Lately I've been thinking a lot about kindness and about serving and helping others. I have a big dose of the impulse to be helpful, to be supportive, to try to help, to be kind to others. I'm guessing you do too.
On the one hand, this is a very good thing. It's the essential ingredient in a healthy social fabric. If we didn't ever want to be helpful to others what a disastrous world we'd be in! Think of the small kindnesses of strangers as you go about your day. Think of the common courtesies we take for granted from holding a door to waiting your turn at a 4-way stop sign. Think of waiting in line and listening to each other when we speak. It's a wonderful mindfulness practice to just notice more fully the weaving of kindness, sometimes it's subtle, into most of the interactions we have all day. And then think of the many friends, colleagues, family members and acquaintances you interact with each day too. There's a lot of kindness.
Kindness actually seems to predominate. It's really common! The mind, with its negativity bias and quick triggers, does tend to notice the exceptions to this rule quite strongly and we can easily feel a surge of outrage when someone acts in a way we consider unkind. A rude interaction can stick with us all day, can't it? It's easy to see such things out of proportion to the amount of kindness we're surrounded by.
But what I'm thinking about today is one of the "shadow sides" of kindness and being helpful. I'm thinking of when kindness becomes more of a compulsion. I'm exploring the ways I'm deeply conditioned to always be helpful and solve everyone's problems and say "yes" to everything. I'm thinking about how hard it can be form me to say "no." To anything. Ever.
This is something I've been investigating for a while and I believe it's driven by a deep fear: the fear that others will reject me or not love me. Or that I'm in fact in some way fundamentally flawed and unlovable. There's a kind of endless unceasing quest to be loved and respected that this primitive part of my brain thinks will be completely undermined if I ever say "no" to anything.
Case in point
There are right now three messages in the "priority!" section of my Gmail which are requests or follow ups around things I've been asked to do, one of them I offered to do but now realize I don't have time. And to make things worse at least one of them was something I offered to do earlier!
I need to answer those messages with a clear, kind, "no, I'm sorry I've realized I don't have time to do that." But it's hard for me to do that. I keep procrastinating.
That mind – that wants to always be kind and never wants to disappoint anyone – is captivated by the fear of being unlovable. I become paralyzed and I put off answering those messages, which just causes even more trouble. Sometime I stare at my calendar fantasizing about more time being there or some other obligation going away. Other times I distract myself with another task. It gets a little nutty. Do you do something like this too?
Eventually I'll end up answering.
Will I end up saying "yes" partly fueled by the additional guilt that I delayed the conversation so long? Or will the saying "no" just be that much harder for the procrastinating?
What helps? Sometimes I seek support from my spouse or another trusted advisor. "I really should say no to this right?" It helps to get the affirmation. But ultimately I think like anything else, it's a practice. I need to practice saying "no" and pay attention to what actually happens. Are my projected fears of rejection actually true?
So far the evidence is clear. When I manage to say "no" to something I shouldn't take on almost every time the person I feel indebted to is just fine with it. Sometimes they even flag it as a model of healthy boundaries that helps them! Might a few people be upset with me? Sure. But just like with the general levels of kindness and unkindness in our world, the upset is quite rare. Most often it's fine. No big deal. We all understand that people have to say no sometimes. And out of our respect for each other we honor that as part of life.
Okay: on to my inbox. Time to practice saying "no" a few more times!
Little by little may our deep fears and insecurities that drive us be lessened through self-kindness and mindful awareness and... practice!