Kind-hearted people light up the world and elevate us to a whole new level of empathy and caring, reminding us of our need for community and belonging. We really are pack animals and we need to feel that we fit in. We need people to care for us and about us and we all need something to care about. Else, what’s the point of it all, right?
We seek purpose and meaning. We are slowly but surely awakening from our self-imposed exile and realizing that we need to lead with more heart and we need to show more empathy and kindness to each other. This is truly ‘one giant leap’ for humanity and I really hope you are on this kindness train with the rest of us.
But before you start humming “kill ‘em with kindness” excitedly to yourself as your new theme song, you should know that there is a dark side and there can be collateral damage in this crusade of kindness – you.
There are people out there who will mistake your kindness for weakness and who will take advantage of your empathy and willingness to listen, support, coach and encourage. It will drain you emotionally and often, physically too. I know this because it’s happened to me and I am learning every day to set healthy boundaries and to communicate in an assertive manner that is aligned both with my kind heart and my analytical mind. It is, in fact, possible to be a kind bad-ass. You can show kindness and be truly nice to others without sacrificing your sanity or your soul. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
#1 Know yourself and your intentions
One of the biggest responsibilities and competencies we have as leaders, is to be self-aware and to always be very clear on our motives and intentions. Having this level of self-awareness is especially useful in determining what motivates you to be kind and to offer to help a colleague or a friend. If there’s a need for approval or to be liked and to fit in with a group, we have a bit of a problem and a recipe for disaster. It will only end badly for you because you will give too much of yourself, too freely and for entirely the wrong reasons.
We do not show kindness in order to gain anything for ourselves. We do not expect anything in return. That’s not how this whole ‘kindness crusader’ thing works.
So, know exactly who you are, underneath it all. Understand your personality type, your strengths, your communication and conflict resolution style and what it is that motivates you. Once you’re clear on these things, it’s highly unlikely that you will either be manipulated into helping someone or that you will sacrifice too much of your mental and physical energy (or time or money) on helping someone for the wrong reasons.
#2 Learn to say ‘no’
Being ‘nice’ really does have a downside in that so many people ask for stuff all the time. There is absolutely nothing wrong with saying ‘no’, especially if you do not have the time or resources to assist. You don’t need to feel guilty about this and you also don’t have to explain yourself. It is impossible for you to do everything and be everything for everyone and for your own sanity, you need to learn where to draw the line and when to say ‘no’. You need time for your own relaxation, health and wellness and personal development. It’s ok to put yourself on your agenda and to schedule time to do the things that feed your soul and make your heart sing.
If you don’t – trust me – you will be emotionally and physically exhausted and you will eventually become resentful of the people you’ve committed to helping.
#3 Take out the trash
This is a really difficult one and it leads to the highest proportion of self-doubt and inner conflict. We all have to let go of things and walk away from people and situations that no longer serve us or connect to our purpose. This means clearing out your personal space and getting rid of some clutter – like that awful salad bowl your Great Aunt gave you when you moved into your first apartment. I know you’ve never used it and you don’t have the heart to throw it out. If it doesn’t bring you joy and if it’s not contributing positively to your life and the person you are becoming – hard as it is – you need to let it go.
The same rule applies to people and relationships. You need to surround yourself with people who are authentic and kind and who encourage you to be a better version of ‘you’. I’m not saying you should cut your best friend out of your life because they’re going through a tough time and leaning on you a little more than usual. That’s temporary and they will get better. It’s the energy vampires or mood hoovers you need to look out for. The people you spend time around and when you walk away from them, you just feel utterly and completely drained. They are negative and have a problem for every solution. They suck the very life from your bones and you really cannot sustain a one-sided relationship like that.
You don’t have to be a pushover or sacrifice your own happiness, health, mental and emotional wellbeing or your personal living space in order to be kind. Kindness shouldn’t have to come with a price tag – especially not if it’s at your expense.
Setting some healthy boundaries for yourself in terms of the time, energy and even the money you are willing to spend on others, doesn’t make you a cold-hearted SOB. Taking care of yourself and your own needs is not only good for you but utterly and completely necessary if you are to maintain a healthy, balanced life. It’s a cliché, but you know it’s true: you cannot pour from an empty hip flask. So get real about who you are and learn when to say no. The world needs you at your best to truly shine your light and make this a more authentically human place.
Deborah Hartung is a Consultant, Coach, Author and Speaker based in Johannesburg, South Africa.
She has spent almost 20 years advising corporates on matters relating to employee relations, corporate culture and leadership development. Deborah is passionate about people and technology, the human experience in the workplace and the opportunities for the advancement of humanity in the digital age.
Especially popular with young or first-time leaders, entrepreneurs and women in leadership, Deborah encourages all those she meets to align with their purpose and to be brave enough to be authentic in all their interactions. She writes about life, love, leadership, workplace culture, the future of work and the importance of making the world a kinder, more tolerant place.