World Kindness Day is the perfect opportunity to pause and reflect on what we mean when we talk about kindness. This small, simple word that we all know and use without thinking, carries such a weight of meaning. And yet, how often do we really stop to consider what we are really talking about when we use it? What is it? Who does it apply to? How do we know when we, or someone else, has been ‘kind’?
What is kindness?
My old 2001 Oxford Dictionary of English defines kindness as ‘the quality of being friendly, generous and considerate’. Interestingly, the ‘and’ indicates that all three of those conditions are required for kindness to be present. So, one can be friendly and yet not kind, or both generous and considerate but not kind. Perhaps it’s when we become aware of all three conditions being present that we feel for ourselves the pleasure of real kindness.
In my work as a therapist I often come across two distinct ways in which kindness manifests itself. Firstly, and perhaps most frequently, in showing kindness to others. Secondly, and much less consistently, in showing kindness to ourselves.
Why is kindness important?
When we practice kindness either to other people or towards ourselves we can experience positive mental and physical changes through lowering stress levels and increasing the body’s production of feel-good hormones such as dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin. Being kind helps boost the immune system, reduce blood pressure and reduce stress and anxiety.
The great thing is that it isn’t difficult to be kind. As the Dalai Lama said, ‘Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible’.
How do we show kindness to others?
Showing kindness to others does not have to mean doing something big or life changing. Often it’s the smallest acts of kindness that can have the most impact. A moment of support in a time of need, a quiet word of encouragement, a helping hand to carry a heavy load, or just a smile that says ‘I see you’ can make a world of difference. Whatever the act itself, it’ll be underpinned by four principles:
Awareness – we must be aware of the opportunity to be kind. We can’t recognise the need if we are completely absorbed in our thoughts, our own world, or our on-line alter egos.
Non-judgment – we must be prepared to suspend judgment if we want to be truly kind. It’s not for us to judge the good or bad, right or wrong of another person’s situation. It’s only for us to recognise there is an opportunity for us to be kind.
Action – we must act in a friendly, generous and considerate manner to the person in front of us. Awareness without action can’t be kind.
Unconditional – being kind means offering kindness without conditions or expectation of reward. The real reward for a kindness is in the inner positivity, rather than any external reward or recognition.
Being kind to yourself
Being kind to yourself is not just a nice idea, it’s an essential form of self care and a vital foundation for sustained kindness to others. Remember those aircraft safety briefings that stress the importance of putting on your own oxygen mask before helping others? Well, kindness to yourself is a bit like that.
Often when I’m working with people, it quickly becomes apparent that they’re so strongly committed to taking care of everyone and everything around them that they’ve forgotten to take care of themselves. They’re going through life trying so hard to look after others, all the while not realising they don’t have their own oxygen mask on. Eventually they reach breaking point and end up sitting in front of me.
Here are just a few simple ways in which you can show yourself a bit of kindness today and every day.
Being kind to yourself starts by building your self-awareness, listening to your internal voice with a sense of curiosity. What are you telling yourself, how often are you being negative or hard on yourself? How infrequently are you praising yourself, recognising all the things you are so good at? Consciously recognise all the positive things about yourself.
Be generous with yourself and do things just for you. Give yourself time, disconnect from technology for a few hours and get out into nature. So many people unhesitatingly give themselves to other people and yet find it very difficult to be as generous to themselves.
Beware the danger of comparisons. We live in a world of TV, advertising, social media that constantly shows us how we are not yet living the perfect life, how we don’t measure up to other people. Don’t fall into the comparison trap because this is one route to lots of negative self-talk and critique. The very opposite of kindness, in fact.
If you’re an introvert, as apparently 70% of us are, remember that after working or socialising with other people, after giving yourself to others, you’ll need quiet time alone to rest and recharge. This isn’t selfish, it’s necessary. And doing so means you are being friendly, generous, and considerate to yourself.
So, on World Kindness Day make a point of showing yourself, and those around you, some kindness. You’ll feel better for it.