Why is it that it is often harder to be kind to those we love than it is to be kind to strangers, and even people we don't like? I've been reflecting on two couples that I knew a long time ago and their public interactions with one another. With both couples, the husband constantly shut down the wife in public. It wasn't just that these men disagreed with their spouses. It's okay to have different opinions even from those closest to us, and to express those. But in both of these cases the husbands seemed to be embarrassed by the behavior of their spouses and suppressed them with sharp words, with barbed insults, and with belittling behavior. It was painful to watch. And while these men probably were embarrassed by the words or theatrics or expressions of their spouse, they frankly should have been much more embarrassed by their own behavior. While none of us present for these interactions were upset, bothered or offended by what was said by the wives at the time, all of us were made uncomfortable and upset by their husbands' attempts to shut them up. I remember after one episode, one of those watching this interaction whispering to me, "Why on earth does she STAY with him?!" To which my only reply was, "It's beyond my understanding."
In the past I've assumed that the cause of this was a lack of boundaries. Somehow the husbands saw their wives as an extension of themselves. If their wives said something they didn't like, they felt it somehow reflected badly on themselves so they felt the need to squash it and make it clear to everyone present that they just didn't agree or didn't think it should be expressed that way, or didn't like what was being said or done. I understand this. We see this with parents and children too. If a young daughter or son is behaving badly, we can feel embarrassed because we feel it is a reflection on us. When that same child is a teenager, the tables often turn and they become embarrassed by our behavior as the adults. In those situations it is hard to separate ourselves from the loved one. We feel their behavior is a commentary on us as well and we can become embarrassed by it.
Of course from an outsider's perspective, it is easy to see that the embarrassment is misplaced. The best parents may still have a child who acts out, a child with issues, a child with their own minds. The best kids may still have parents who are socially awkward or who do silly or outrageous things. Spouses who love each other may still disagree about big issues and may express themselves in very different ways. Most of us are able to separate people and we don't see Jane as a reflection of Joe, or Davis as a commentary on Suzie.
But then I started to think about this in the bigger context of why people are unkind to others. Sometimes people carry a lot of anger and it comes out in unkindness to others. Sometimes people are afraid and they express that by putting up walls of anger or meanness between themselves and others. Sometimes people feel insecure and pushing others down is a way they try to raise themselves up (doesn't work, but doesn't seem to stop people from trying). Sometimes people are tired and forget their filters. Sometimes people are carrying too much and dumping on others feels like letting off some of their stress.
Why are we more unkind to those we love than to strangers? Maybe it's because we recognize that those we love will most likely put up with our behavior, will still stay with us, will continue to love us. We don't know how the stranger or those more distant from us will react. It may just feel safer to express our anger, our fear, our insecurity or our discomfort to those who understand us and whose responses to our behavior are much more predictable.
But whatever the reasons may be, here are my thoughts about unkindness this day:
1. Being unkind to others spreads discord rather than peace. It also doesn't actually make us feel better. It doesn't serve any purpose that is useful or good or productive.
2. No matter what we may be feeling about something the other did or said or expressed, being unkind does not encourage others to change for the better. We don't change other people for the better through being mean. If we don't like something, the direct, honest, but kind approach is much more likely to result in positive change or at least in deeper understanding on our part.
3. Most of the time the people who need to change when we are inclined towards criticizing others is ourselves. We need to change our attitude and remember the other is not an extension or reflection on us. We need to confront our insecurities and remember that another person succeeding does not mean we are failing and the things that anger us say more about who we are than about the other. We need to face our fears and recognize that being unkind will not stop the things we are most afraid of. Perhaps speaking our minds clearly, kindly and directly will. But acting out of anger or rage never will prevent the things we fear the most.
4. When we are unkind, it only reflects badly on us, not the person we are attacking. I'm not saying here that we should be controlled by how others see us. What I am saying is that our responses to feeling embarrassed often do much more damage that whatever it was that embarrassed us in the first place. Therefore, choosing compassion and kindness, no matter what the other did, always makes more sense.
5. It is hard work to look at ourselves to figure out why we are behaving the way we are. But it is a worth while exercise if we want to contribute to the world in a positive way. If we don't know ourselves, we are more likely to act out of unconscious feelings rather than choosing how we respond and what impact we will have on our world.
6. It really doesn't take that much energy to respond honestly and with kindness, rather than rashly and out of anger.
There is so much more that could be said here. But I will limit it to this for now.
Be kind, to those you don't know, to acquaintances, and to loved ones. We will never know our impact on the world, not really. But chances are pretty good that when you choose kindness, your impact has a much better chance of making a positive difference in the world. A small effort may make a huge change. It's worth the try.