For the past couple of years, my lifestyle has been optimized for writing. This means a lot of things, but one of them is going to bed early.
I still make exceptions to this rule. But most of the time, whenever I go out in the evening, I want to leave earlier than anyone else. And people struggle to understand why.
That’s usually when the guilt trip begins. Most of my friends are disappointed when I’m leaving — and I’m sure to hear some version of the following:
“Come on, do you always have to leave so early?
“We see each other so rarely and you want to go already?”
“Oh, so you say you’re tired? Look at me — I slept three hours last night and I’m still here!”
I honestly hate when that happens. Even though I know it’s ridiculous, I start worrying about how I’m being perceived. Do my friends see me as a selfish, indifferent or even boring person for leaving the party early?
Also, it makes me reflect on what it means to be kind to other people. When I choose to go home, my friends act as if they were hurt. However, that’s just me staying true to myself and my goals.
Does it mean that I’m simultaneously being rude to others?
The example above is trivial, but I think it captures the dilemma many people deal with. We live in a culture that values kindness, at least in theory. And rightly so — if it wasn’t for the human ability to cooperate and help each other, we wouldn’t have gotten so far as a species.
To be considered kind, we think we need to say yes to others. To value their well-being more than our own. To be obedient to the elders and never question their authority.
This way, we easily confuse kindness with compliance.
I can see this in the female part of my family, where daughters were brought up to please their mothers. Until recently, I thought it was my unique issue which made me confuse being a good person with making my mother happy. But after the summer spent with my mom, aunt and grandmother, I realized that it’s a family ethos, rather than my individual wiring.
The women in my family seem programmed to try and guess each other’s expectations. Then, they proceed to fulfill them as best as they can. This seems to be our way of feeling good about ourselves.
To me, this became a problem when my life path started diverging from what my mom wanted for me. When I decided to pursue freelance writing instead of a secure full-time job, she blew up with anxiety. She worried that I might fail to support myself — and I felt guilty because of that.
Being brought up in a family where pleasing others is synonymous with being a good person, I felt like I was doing something wrong. As if I was at fault because I failed to fulfill my mom’s expectations.
Over the past few years, I’ve been learning to separate the idea of kindness from pleasing others. It took me a while to grasp that walking my path wasn’t wrong just because my family didn’t approve it. I learned to live true to myself — at least, to a certain extent.
With time, I understood that I tried to meet their expectations because I was afraid. I sought to please friends and family, sometimes at my own cost, because I didn’t feel secure.
Mostly, I was afraid they’d reject me. Doing what they expected was a way of insuring myself against that. But this also meant I was narrow-minded, always focused on preserving my position in the tribe.
Such behavior could never coexist with kindness.
Authentic kindness can only arise when you feel secure enough to focus on others, rather than yourself. But this requires you to be true to yourself in the first place. Only when you don’t need to worry about defending your position can you do real good for others.
On top of that, fulfilling others’ expectations isn’t even necessarily good for them. Unfortunately, most people don’t seem to know what they need. My friends urging me to stay late at a party is just one example.
Whenever I gave in and stayed longer against my will, I usually became grumpy. Instead of enjoying my friends’ company, I waited for the moment I could leave. Needless to say, it didn’t add to anyone’s enjoyment. And it was even further from being kind.
That’s why I don’t do this anymore. Leaving the party when everyone claims I should stay still feels awkward as hell. But I do it anyway. I know it’s better for me and everyone around.
Being kind doesn’t always look the way we’d expect it to. Sometimes, what seems like an act of kindness is really just a cry for approval. Other times, an assertive “no” that comes across as rough may be the most loving response available.
Kindness can be so ambiguous that it shouldn’t be judged by appearances. At first glance, it may seem like indifference or even downright selfishness. This often happens when you turn somebody’s expectations down in the name of your big-picture goals.
However, if that’s what you need to do, don’t hesitate. Remember that kindness and fulfilling people’s expectations are two different things. Your decision may superficially hurt someone just because they wish you acted differently.
But if that decision is in alignment with your highest values? Then there’s a good chance it will benefit both you and your environment in the long run.
Marta Brzosko is a writer, meditator and founder of Self-Awareness Blog where she helps you tap into your inner knowledge. She believes that all the big answers can be found within – you just need to be willing to explore them. Connect with her on Twitter or Facebook.
Image courtesy of Kinga Cichewicz.