Why do so many of us (meaning me) need to be reminded to act with kindness? Why can’t we “just do it”?
Yesterday, a friend asked me why we don’t celebrate World Kindness Day every day. I believe that’s a wonderful idea. But in practice, it’s not so easy. So, I got to thinking about why that is.
If we want to spread the ripple effects of kindness — to our families, workplaces and communities — we need to know what we are up against, and why it’s easier said than done.
7 obstacles to kindness
I have noticed seven common obstacles keeping me from practicing kindness every moment of every day. According to modern neuroscientific theory, specific habits and states of mind silence activity the “friendliness” pathways (those responsible for mammalian nurturing and bonding, empathy, compassion, social reward) in our brains:
1. Distraction. We are distracted from within by wandering thoughts and from without by our devices and countless forces competing for our attention. We can get so busy doing that we forget how we wish to be.
2. Frustration. We are often thrown off balance when things don’t go the way we’d like. We habitually react when our desires and needs aren’t met just as we’d like.
3. Rumination. We are so often stuck reliving yesterday’s worries. We can’t possibly be present to offer kindness when we are stuck replaying old (negative) thoughts.
4. Anticipation. We rush through our moments trying to get to the next place or “to-do” item.
5. Exhaustion. Whether from insufficient sleep or inadequate mental rest during our busy-ness, we often are running on reserve.
6. Fear. It’s so easy for the mind to default to defensive and self-protective instincts. For evolutionary reasons, we tend to err on the side of worry and fear — the so-called negativity bias. Add the fact that we are tribal by nature — exquisitely attuned to potential social threats — and our tendency towards separation or even unkindness towards others (especially strangers) becomes more understandable.
7. Judgment. The human mind is a judging/predicting machine designed to ensure our survival above all else. This judging habit gets easily stuck in overdrive, keeping us from connecting with others. Just as often, we can be our own worst enemies, unable to offer kindness to ourselves.
And this isn’t an exhaustive list of those forces that drive us away from kindness. Interestingly, it seems that a common factor among all of these is a disconnection from or reactivity towards the present moment.
What can we do to reconnect with our kindness?
So what are we to do? So many natural obstacles to kindness and connection are built into our human programming.
The good news is that just as we have natural tendencies towards defensiveness and conflict, we also have innate protective capacities for social bonding, empathy, and kindness.
Here are some steps you can take to disconnect from the forces driving a sense of separateness and to reconnect with our natural compassion and kindness:
1. Be aware of those habits of your own mind that tend to keep you separate from others.
2. Practice noticing when any of those inner voices of judgment, rumination, or worry are chattering.
3. Accept those voices as unhelpful visitors in the mind. Allow them to come and go without letting them direct your actions.
4. Remember your core intention, a desire for connection and belonging, and let that guide your thoughts, actions, and words. And choose to cultivate kind thoughts, actions, and words towards yourself and others.
The first step.
The key for me starts by heeding the simple yet life-changing advice I was given by my late sister Andrea (who was also my closest friend): “Be kind to yourself. ”
I have found that the journey of living with kindness toward others naturally follows from there.
What do you think? Have I left out any obstacles to kindness? How do you remember to be kind when things get busy or rough? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Jonathan Fisher is a cardiologist.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com