There are websites and songs named after it. Books have been written about it. Some descriptions use words like compassion and generosity instead of kindness, but the overall meaning is essentially the same. We fear that compassion will contradict accountability. We worry that being kind will mean that we are easy or soft. If we are generous, we will be taken advantage of.
These either/or and if/then mindsets are the foundation of many inner and interpersonal conflicts.
I like to refer to the interpersonal conflicts that arise from the kindness paradox as "if-then-them" stories that slowly obliterate our relationships. For example: "If" I apologize or show kindness or understanding in this moment of disagreement, "then" I will be seen as soft or irresponsible, and I will not do my job of holding "them" accountable. Sounds familiar? We use the "if-then-them" trope more often than we care to notice.
Another way to think about the "if-then-them" self-story is that we operate from the habit of justifying our need to withhold kindness to others. Jim Ferrell illustrates this well in his memorable TedEx Talk, Resolving the Heart at War. Ferrell's central theme is that we tend to justify our desire to withhold compassion, generosity, and kindness with stories that the other person is “less than” worthy of what we will give. We end up loving our conflict and suffering so much (more than the human being before us) that we have trouble letting things go.
Doesn’t that sound paradoxical? How could we love our conflict and suffering so much that we would justify our actions with words like “holding them accountable,” “they will think I am soft,” or “I will be taken advantage of?”
Even more dangerous than the "if-then-them" story that fuels the imagined contradictions that help us justify unkindness towards others are the "I-but-my" stories we use to justify our refusal to turn kindness and compassion towards ourselves. Examples of "I-but-my" stories are: "I" am feeling overwhelmed with everything happening at work right now, "but my" vacation time is coming up in two weeks, and "I" wish I had more time to look after myself, "but my" obligation to my dependents has taken over my life.
In a way, "I-but-my" narratives are more destructive than the typical "if-then-them" story because we have now made ourselves "less than" worthy of our own kindness and compassion. The "I" is asking for comfort and support, the "but" interrupts that part of the self that is asking for a need to be filled, and the "my" re-directs the attention elsewhere.
The end of the "I-but-my" self-narrative is that whatever the "but-my" part of the story directs us to immediately invalidates the need to offer understanding, generosity, and even of comfort to ourselves. Still, the deeper problem is that we justify this withholding of kindness as a “refusal to engage in self-pity” or a personal value of “avoiding a poor me outlook.” With "I-but-my" stories, we load our bodies with more stress, anxiety, and feelings of hypervigilance than our physiology is meant to sustain.
So, what is the fix?
Here is the good news: there is no fix—only practice.
There is nothing to fix because nothing is broken. This is how we all are in our shared humanity. What we can do is learn new ways to be present in the world and dedicate ourselves to practice, screw up, practice some more, screw up differently, and practice a little more.
That is why I love the "Begin-Again" self-story. Every new situation offers the chance to "Begin." "Again." The screwing up and the mishaps, the heart at war, and our love for our conflict and pain will always find a way to sneak back in. There is nothing wrong with that. I-but-my and if-then-them are just two of the endless stories we tell ourselves. The question is, what other kinds of stories will you tell yourself today? And tomorrow? And the day after that?
It takes time to cultivate these countering narratives. An excellent place to start is by offering small doses of kindness and compassion to yourself and others and then mindfully reflecting on the physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions that arise as you engage in each act of kindness. We’ve been doing that throughout February with our Share the Love (and Kindness) Community Challenge.
This monthly challenge is a simple way to build new self-stories. The fact that the challenge invites daily actions over 28 days using a Cue-Routine-Reward or “habit loop” structure means that with continued practice, these kindness stories could become as readily replayed as our old narratives about the kindness paradox.
We can resolve the kindness paradox by reflecting on what each small act of kindness represents in our own and other people’s stories. We can only see those stories when we take the time to notice and become aware of our actions and impact.
The bottom line.
Do you have a prevalent "I-then-them" or "I-but-my" story highlighting your version of the kindness paradox?
Remember that the contradictions can be viewed as self-limiting stories about why we cannot or should not offer compassion to ourselves or others in certain circumstances. Consistent practice can help you flip the narrative so that kindness and compassion for yourself will guide your actions toward others.