It can be quite straightforward. We either respond to a person’s needs or we do something kind just as a treat.
But what do you do when someone is being unkind to you?
Do you still be kind? Do you make a commitment that kindness is your way and let it go? Or do you tell them where to go?
Do you have a boundary that people can’t cross in how they treat you?
Or do you conclude that it’s people’s general nature to look out for themselves and from then on be less helpful to others? In other words, has other people’s behaviour shaped you?
Or do you just smile and keep on being yourself?
These are fair questions.
The answer depends.
My go-to is that I like to remind myself that you never know what’s going on in a person’s life (or has gone on) that can influence how they behave. Sometimes you do know. I find this approach useful in most situations.
Not all, but most.
Someone once said that if I always take this attitude then I’ll always be a pushover and people will always take advantage of me.
“What do you do?” I asked.
“I don’t take any shit!” was the response. “Zero tolerance!”
Fair enough. In that moment, I found myself having compassion for this person. Often when people take this sort of stance it’s because they’ve been treated badly in the past. They’ve reached a point of pain and have decided that enough is enough. It’s a good thing that she decided that.
Both of our stances are valid. There’s no right or wrong. It just depends.
My way certainly isn’t always the answer. It invites compassion and it can soften your response to the person, reducing the changes of something escalating. But, true, it can result in you being treated the same way again. We all need some sort of boundaries.
Some people are unkind or selfish by nature. It’s just who, and how, they are. Some have always thought only about themselves. It’s so deeply ingrained that treating people unkindly is normalised. But sometimes, behaviour is deeply ingrained because of things that have happened to them. You just don’t know.
For some, the weight of their life experience can be too much. Eventually, anger or hurt just bursts out of them at all sorts of times like an inflated balloon that’s been held underwater and suddenly released.
Some people have so much shit happening in their lives that they can barely keep their heads above the water.
How do we know the difference? How do you know that someone’s behaviour is because they’re suffering, or have suffered, or because they’re just mean or selfish by nature?
Most of the time you don’t know.
That’s what makes this a grey area for most of us.
So what do you do if you don’t know?
It depends. And it’s up to you.
There isn’t a right answer that’s right all of the time.
Sometimes, you’re the one who has a lot of shit happening in your life or have had a lot of shit happen. My friend, above, is one of those people. You’re justifiably in no mood to take any more. You might be able to find compassion for someone who is being mean or selfish some days, but on most other days that person can go f**k themselves, right?
This is what I mean when I say, “It depends.” Cut yourself some slack if someone’s behaviour bothers you.
I try to reach for compassion when I can, but I don’t beat myself up when I’m unable to. We’re all human. We all need to have our boundaries. There are times when it’s hard being kind. Sometimes hurt is louder than compassion.
Sometimes, the person who needs kindness is yourself. That’s my friend’s position. Zero tolerance is her way is exercising self-care.
“I choose not to have that person or that attitude in my space.”
Matter of fact.
There are times when this is absolutely the right way to go. But it needn’t be all the time.
I recall a time in my life when people I was working with were taking advantage of my nature. And they were doing it intentionally, knowing what they were doing, that they were going to profit and leave me high and dry. They thought that, in my seeming innocence, they could effectively get away with it. Throw me a few bones at the end, a little pat on the head. ‘Good boy!’, was their general thinking on the matter.
I helped them the first few times even though I knew their intentions. They didn’t know I knew. They thought I was naïve. But I was instead practicing wilful kindness. I hoped my openness and kindness would be a light and cause them to be kind in return or increase their kindness to others. Kindness is contagious, after all.
It didn’t. Sometimes it does, but it didn’t on this occasion. I said no after that. And I just walked away.
I didn’t see them again.
I could have lamented about how two-faced such and such a person was and refused to help in the first place, but I refused to allow their unkindness to shape the sort of person I choose to be.
That’s the challenge in life.
To not let the behaviour of others break us.
Staying true to yourself takes strength. It can take courage.
The whole thing about being kind when others are not can be complex as it depends on you, how you feel, what you’ve been through, what you’re going through. And you really don’t know what’s gone on in a person’s life (unless they tell you).
I’ve written many times that kindness (and compassion) is almost always the right thing to do.
We just, at times, need to find that balance between kindness and compassion for others and kindness and compassion for ourselves. There’s a sweet spot to be found.
Just knowing it’s there will help you find it.
Just don’t let the behaviour of others change you. Staying true to yourself can be one of the most important things you ever do.
Copyright 2022 David R. Hamilton PhD.