every day, or to say or do something that may be counter to prevailing attitudes or behaviors. It takes courage to live authentically and be willing to put yourself out there. How can one claim their courage or perhaps reinforce it?

SFW: I don’t think you can ever have too much courage—and I don’t mean being foolhardy. I know when my reservoir is low. Most people will change when the pain of staying in the old pattern is greater than the pain of change. But, why go through so much suffering? There is choice: you can choose to build and draw from a reservoir of courage. This supports you to stand up for the self you know to be you. The choice is yours and it starts with whether you will choose to give yourself permission to claim your individual courage, and to be conscious about your spirit’s dignity and true essence. This is not found in Business 101! You know when you’ve stayed on a job far too long because it’s bleeding your heart, not feeding your spirit. When you choose to design new choices you limit the residual of regret. The more you exercise your courage, the more courage you will have.

YOLK: Could you talk a bit about vulnerability? I’ve seen that true kindness often requires us to reveal our most vulnerable self. You’ve expressed a similar connection between vulnerability and courage.

SFW: Self-awareness offers us opportunities for an honest assessment of our vulnerabilities. We discover that vulnerability comes in many forms, such as acknowledging our unhappiness, learning to move on through calamitous events, and learning not to deny or manipulate failures or mistakes. The more intense the circumstances, the more risky it seems to admit our vulnerabilities—especially in the context of work—but trying to manipulate these circumstances serves only the ego’s need to feel in control and generally backfires. Few people have the courage to reveal vulnerability, acknowledge it and overcome it.

Revealing vulnerability demonstrates maturity in the development of your true self and demonstrates great courage. It takes enormous courage to forego manipulation.

YOLK: What are some of the ways we can move through our vulnerability and claim our courage?

SFW: With self-awareness, we begin to notice our personal forms of manipulation—from bullying, to indifference, to passive aggressive behaviors. Facing a decisive moment provides an opportunity to reveal vulnerability. Do you confess your shortcomings and missteps? For example, if you lack knowledge about a topic, do you respond in a deceptive manner that keeps your ego intact? The honest response would be to reveal your vulnerability by admitting that you do not know the answer. Confessing is good for the spirit when done in a timely manner and with positive intent. The process helps us face the truth. We take responsibility for our lives and our actions.

Revealing vulnerability allows our best lights to shine. Where our ego mentality insists that vulnerability is a sign of weakness and must be hidden, the deeper truth is that revealing our vulnerability represents integrity and conveys our true identity. The alternative—hiding our mistakes and weaknesses and pretending to be what we are not—can only be accomplished through manipulation, which undermines our integrity, breeds distrust and stifles our true “heart and spirit” identity. As poet e.e. cummings wrote, “It takes courage to grow up and turn out to be who you really are.”

In summary, vulnerability supports self-realization, underscoring a human being’s essence—the true Self. Far from being a bad thing, vulnerability leads us to our most authentic self.

YOLK: I know you’ve interviewed hundreds of people over the years in your research about courage. Has kindness emerged for you as a courage issue?

SFW: Indirectly…. I often use a phrase that reveals a higher integral level of courage consciousness: “where courage meets grace.” I would say that this intersection of courage and grace requires an inbred kindness. I also detect kindness in courage advocacy, such as speaking up on someone’s behalf or, or saying kind words about someone to set the tone for receptivity. Kindness shows up when you’re “a word en-courager.” A word en-courager boosts people rather than busts people. If you think of a list of virtues such as compassion, grace, tolerance or humility, I feel they all fall under courage, since it means “heart and spirit” or coming from your true Self. Hence, if I am centered in my courage I will naturally display kindness.

YOLK: You’ve also written about the epidemic of incivility and discourtesy in modern society. About how the manners that were instilled in so many of us—by our parents and our teachers—seem to be disappearing. Why do you think that is, and do you see any role for courage in bringing back civility?

SFW: Courage and civility are essential to foster good citizenship. It often seems that common courtesy and simple manners have gone the way of one-speed bicycles and black-and-white TVs. Regaining those niceties could do a lot toward redefining the workplace environment as a place of willing and generous productivity. Those of us who were raised with manners have gotten lazy. In our laziness, we’ve raised a second generation of individuals who are simply and often sincerely ignorant of such values as respect for others, kindness, generosity, and common decency, such as holding the door open for the person following you. These are not dated, “old fogey” concepts. They take virtually no additional time or energy, and their returns are great.

Broadening this issue, we find ourselves at the heart of moral courage which I define as an attitude of willingness to choose differently in spite of personal hardship or prevailing attitudes. It requires a higher level of integrity than required for the easy alternative. Moral courage is like a compass. If we stay on-course, we will get to our desired destination. But if we are even one degree off-course, we will eventually find ourselves far from where we wanted to be.

YOLK: What would you say to someone who would like to increase their capacity for courage, or claim the courage that often gets stuck inside? Or to a parent who wants to help their child grow up confident in their courage?

SFW: Some of the things we’ve talked about already, such as being mindful and courage-centered, and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. Make use of the Source Wheel; place it somewhere prominent where you can see it and be reminded of the energies and actions of courage.

I also encourage people to support their courage with some form of meditation. Meditation is the protective shelter from the ego’s storms. It helps us to become more centered and more able to recognize when and how to claim our courage.

To a parent I’d say start using the word courage with your kids. Talk about what courage means and let them talk about and claim their courage. We need to help our kids grow up comfortable in their courage and able to see it in others. My nine-year-old niece and I talk about courage. She was just telling me how it takes courage to speak up and to refuse to engage in saying unkind things about other girls. She’s going to be a courageous woman.

YOLK: Any last words for us?

SFW: In my coaching I often ask my clients two questions. I’ll pose them here:

  1. Are you willing to give yourself permission to claim your courage? This is something that only you can do for yourself.
  2. What action would you do right now if you had unlimited courage?

YOLK: Those are great questions, and ones we can ask ourselves over and over. Sandra Ford Walston, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and your courage expertise with us. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” (Anaïs Nin)

Kindness Requires Courage: An Interview with Sandra Ford Walston

“Courage is the first of human virtues because it makes the other virtues possible.” (Aristotle)

Attribution: Donna Cameron

Wallace Falls, August 2015

As I’ve been exploring kindness this year, I’ve been struck many times by the fact that it often takes courage to be kind. Extending kindness to others—and even to ourselves—risks judgment, rejection, or going against prevailing winds. Sometimes it means we make ourselves vulnerable or chance looking foolish. Courage is required if we are to overcome all of those risks. As Wayne Muller said, “A kind life…is fundamentally a life of courage.”

I know of no one more qualified to talk about courage than my friend and colleague Sandra Ford Walston. Sandra is a speaker and internationally known as The Courage Expert.  She’s the author of several books, including Courage: The Heart and Spirit of Every Woman/Reclaiming the Forgotten Virtue, The Courage Difference at Work: A Unique Success Guide for Women, and Face It! 12 Courageous Actions that Bring Success at Work and Beyond. Sandra is a human potential consultant, speaker, trainer, and courage coach.  She has graciously agreed to be interviewed and to share her wisdom about courage with A Year of Living Kindly.

YOLK: Sandra, the kind of courage you write and speak about isn’t the daring of jumping out of a plane, or running into a burning building, or even the bravery of facing a life-threatening illness. How would you describe the courage that you’ve researched, written and spoken about for so many years?

Sandra Ford Walston: Traditionally, courage is viewed as withstanding danger or facing fear under perilous circumstances. Such acts as running into a burning building, pushing a pedestrian out of the way of a speeding car, tackling a robber in flight, or a soldier throwing himself on a grenade to save his squad are readily accepted instances of courage. But split-second heroism and everyday courage are not one and the same. What I am suggesting is that everyday people like you and me display courage constantly and subtly. Courage is much more complex than spontaneous reactions to traumatic events. We “everyday people” can embrace our courage and pass it on to others. We do it by inviting the original definition of courage into our lives.

YOLK: What is that original definition?

SFW: Courage originates from the Old French corage, meaning “heart and spirit.” This takes us beyond the narrow definition of bravery in the face of danger to encompass mental or moral strength. When I apply this original definition to my life, I feel more empowered to be discerning and better able to respond to my inherent energy of courage. The word “virtue” in Latin is virs, meaning “energy.” Some people who have trouble claiming their courage might find it easier if they think of courage as energy—as their life energy.

Paradoxically, hiding my courage drains my energy. By paying attention, I know when my reservoir of courage is low or brimming over. My reservoir is full when I turn down a piece of business because it doesn’t feel like the right fit. I also know when I swallow my voice or sell my soul that my courage is low. When I constantly ask, “Am I being true to who I am?” I know I am applying the original definition to my life. I have the dignity to dare.

YOLK: What are some other examples of “everyday courage”?

SFW: Sometimes small acts require great courage. We see it in the workplace when one has the courage to ask for the long overdue raise, or take the risk to leave a job without another in place, or confront a workplace bully. Elsewhere in our lives, one may demonstrate courage when summoning the strength to get a divorce or end a relationship, or the conviction to get married or enter a relationship. For women, especially, learning to ask for what you want is often an act of courage.

YOLK: You write a lot about courage related to women and girls. How is courage different for males and females?

SFW: While I haven’t conducted research on courage gender differences, we know that gender colors behavior, perception and perspectives. I have researched and discovered that throughout history, women have generally acted from their hearts, thus male notions of courage as heroic actions tended to diminish recognition of feminine courage. Perhaps women have been unconscious to the truth that they have always been courageous. Discovering courage awakens an ancient feminine energy that every woman should utilize.

When women exhibit courage in the workplace, such as taking a stand, speaking up, or accepting a new role or a professional risk, they tap into that valuable personal reserve called courage. Courageous women step up to the next level. And they design their own professional path rather than letting outside influences dictate who they are or what they should be.

I encourage women to ask themselves, “Are you a profile in courage at work?” Most of us probably don’t think of ourselves in that way. Going back to that original definition of the word, courage is the awareness of the heart. The heart has an unlimited capacity to hold all that we are to be.

YOLK: I like that. It sounds like mindfulness is an essential element of courage, just as I believe it is of kindness. We need to continually be mindful and pay attention to our lives. It’s so easy to miss the opportunities to be courageous, as well as to recognize when we have acted courageously. I see it with kindness, too: it’s easy to miss opportunities to extend kindness if we walk around in a state of obliviousness.

SFW: Yes! We claim our courage when we come to understand and practice the art of being present. Present to our actions, present to our experience, and present to our emotions. As a result of learning to live wholly in the moment and having the courage to stop and reflect, we are able to process choices clearly and quickly, take action more readily, and stay centered in our own truth.

YOLK: I loved a line I read in a recent blog post of yours: “Courageous women recognize defining moments as they happen.” That certainly reinforces the need for mindfulness, but there’s more to it. What did you mean by that statement?

SFW: How often do we see a red flag but do nothing to change the situation it is warning us about? Sometimes we see 50 red flags before we finally act. Staying centered in our courage allows us to see these defining moments and respond to the first warning sign, rather than deny it or deceive ourselves. Another instance of recognizing and seizing a defining moment is a woman I spoke to just a few days ago. She told me that she had interviewed for a job and for the first time ever in such a situation she chose to affirm her strength and her self-esteem and she asked for everything she wanted from the potential employer. Not only did she get the job, she got everything she asked for. Women don’t do that often enough; we allow misplaced fears to hold us back. Fear is often the chatter of learned responses and it keeps us from speaking up or recognizing that something isn’t right. As we are more aware of that, we conquer it.

YOLK: You describe twelve behaviors of courage. Do you think that any of them are particularly essential for leading a kind life?

SFW: Through my research, I’ve identified twelve behaviors of courage, which are shown on the Source Wheel. People I coach and speak with often exhibit many of these behaviors and see a need to strengthen others. In different situations, we call on different energies of our courage for the strength to stand up for ourselves and remain true to our self. Any of these energies may be summoned to express kindness.

Courage Source Wheel

My conversation with Sandra was so rich—we could have talked all day! Rather than try to condense it, I’ve divided it in two parts. I’ll post part 2 next week. In the meantime, take some time to think about where courage shows up in your life … and perhaps where it doesn’t. Proudly claim the courage that is yours and yours alone. I invite you to use the comments section below if you’re willing to share a story of your courage.

“Everyday courage has few witnesses. It is no less noble because no drum beats and no crowds shout your name.” (Robert Louis Stevenson)

Choosing Between Bystanding and Standing Up for Kindness

“It is only with true love and compassion that we can begin to mend what is broken in the world. It is these two blessed things that can begin to heal all broken hearts.” (Steve Maraboli) 

Attribution: Donna CameronThe vast majority of young people are not bullies and are not the bullied. They’re bystanders, and this, I suspect, is where efforts need to be focused to make bullying a thing of the past.

It’s true with adults, too. We see bullying in the workplace, or perhaps on the sports-field or the grocery store parking lot, and we don’t like it but we don’t know how to intervene.

In the discussion of bullying—whether children, adolescents, or adults—the key to countering the abuse is motivating bystanders to step in and act in support of the person being bullied.

According to Megan Kelley Hall, co-editor of Dear Bully: Seventy Authors Tell Their Stories, “The bystander definitely has the power to help change the climate—with adults and children. In bullying cases with children, almost half of all bullying situations stop when a bystander gets involved.” She further explains that getting involved “doesn’t mean taking a stand or getting into the bully’s face, sometimes just the simple act of not giving the bully an audience or just taking the side of the victim is enough to get your point across.”

Helpful and Hurtful Bystanders

The website www.eyesonbullying.org describes both hurtful and helpful bystanders. The former instigate or encourage the bully, or sometimes they join in once bullying has begun. Sometimes they may not actively support the bullying behavior, but through their passive acceptance they condone the torment and offer the bully the audience he or she craves.

Helpful bystanders assess the situation and then directly intervene by defending the victim or redirecting the situation; or they get help from others present to stand up to or discourage the bully, or report the bullying to someone in authority who can intervene.

Why We Don’t Step Forward

The site also describes some of the reasons why bystanders don’t intervene. Among them:

  • They fear being hurt or becoming the target of the bully themselves;
  • They feel powerless to stop the bully;
  • They think it’s none of their business;
  • They don’t want to draw attention to themselves;
  • They fear retribution;
  • They fear that telling adults won’t help and may make the situation worse;
  • They don’t know what to do.

What to Do

The bystander’s reaction will set the tone for other witnesses and may serve to enlighten the bully without embarrassing or shaming them. Perhaps it will give them a means of exiting the encounter without feeling put down. Maybe—just maybe—it will teach them that there are more effective ways to behave—ways they haven’t learned at home and aren’t likely to. Silence and inaction sustain bullying. Whether the setting is the schoolyard, the workplace, social or recreational situations, or cyberspace, bullying must be nullified. For the vast majority of us who are neither bullied nor bullies, we have the responsibility to step in when we see bullying or other forms of cruelty. We need to say “no more” and model the world as we would like it to be.

It’s good to remember that everyone—bully, victim, and bystander—carries an invisible and heavy load. Perhaps one of the best reasons we are all here on this planet is to help others shoulder the weight of their load—even if we can’t see it and don’t know what it is.

The website www.bullying.org offers some excellent advice on what kids should do if they see someone else being bullied. Much of that advice is directly related to kindness. It suggests befriending a child who is being bullied—walk with them, eat lunch with them; involve or extend an invitation to the new kid in school or the kids who often seem to be alone. Don’t try to respond in kind to a bully—don’t fight them, make fun of them, or say mean things back at them—it usually makes things worse.

This is where parents and schools, and even the media, can help. If we have discussions about what to do when we witness bullying, we’ll be better prepared to act, rather than to be paralyzed by fear, confusion, or uncertainty. If kids—or adults—know that they can make a difference and are aware of strategies for intervening, they will be much more likely to do so.

Bullying Is Not a Rite of Passage

Jenny Hulme, author of How to Create Kind Schools, notes that bullying is not and should not be just part of growing up. “Bullying brings no benefits at all—either to the bully or the bullied. It can, instead, trigger a cycle of victimization that can last a lifetime. Studies have shown victims of bullying, including very able children, stand a much lower chance of doing well at school and are more likely to experience depression, anxiety and poor physical health as adults.”

According to Hulme, “Research into ‘bystanding’ demonstrates that people who are given a seminar on compassion, or were empowered to help others, are more likely to go against the majority” and step in to help someone who is being bullied.

Education is Key

Kids need to learn that bullying isn’t cool and it isn’t acceptable. They need to learn it at home, at school, from the media, and from their peers. And kids who are the target of bullies need to understand that there’s nothing wrong with them, and there’s nothing wrong with being different—it’s the bully who has the problem and the bully who needs fixing.

Schools and parents need to take seriously their responsibility to teach kids that it’s not enough not to be a bully, we must all be willing to step in when we see bullying, and let the perpetrator know it’s not acceptable. That takes courage, and courage—like kindness—is a capacity that strengthens with practice.

A Growing Kindness Movement

While unkindness and bullying are rampant, there also seems to be a growing movement to bring awareness of the issue, and growing efforts to both prevent bullying and nurture kindness. And, wisely, it’s often kids who are leading the charge.

Schools all over America—and in many other countries, as well—are building kindness into the curriculum, from K-12. Numerous programs have been launched to counter bullying—many created by and for kids. Among some great resources:

  • Kind Campaign – focused on helping eliminate unkindness between and among girls
  • The Great Kindness Challenge – with educational and “global” sites, it offers strategies and suggestions for practicing kindness in our everyday lives
  • Kidscape – a 30-year old U.K.-based anti-bullying organization focused on preventing bullying and protecting children
  • Bystander Revolution – lots of celebrities involved in this organization formed to counter bullying by focusing on kindness, courage, and inclusion.
  • www.stopbullying.gov
  • www.bullying.org

As we saw in an earlier post, “Adult bullies were often either bullies as children, or bullied as children.” It’s a cycle that must be broken. If you’re a parent, think about having a talk with your child about bullying and help him or her strategize how they will respond the next time they witness bullying. And do the same for yourself—whether you encounter it in the workplace, on the bus, or at a community meeting. Knowing in advance how we want to behave helps us to follow through when the circumstance arises.

Instead of standing by, let’s all stand up for what’s right.

“When we make judgments we’re inevitably acting on limited knowledge, isn’t it best to ask if we seek to understand, or simply let them be?” (Jay Woodman)

 

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)

Kindness and Curiosity

“Curiosity is the single most important attribute with which humans are born. More than a simple desire to discover or know things, curiosity is a powerful tool, like a scalpel or a searchlight. Curiosity changes us. It is also a way to effect change, perhaps even on a global level.” (Loren Rhoads)

Attribution: Donna Cameron

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” (Albert Einstein)

Twice in the last week I’ve seen kindness equated with curiosity.  That made me curious. I’ve always thought curiosity is an important quality to have if one wants a rich and insightful life, but I hadn’t directly connected curiosity with the value I hold dear: kindness.

In an article entitled “Kindness and Curiosity in Coaching” that recently appeared in the Huffington Post, business consultant and executive coach Ruth Henderson described how her mother would posit a kind explanation for other people’s behavior: after being cut off by a speeder, Ruth’s mom speculated, “Maybe his wife’s having a baby and he’s trying to get to the hospital.”

Later, when Ruth was a business professional, her own coach encouraged her to approach difficult or frustrating situations with an inquisitive mind.  She told Ruth:  “Kindness and curiosity leave no room for anger and resentment.”

I think it’s true.  If I ponder a work situation where a colleague did something that seemed terribly inappropriate, or a client blew up and offended everyone within earshot, it’s easy to get angry or judge that person harshly.  But if I tap into my curiosity first, I have a very different response.  What made that colleague choose to act inappropriately?  Was she acting out of fear?  Was there a misunderstanding? Did she somehow not realize the nature of her action?  Was something else going on that I’m not seeing?

And what made that client blow up?  Fear is often behind many such outbursts—what might he be afraid of?  Or maybe he’s not feeling appreciated, or perhaps there’s a personal calamity in his life that has stretched him to his limits?  What don’t I know that might explain his behavior?

As soon as I yield to curiosity and allow for the possibility that there may be something going on that is beyond my awareness, I can replace my reflex response of anger or disgust with a desire to understand and even a desire to help.  Curiosity leads to kindness.

“When we aren’t curious in conversations we judge, tell, blame and even shame, often without even knowing it, which leads to conflict.” (Kirsten Siggins)

Curiosity vs. Discipline

In a recent article from the Harvard Business Review—one that I think should be required reading for anyone who manages or supervises other people, or who wants to—Stanford University research psychologist Emma Sepppala, PhD, describes how compassion and curiosity are more effective than frustration and reprimand in responding to an underperforming employee or one who has made a serious mistake.

Traditional, authoritarian management approaches tend to focus on reprimanding, criticizing, even frightening the employee—the rationale being that fear and embarrassment might teach the individual the error of his/her ways.  Instead, the research shows, it serves mostly to erode loyalty and trust and to impede creativity and innovation.

A more effective response to an employee’s error or underperformance is to first get our own emotions in control, and then view the situation from the employee’s eyes.  Here’s where curiosity comes into play.  What caused the mistake or what might be the reason for the poor performance?  What is the employee feeling about the error that he made?  Chances are he is horrified, embarrassed, and frightened.  A kind response—this doesn’t mean overlooking the error, but using it as a teaching or coaching opportunity and doing it compassionately—will engender loyalty, trust, and even devotion.  It will also be far more effective than reprimand or punishment in helping the employee avoid such mistakes in the future.

The loyalty engendered by the kind response extends beyond the particular employee you may be dealing with.  Seppala notes that “If you are more compassionate to your employee, not only will he or she be more loyal to you, but anyone else who has witnessed your behavior may also experience elevation and feel more devoted to you.”

It makes sense.  Everyone makes mistakes, and if our employees see their boss or manager respond kindly to a coworker’s blunder, they can feel secure in the knowledge that when they make a mistake, the response is likely to be similarly compassionate.  This fosters a culture of safety, one that encourages innovation, creativity, productivity, and loyalty—these are the qualities that the best and the brightest are seeking for their career homes.

Whoever said “curiosity killed the cat,” had it wrong.  Curiosity is one of the most beneficial qualities we can cultivate.  Combine it with kindness and magic happens!

“Let go of certainty. The opposite isn’t uncertainty. It’s openness, curiosity and a willingness to embrace paradox, rather than choose up sides. The ultimate challenge is to accept ourselves exactly as we are, but never stop trying to learn and grow.” (Tony Schwartz)

Kindness Report Card

 “How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and strong.  Because someday in your life, you will have been all of these.”  (George Washington Carver)

gradesThe first three months of my year of living kindly have passed like a kid on a skateboard.  Since the end of a quarter seems like an appropriate time for a report card, I will indulge in some self-evaluation.

Am I kinder than I was three months ago?  I think so, but my husband says he hasn’t noticed any difference.

Admittedly, Bill sees me at my worst.  He’s also quick to alert me when I fall short of my intent.  After an apple-green Fiat pulls out right in front of our car from a side street causing me to mash down my brakes, and then slows to a crawl ahead of me, I say, “Oh, come on, lady, really, how about looking both ways?”

Bill’s response: “Was that kind?”  No, probably not.

[Note to self for next time I embark on anything of this nature: do not share intentions with husband—assuming same husband; do not invite him to follow blog.]

As I review the concepts I’ve explored over the last three months, I see that there are some areas where I have taken my ideas to heart, and some where I may not have picked up my own gauntlet.

Overall, I guess I’d give myself about a C+.  Just looking at that grade makes me shudder.  When I was in school (back in the days of crinoline and manual typewriters), anything less than an A was terribly upsetting, and anything lower than a B—well—other than a C in penmanship in 4th grade—I never got any grades lower than B’s (and very few of those).  So giving myself a C+ in kindness feels like failing a test in a favorite subject.

In our office, we’ve been talking a lot about evaluations, and we decided there’s a lot to be said for a simple “thumbs-up” or “thumbs-down” method.  Thumbs up indicates that one’s on the right track, and thumbs down indicates the need for a lot more work.

thumbs downUnder the “needs a lot of work” area of my report card, I would list the following:

Kindness awareness – My tendency toward obliviousness throughout most areas of my life extends to kindness.  I am missing opportunities to be kind by simply not seeing them.  Just as I step over piles of clutter in my office and totally don’t see dirty dishes on the kitchen counter, I am often oblivious to situations where I could offer a kind word or deed.  It is not intentional, it is my own failure to be present and mindful.  I think it’s called GAD (general awareness disorder), and there’s undoubtedly a pharmaceutical company looking into it, or a support group for us somewhere, but, well, who’s paying attention…?

Being judge-y – I think I am doing better here, but I still catch myself with unkind or critical thoughts.  I am, however, far less likely to voice them and more able to brush them aside.  I still find myself wondering, though, about the people who allow their screaming kids to run around the restaurant, or the ones who leave their carts blocking the grocery aisle while they talk on their phones.  I guess they are oblivious in their own ways, too.  Someone told me that it’s okay to think snarky thoughts if I keep them to myself.  I’m not so sure about that, but I’ll take a pass whenever offered.

Risking rejection or looking foolish – At times, I am still hesitant to extend a kindness if I fear it will be rejected.  Likewise, I have passed on opportunities to be kind if I feared they would draw unwanted attention or if I might appear incompetent or foolish.  I play it too safe.  I am incompetent and foolish in so many areas of my life—might as well admit it, get over it, and plough through.

thumbs downMy report card might classify these as “on the right track”:

Patience – While still a long way to go, I am more patient.  I am taking to heart my own perspective that if my #1 job is to be kind, then it’s much easier to be patient when someone or something gets in my way or slows me down.  If being kind supersedes all else, the time it takes shouldn’t bother me—and, more and more, it doesn’t.

Kindness expectations – I am making an effort to expect kindness and smooth sailing in all my interactions, and with very few exceptions that is what I am experiencing.  It does appear that given a chance most people’s default setting is kindness.  The downside to this is that I have had almost no opportunities to see how I do at expressing kindness in the face of unkindness or rudeness.  People are all just so nice.

Kindness awareness – Yes, this was also on my “needs work” list, but there are areas of progress.  I have gotten in the habit of frequently asking myself before I say or do something: Is this the kindest action?  Is this the kind response?  And there have been times when that pause has enabled me to adjust my course or choose differently or more wisely.  A couple of weeks ago, I was stopped for speeding—first time in 35 years.  As the policeman walked up to my car, I reminded myself to be kind and friendly—that this part of his job was not always pleasant.  Are you thinking that I charmed him out of writing me a ticket?  No, that didn’t happen, but he very kindly wrote me up for only five miles above the speed limit, instead of the thirteen I was actually going, which saved me about $70 on the ticket.  I thanked him very sincerely.  Now, on my way home from work, when I see him parked in that same hidden driveway, I am tempted to wave, but I fear he may misinterpret the sign.

Expressing appreciation – Going back to that oblivious thing, I know I am still missing a lot of opportunities to express appreciation, but I am also doing it more: commending people for their work, notes of appreciation, sincere thanks.

So, as a new quarter starts, I see that I have some work to do: I want to extend kindness more even when it may be out of my way or inconvenient—always mindful that it’s my #1 job.  I want to take some risk and be kind even if it might not be comfortable.  I want to overcome inertia and obliviousness and expand my kindness radar.  I want to continue to pause, to express thanks, and look for the kind response.  I also want to get at least a B next quarter, or find a teacher who grades easier….

“The difference between school and life? In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.”  (Tom Bodett)

When Fear Gets in the Way of Kindness

“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)

Attrib: Donna CameronThere are many barriers to extending kindness, and fear may be one of the biggest.  Fear is also frequently the cause of people acting unkindly.  In an earlier post, I described an ah-ha I had when dealing with a disgruntled conference attendee a while back (does this mean that the other conference participants were “gruntled”?): much of her unpleasant behavior was the result of her fears in the face of a new and intimidating experience. When I see unkindness—my own or others—I can often trace it to fear: fear of judgment, fear of rejection, fear of not being enough, fear of being vulnerable, fear of looking foolish.  It’s true not just with unkindness, but also with that netherworld between kindness and unkindness—indifference. There’s an old proverb that “pride goeth before a fall.”  As with so many old proverbs, this one holds a ring of truth.  Fear and pride do often go hand-in-glove.  Most of the things we fear are threats to our pride, to the image we have of how good, strong, smart, capable, and lovable we are.  When these are shaken, we either strike out or strike back. Sometimes, if we are able to see someone’s unkindness toward us as an expression of their own fear, it is easier to forgive and respond to them with kindness, rather than retaliating and escalating the encounter. Just as fear can often be the impetus for our acting unkindly, it can just as easily be a barrier to our extending kindness.  Sometimes the thought of putting myself out there or taking the risk to do something kind can be enough to stifle the impulse. Two Key Questions I’ve often heard that when dealing with my fears I should ask, “What is the worst that could happen?”  Then, assuming “worst” is not a fiery death or a lengthy prison term, further evaluate whether I could handle “worst.”  In the case of extending a kindness, what’s the worst that could happen?

  • I might be embarrassed. I could deal with that—it won’t be the first time.
  • I might be rejected. I can get over that, I always have.
  • I might do it badly (whatever it is). Well, that’s how we learn—very few of us get it right the first time. But if we never try….
  • I might be judged as foolish or stupid, or weak. Well, so who does judgment reflect on, really? The judger, not me.
  • I might be put in a vulnerable position. Well, life is a pretty vulnerable condition, might as well accept that.

I think it’s a useful exercise to ask “what’s the worst that could happen?”  But I also think that’s only half the question.  The other half—the more important half—is “what’s the best that could happen?”  Let’s look at our potential action from that perspective: What’s the best that could happen if I extend a kindness?

  • I might help someone feel good or make it through a tough day.
  • I might grow closer to an old friend or make a new one.
  • My words or actions might be just what someone else needs to extend a kindness themselves.
  • I might be appreciated.
  • I might be judged as loving, compassionate, or wise.
  • I might become more confident in my own values and actions.
  • I might overcome a fear and be the better person that I want to be.
  • I might change the world.

This last one might sound a bit grand, but, truly, we have no idea where or how our kindnesses reverberate.  The small kindness I extend to one person might cause them to extend a kindness they might otherwise not have acted upon.  And then that person might … you get the picture. We’ve all heard the stories of someone suffering the depths of despair whose potential act of self-destruction was suspended by a seemingly small act—a kind note, or word, or gesture from someone.  What if we approached every encounter with a sense of the sacredness of our words and actions, and of the potential each of us carries to change the world for the better? I think looking at the best that could happen is a great way to overcome the fear that keeps us from being kind to others … and perhaps also to ourselves.  Also, if we’re focused on best, rather than worst, then our eyes are on the prize—we’re thinking about what we want to happen, not what we don’t want.  The world and our own unconscious inner resources will conspire to make it happen. It requires a change in our perspective and our paradigms.  It may not be easy, but it’s worth it.  After, all, what’s the worst that could happen … and what’s the best?

“Each smallest act of kindness reverberates across great distances and spans of time—affecting lives unknown to the one whose generous spirit was the source of this good echo, because kindness is passed on and grows each time it’s passed, until a simple courtesy becomes an act of selfless courage, years later and far away.” (Dean Koontz)