Recently, I’ve noticed a theme coming up in my conversations with friends and clients — we’re all sick of being nice. By being nice, I mean doing the emotional labor to make sure our message is coming through in a pleasant way, while also scanning our conversation partners to make sure they’re not feeling misunderstood, offended, or disempowered. Being nice is a complex dance of thinking of what you want to say + crafting it so that it sounds nice + making sure the other person is feeling okay about what you have to say + readjusting on the fly if they are not okay. It’s a dynamic that takes so much more effort, intuition, and mental energy than just thinking of what you want to say and saying it.
Why is this happening now? My take is that it’s a byproduct of complex trauma from the pandemic. We’ve all had to expend so much more mental energy to get through this (reconfiguring work and childcare, worrying about getting sick, spending 24/7 with our families, etc) while losing access to so many of the things that allow our nervous systems to return to a calm baseline (connections with friends and family, activities outside the home, alone time, etc). Since all of this leaves us with less mental and emotional energy, we’ve been rethinking where we should spend our energy, and where it’s necessary to put up boundaries so we can protect and conserve the energy we do have.
And one of those boundaries seems to be around being nice.
But this can often be hard, especially for women, because there’s a social cost to it, or we feel guilty. And most of us like to make sure people feel heard, validated and understood.
But I think we need to reframe this. For those times when we don’t have the energy to do the extra emotional labor of being nice, I’d like to propose an alternative that’s still in line with the value of helping people (including yourself!) feel heard, validated and understood, but doesn’t take nearly the mental gymnastics of being nice.
You can be kind.
What’s the difference? Well, let me present to you — Mother Teresa.
I think we can all agree that Mother Teresa did some amazing things to help the poor. She created hospitals, orphanages, soup kitchens, and homes for the dying. She spent her life doing her best to help those who otherwise would not have had access to health care, food, and a place to die with dignity.
I remember watching the news when she died in 1997. There was a panel of journalists who were talking about her achievements, and all she did for the poor, when one of them interjected, “But you know, Mother Teresa was, rather famously, an asshole.” All the other journalists stopped and stared. The first journalist continued, “I mean, she did miraculous things in her lifetime, but she was notoriously difficult. She would fight for what she thought was right, tooth and nail, and she could be quite hard-headed and difficult about it.”
Mother Teresa was kind, but not nice.
There are other examples of folks who are kind, but not nice. I think Anthony Bourdain and the character of Roy Kent from Ted Lasso also fit the bill. They’re not nice people, and could be described as assholes, but they both have such obviously kind and caring hearts. I think the reason I particularly love the Mother Teresa example is because we don’t have many role models of women who are kind, but not nice.
So when I notice that I need to create a boundary around my emotional labor, when I notice that it would take more energy than I have at the moment to think about what I want to say and figure out how to be “nice” about it rather than just saying it, I find myself repeating this mantra in my head:
“Mother Teresa was an asshole. Mother Teresa was an asshole. Mother Teresa was an asshole.”
And then I just do or say the thing. In the end, it doesn’t matter if I’m nice about it, as long as I know that it comes from a place of kindness or compassion, either for myself or others. Sometimes, there’s backlash and people seem a bit shocked that I’m so straightforward and uncompromising, but after a lifetime of people-pleasing, I’m practicing not caring how other people view me. It’s much more important that I prioritize compassion for myself and others over tone-policing my own words and actions.
I invite you to imagine a life where you are kind but not nice. Where you do and say what you want, when you want, and live from a heart-centred place where you’re free from worrying about anyone else’s opinion of you. Because remember, what other people think of you is none of your business.
“Before we can be with one another we have to learn to grieve with one another” – Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
I’ve been thinking a lot about this quote by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. At the time, he was speaking about the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but I’ve been thinking about it in terms of the fracturing in our Western society in the last few decades, the widening of the ideological divide and the vilification of those on the other end of the ideological spectrum that’s happening on both sides.
I’ve realized it’s not productive for me to go down the rabbit hole of thinking about all the ways the people I disagree with are wrong or incorrect. I could list myriad ways that I think pro-lifers are wrong or that gerrymandering is a calculated, racist effort to destroy democratic safeguards. You may or may not agree with me — I’m sure there are some of you out there who are just as certain of their differing opinions as I am of mine. The problem is, that type of thinking doesn’t get us any closer to understanding each other. In fact, it does the opposite and only makes me feel more entrenched in my “rightness.”
It’s not productive for me to ask what’s wrong with those who I disagree with, but it is helpful for me to ask what they are grieving.
What is it that makes them feel sad or outraged?
What is it that makes them feel misunderstood or dismissed?
What is it that is changing in their world that they’re not ready for, that feels like it’s being forced upon them with no way to stop it?
I know for me I feel sad and outraged by watching systems of oppression in action. I feel misunderstood and dismissed by daily misogynistic microaggressions. I am watching the world change from one that respects experts as sources of information to one that respects social media as sources of information and I feel like there’s nothing I can do about it, and that I don’t know how to stop it.
So you see, I am grieving. This is the substance of my grief.
And I also know that those with whom I vehemently disagree are grieving, too. They could answer all of those questions in ways that are just as meaningful to them as my answers are to me.
If we’re going to try to be with one another, if we’re going to try to find a way back to mutual understanding, we have to start with learning about each other’s grief.
This is the root of compassion. This is the root of understanding.
Now, I’m not suggesting that I should lose my opinions and give up my ethics. Quite the contrary, I’m not willing to compromise or acquiesce to things that, in my opinion, are morally wrong. But I am willing to ask of those who disagree with me —
How are you suffering?
What would make you feel more understood?
What are you unhappy with in your life that feels out of your control?
What are you grieving?
And I am willing to acknowledge that although I may not agree with the substance of it, their grief is just as valid as mine. I’m not the grief police, I don’t get to decide what’s worthy or not.
So, before we write someone off as “brainwashed by the other side” let’s understand what they are grieving, and then listen to them from a place of compassion and awareness, because one thing I know is that when people truly see the humanity in another being, they don’t wish that being to suffer, no matter how different they are from you and me.
One of the most difficult things I’ve done is learn how to love the person who abused me.
When I was 26 years old, I made the incredibly difficult decision to cut my mother out of my life. In child abuse survivor circles, this is often called going “no contact” or NC and it was not a decision that was made lightly. In fact, it was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made.
I’d tried everything I could think of — writing her letters, talking things through, therapy for myself, and family therapy with her and my sister. I desperately wanted a relationship with my mom, and I didn’t want to go through life without that type of support. The idea of not having a mom in my life felt so freakish and lonely, so I was trying anything I could to salvage a workable relationship so that I could have her in my life.
Finally, after a typical abusive episode at a restaurant where she loudly told me what I was wearing made me look fat, repulsive, hideous, and disgusting and she couldn’t imagine how I could let people see me in public like that (for the record — it was a nice skirt and blouse that I often wore to the office), I decided I’d had enough.
I was at a loss. How do you go about divorcing your mother? How do you deal with the guilt, the anger, the loss, and the intense emotional pain?
When I asked people who I thought of as older and wiser, the response was often, “But she’s your mother! You can’t cut her off. I don’t care how horrible she was to you, she’s still your mother.” I was told by so many well-meaning people that once I’d had my own kids, I’d understand how you simply CAN’T cut your own mother off. Then, they’d give me suggestions for how to work things out that I’d tried 1000 times before.
No one I knew seemed to have any answers.
And while I know they didn’t understand the depth of the abuse, and the lengths to which I’d gone to salvage the relationship, they were right about one thing. She was still my mother. I needed to figure out a way to relate to her in my own psyche, even if she wasn’t in my life. So what could I do?
About a year later, I found myself at my first meditation training. The instructor was B. Allan Wallace, a Buddhist monk who seemed like he may have some answers. One day I asked if I could eat lunch with him and talk to him about something I was wrestling with, in my life. I gave him a brief account of my childhood, my mom, and all the things I’d tried to do to repair our relationship. To my surprise, even after that brief account, he didn’t try to suggest new ways to repair it or even question my decision to go no contact. He paused for a minute and then said, “Sometimes the only way to have people in our life is to send them compassion from afar. And that isn’t nothing — sending someone the energy of compassion can be very healing.” At the time I thought he meant healing for my mom, but I’ve now come to realize he meant healing for me, too.
So I practiced sending her the Buddhist prayer of Mettā each time I thought of her (which was still many times per day).
“May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. May you find happiness and the causes of happiness.”
I repeated this over and over, through tears, through rage, through confusion, through grief, and through loneliness.
Finally, I started to understand. I could be furious at how she treated me and also have compassion for her suffering. I could be brokenhearted and also have compassion for how miserable she clearly was. I could hate her for what she did to me and also have compassion for what had happened to her to create such psychological instability in her own mind.
And I could do the same for myself. I could feel broken and depressed and also have compassion for myself. I could feel shame and also have compassion for myself. I could hear her abusive voice in my head, now my own inner critic, and also have compassion for myself.
Compassion can exist at the same time as anger, grief, hatred, and shame. Fondness or affection is not a prerequisite for compassion. In fact, seeing someone in their wholeness, both the “good” and “bad” parts of them, is a huge part of compassion.
And beyond that, once you feel compassion for someone else’s suffering, even love can exist at the same time as anger, grief, hatred, and shame. You can love the part of them that hurts, the part that is suffering, and in this way, you can move towards healing the pain.
“I would like my life to be a statement of love and compassion–and where it isn’t, that’s where my work lies.”
― Ram Dass
What Ram Dass is saying here is essentially the same thing that Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” It is possible to have love in your heart, no matter what someone has done to you.
It took me YEARS to get to a place where when I thought of my mother, I was able to send her love. Now, don’t get me wrong — I was still angry, sad, confused, and traumatized (sometimes all at once) but at the same time I was feeling all of that, I was also able to feel compassion for her suffering, and then from there, eventually, I could feel love for her.
My mother died earlier this summer. I hadn’t spoken to her in over 15 years, but when I heard she was dying, I went to the hospital to say goodbye. It took 30 minutes of meditation in the hospital parking lot to regulate my nervous system so I wasn’t about to have a panic attack, but once I felt centered, I went in.
I told her I loved her, and I meant it. She asked what had happened, why we hadn’t spoken in so long. I looked at her and said, honestly, “Our relationship caused me too much anxiety. I couldn’t handle it, so I pulled away.” She said she wished it had been different. I cried and told her I did, too.
And then I held her hand and told her all the things I loved about her. And I told her all the things I knew others loved about her, too.
She denied it all. She said, “Oh, come on” and waved me away.
I know mom. I know you never felt worthy of love. I know that’s why you tormented me, and I can see that through the eyes of compassion now. Hurt people hurt people, until we break the generational cycle.
So, I’m here to break that cycle. I’m here to “be a statement of love and compassion.” In many ways, mom, you were the hardest place to do that work. You were the person who did the most damage to me and so you were also the hardest person for me to love. But I thank you for that lesson because you know what? Now that I know how to feel compassion for you, I can feel that same love for everyone I meet.
I understand that loving someone has nothing to do with agreeing with their actions, their beliefs, or their words and, instead, has everything to do with seeing them in their wholeness and that simple Mettā prayer of compassion:
“May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. May you find happiness and the causes of happiness.”
In every relationship, you are going to make each other angry. Through thoughtlessness, naiveté, and ignorance, we are all going to flub it up with our partners every now and again.
How do you know if you should bring it up? If you mention every little thing that irritates you, it will quickly devolve the relationship into a paranoid bickering match. But if you bottle things up, they will eventually come out in a messy, gargantuan tirade and may spell the end of the relationship.
Fortunately, I’ve found a middle ground.
When my sweetie does something that irritates me, I check in with myself using the five-year rule. I ask myself, “Will I remember this incident in five years?” If the answer is yes, then it’s something I want to address with him. If the answer is no, then I let myself be angry (on my own) for as long as I need to get it through my system and then I forget it. If it’s not something that I will even remember happened in five years, how important can it be?
The odd occasion when the dishes are left in the sink? I won’t remember that in five years. That weird, nerdy thing he said to my friend at a dinner party last week? I won’t remember that in five years. The mud tracked in when he was working in the yard? Nope, I won’t remember that in five years either.
When he said that I’m not as good about exercising as he is? Ouch. Um, yeah, I’ll remember that in five years so it’s time for a talk, buddy.
It may be that as a mental exercise, you’ll need to start with a ten-year rule or an eight-year rule. Make it however much time would have to pass before you’d look back on the incident and either laugh at it or not even remember it happened. Then test it out. How does it feel to let things go? Do they simmer for weeks inside you or do you move on faster than you would have thought?
Let me know in the comments if you’ve tried this and how it works for you! Remember as Buddha wisely said, “Holding on to anger is like grasping at a hot coal with the intention of throwing it at somebody else; you are the one who gets burned.”
Self-compassion is the ability to be compassionate (kindhearted, caring and gentle) with yourself. It has been shown to increase levels of happiness, optimism, and a sense of well-being. We’re all quite skilled at being compassionate with other people like our friends, family, and children. However, we aren’t as good at doing this for ourselves.
When was the last time you were gentle and kind with yourself after you made a big, embarrassing mistake? It’s so much easier to forgive others for their mistakes then it is to forgive ourselves. We tend to beat ourselves up and rehash the failure over and over, rather than giving ourselves words of encouragement and support.
When you can learn to be as kind with yourself as you are with those friends and family you hold close to your heart, you will start to see so many aspects of your life, your happiness, and your health improve.
Self-compassion is when you accept, validate, and treat with care any and all things that happen to you. If you make a mistake at work and get called out by your boss, accept what happened, validate the truth of the situation and figure out how to fix it, and then tell yourself that you did your best at the time with the resources you had. Resources always include time, materials, emotional state, energy level, interest level and more. At any given time, you can only do your best with what resources you have at that moment. If you snap at your kids or partner after a long day, accept that you made a mistake, apologize, and give yourself the grace of knowing that you are a good person but at that moment your resources were spread thin.
We all make mistakes. It’s part of the school of life class in which we’re all currently enrolled: “Being a Human: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”
Be kind to yourself. It makes a huge difference in your life.