Are We Killing Ourselves With Kindness?

Sometimes you need to say “no” to others and “yes” to yourself.

Posted Jun 05, 2020

Glenn Geher
Source: Glenn Geher

What Does It Mean to Be Kind?

Positive psychologists Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman (2004) defined kindness as “a common orientation of the self toward the other.” Meaning that when a person is genuinely being kind, they are being selfless—they are not acting on wanting any reciprocity for their gestures or operating with an ulterior motive.

Kindness is seen as a true strength, and the success of civilizations relies on kindness and people looking out for the greater good, rather than their own personal gain. We teach children from a young age, “be kind to one another” and “treat others the way you want to be treated.”

Benefits of Kindness

There are even benefits to well-being associated with being kind. According to the Mayo Clinic, when we perform acts of kindness, the pleasure center in our brain is activated, releasing the stress-reducing hormone, oxytocin. Individuals who volunteer on a regular basis report greater life satisfaction (Van Willigen, 2000). And what is even greater is that kindness rarely stops with just one person. There can be a positive contagion effect, where other people are prompted to be nice if they are the recipient of a random act of kindness (we call this act “paying it forward”).

Have you ever held a door open for someone who then repaid the favor by holding the next door? Have you ever offered to pay for a person’s coffee, and then they paid for the next person in line?

Random acts of kindness like this can clearly benefit everyone by bringing people closer together—cultivating trust and gratitude.

This said, consider the following question: Could kindness ever be considered detrimental to us when it has such clear benefits?

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Chris Peterson dedicated a lot of his career in positive psychology to understanding what the most common strengths are in people across the world. In some of Peterson’s (2006) work, kindness and generosity were rated as some of the top strengths by U.S. raters. Peterson also said that every strength a person could possess also comes with something called a "shadow side." Typically, when we are demonstrating the shadow side of a strength, we may be overusing that strength.

Let’s think about this in the workplace or in an organization:

You are the new person on the team, and you want to be well-liked and respected by your colleagues. You are already a genuinely kind person and care about the success of your organization. You tell your team, “Let me know how I can help you; I’m always available to help.”

Though you may truly mean this, there are unfortunately people in this world who can interpret your kindness as a weakness. As Jo Ellen Grzyb discusses in her book The Nice Factor: The Art of Saying No, when you are genuinely a kind person, you probably want to be liked and may tend to be nervous that you will offend others if you refuse their requests and/or ask for favors in return. This scenario can lead to people being taken advantage of by others.

So, let’s fast forward a year. You have been in your position now for one year, and you are working with the same team.

You are noticing that your colleagues continue asking for your help over and over again. In fact, the only time they interact with you is when they need something. You have been so helpful to your colleagues and there has rarely been any reciprocity from them—and you are too timid to ask for their help.

Imagine the level of frustration that you are feeling! You, without prompting, are being so kind and generous to others but not seeing any kindness in return. It is human nature to want to see the traits and behaviors we value in other peoples’ actions. And when we do not see those behaviors, it can create a sense of dissonance. The world, and the people in the world, are not how we want them to be. This internal conflict can lead to serious stress for any individual. 

The Power of “No”

In a very broad sense, it is advantageous to be kind to others, and if you are kind and altruistic, your gestures will be appreciated and, perhaps, paid forward.

Let’s work together to break down the assumption that kind people are “doormats” and “pushovers." Interestingly, this outcome may require us to be a little more self-focused. We need to be willing to say “no."

Recognize when your plate is already too full, or when you’re physically and mentally exhausted. When people ask for a favor, assess if you have the time, energy, and attention (TEA) to give to them. To truly be effectively other-oriented, sometimes you need to be more comfortable saying “no” to others and saying “yes” to yourself.

Jenna Weinstein
Source: Jenna Weinstein

This is a guest post by sports psychologist Jenna Weinstein, the owner of Ripple Effect Performance. Jenna provides consulting to athletes and professionals in the fields of Sport and Exercise Psychology to help them accomplish their goals and achieve higher levels of success. She has worked with collegiate and elite-level athletes, adaptive sports athletes, and the United States Army.

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Cain, A., (2018). “8 way being too nice at work can backfire.” Business Insider. Retrieved 2 June 2020, from  

Grzyb, J. & Chandler, R., (2008). The nice factor: The art of saying no. Vision Paperbacks.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. P., (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford University Press.

Van Willigen, M., (2000). Differential benefits of volunteering across the life course. The Journal of Gerontology: Series B, 55(1), 308-318.

Wheeler, J. A., Gorey, K. M., & Greenblatt, B., (1998). The beneficial effects of volunteering for older volunteers and the people they serve: A meta-analysis. International Journal of Aging & Human Development, 47(1), 69-79.