Opinions, Column

Is Kindness Really a Virtue?

Assumptions. Whether correct or not, we’re almost always guilty of making them during that first interaction with someone new. We read into body language, scrutinize vocal inflections, and analyze brief interactions—mere snapshots into a person’s character—to formulate first impressions.

Recently, after a class discussion about the psychology of perception, I began to fixate on the first impressions I made on others. I’m not sure if it’s the unbreakable habit of twirling my hair or my incessant nervous laughter, but, after asking my friends to describe their initial impressions of me, the consensus was unanimous: I was nice.

For as long as I can remember, the value of kindness has been emphasized in nearly every aspect of my life. “Be kind to others” was scribbled at the top of the easel papers that served as elementary school classroom constitutions. In those days, kindness was rewarded, and—at an age where sharing crayons was all it took to make friends—I felt validated by others’ appraisal of my empathetic nature. Elation washed over me when my name was announced over the loudspeaker as a “bucket-filler”—essentially a “kind” person of the week—and I felt a sense of accomplishment as I racked up Valentine’s Day cards with compliments haphazardly scrawled across them. I started rooting my identity in this idea of kindness, doing everything in my power to put the needs of others above my own at all costs.

There comes a point in all of our lives, however, where we begin feeling trapped in our identities. We find ourselves in metaphorical boxes, categorized by the qualities that we are repeatedly praised for. And while these boxes can help us conceptualize our identities, they can also restrain us from growing beyond the limits we inadvertently set for ourselves.

In high school, the more the word “kind” was attributed to me, the more I worried that all I would ever be was the nice girl. Although intended as a compliment, it just felt like a rudimentary description of character. In my efforts to evoke the kindness ingrained in me at a young age, I worried that I may have let it overshadow the rest of my identity.

The more I scrutinize my actions, the more I realize the comfortable routine I had built for myself. I exuded overly accommodating tendencies and exaggerated social niceties to appease those around me. I plastered on a smile and answered every “How are you?” with an enthusiastic “Good!” Even if that was far from the truth. I offered rides when they were inconvenient. I silently picked up the slack for others in group projects. I took the fall for my friends if it meant saving them from embarrassment. In doing all of this, I never thought twice about how my actions affected me. It was instinct. I did what I presumed any “nice girl” would do.

And I convinced myself that bending over backward to meet the needs of others was a responsibility I had to uphold, blissfully unaware that it just made me come off as easily manipulable. My kindness wasn’t just mistaken as a weakness, it was slowly developing into one. I spent so much of my life letting people walk all over me, clouded by the guise that overaccommodation was a hallmark of empathy. In my strenuous attempts to be kind to others, I wasn’t being kind to myself.

The first few months of college sent me into a swirling headache of self-doubt. Kindness was no longer enough to keep me afloat. Words to categorize my personality were tossed around, and, unsurprisingly, the one that stuck was “nice.” But this time, it was “too nice.” How could I be “too much” of the one thing I had always been praised for? “Nice” started feeling less like a compliment and more like an implicit stab at a hidden weakness.

I started to feel a sickening pit in my stomach every time I valued the opinions of people who barely knew me over my opinion of myself. I didn’t want to live my life guided by the words of people who made me feel lesser anymore, and I no longer wanted to present my kindness in a way that could be taken advantage of. 

Redefining my kindness as a strength, though, means breaking free from the box I have been sealed in my entire life. I want my kindness to be an asset, not a place where others can take advantage of me. Every day is a step closer to redefining the version of kindness others have ascribed to me. 

Care for others and self-compassion don’t need to be mutually exclusive—the two can coexist without one overshadowing the other. Practicing self-advocacy as a form of kindness to yourself is gratifying. Kindness does not always have to be absolute selflessness. 

Despite my tumultuous and ongoing journey to sustainably be kind, I’d argue that it’s one of the most valuable qualities a person can possess. It’s also one of the most difficult to successfully master. Being kind doesn’t mean changing yourself to make others happy, but rather finding a balance between contributing positively to the lives of others and advocating for your own well-being. In my (albeit limited) experience, I’ve learned that it’s much more fulfilling to put your true self forward than to conform to the expectations of others.  

Kindness is a virtue, but it’s also a complex balancing act. It’s a catalyst of relationships. It’s a form of love. Be kind to others, but remember to also be kind to yourself. It’s not always easy, but I know I’m certainly trying.

October 22, 2023