The British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips once wrote, “Kindness is always hazardous because it is based on a susceptibility to others, a capacity to identify with their pleasures and sufferings.”
Yet, according to Tara Cousineau, author of The Kindness Cure: How the Science of Compassion Can Heal Your Heart & Your World, empathy, compassion, and cooperation have played a fundamental role in how we evolved as a cooperative species. In a world of indifference, isolation, loneliness, and destructive trends, kindness is needed now more than ever.
Living in a state of chronic stress is one way that our ability to express kindness erodes.
“In a chronic state of personal distress with a narrow view, it’s hard to arouse the empathic concern that will help you get the perspective on things to be kind to yourself and others,” writes Cousineau.
She describes Self-Protective Empathy Lethargy, or SPEL as “too consumed with coping to care.” SPEL also affects where we fall on the empathy/empowerment grid, bringing us from high states of empathy and empowerment to low states. Kindness takes effort, but it is like a muscle. The more we practice, the stronger we become at being and feeling kind.
Cousineau cites the words of psychologist and neuroscientist Richard Davidson:
“Human beings come into the world with innate, basic goodness. When we engage in practices that are designed to cultivate kindness and compassion, we’re not actually creating something de novo – we’re not actually creating something that didn’t already exist. What we’re doing is recognizing, strengthening, and nurturing a quality that was there from the outset.”
Empathy also expands our world, helping us to feel and mirror the emotional states of others and take on their perspective through a process called mentalizing, or imagining the thoughts and feelings of another. The result is what Cousineau refers to as motivational empathy, or empathy that motivates us to care about each other and act kindly.
“Empathy engages your imagination as you sense the thoughts, feelings, and intentions of other people. It thrives with nurturing experiences and secure attachments to caring people. It is also shaped by trial and error, discernment, and by knowing personally and deeply what it feels like to be hurt and to do the hurting,” writes Cousineau.
Expressing kindness often means crossing a relational space where we are beyond momentary comfort, and take a risk to help another. Cousineau quotes Erika Lantz, the producer of Kind World radio:
“You have to be vulnerable to ask for kindness, you have to be vulnerable to talk about it. You also have to be vulnerable to show kindness.”
Gaining the courage to be kind begins with being self-aware, and knowing how empowered we feel. To help with this self-awareness, Cousineau suggests that we ask ourselves a few questions: What makes me feel uncomfortable about other people? What do I need to feel safe and supported? What are the risks of identifying with others, especially with someone who is different from me?
And while we may be wired for stress, we can also learn to attune to our senses to help reset our stress levels and cultivate a sense of calm. We can pause, practice intentional compassion, and engage in compassionate connection with others – all things that utilize what Stephen Porges, who developed the polyvagal theory, calls the social nervous system.
“Awareness of how your body is responding to something is important because it allows you to understand your triggers, and when you have this understanding you won’t feel at odds with yourself. This is the root of self-care. You can even consciously engage the vagal system for soothing,” writes Cousineau.
And while kindness can stir up old painful wounds, our bodies are naturally restorative. Through spending time in nature, learning to forgive ourselves and others, cultivating micro moments of happiness and love, paying attention to our loved ones bids for connection, practicing gratitude, accepting and giving apologies, and learning to accept a helping hand, we can develop what Cousineau calls kindsight. Moments of kindsight change how we look at the world, how we see the past, and how we imagine the future.
Through kindsight we integrate the whole of our experience – our failures, mistakes, regrets, most proud, and most happy moments – into what becomes an upward spiral where we see the world through kinder, more compassionate eyes. It is a process that doesn’t only make us more mindful, compassionate, and resilient, but deeply transforms the way we live our lives.
An insightful blend of compelling research, practical exercises, and sage wisdom, The Kindness Cure is a timely book that should be read by all.
The Kindness Cure: How the Science of Compassion Can Heal Your Heart & Your World
Tara Cousineau, PhD
New Harbinger Publications
Softcover, 228 Pages