By Robin Arnett - September 28, 2021
My clients know how much I love the topic of boundaries. Boundaries are truly the key to healthy relationships, reaching our goals, and personal peace. But when we talk about setting boundaries, I am often met with protests of not wanting to be mean. People generally fear disappointing others, and equate boundary-setting with meanness. While showing kindness and respect for others is a genuinely admirable goal, we get into trouble when we conflate being kind with being nice.
I'll define being nice here as being polite, appearing pleasant, and going along with another person’s desires to make them happy. There is nothing inherently wrong with being nice, until being nice results in self-denial. We are often nice for the sake of avoiding confrontation and keeping up appearances. If being nice means shutting down our own desires, we are not being kind. Kindness I’ll define as approaching other human beings with genuine care, compassion, and respect. Being kind requires honesty, empathy, and a connection to our common humanity. Kindness is more of an attitude and a way of being than a set of actions. Kind actions are the inevitable result of a kind approach to the world.
It is crucial to remember that a kind approach to life includes kindness to ourselves. If we are being nice to others at the cost of being unkind to ourselves, that action is inherently unkind and uncompassionate. Further, repeating toxic relationship dynamics hurts everyone involved. If being nice means allowing those patterns to continue, you are not actually helping the other person involved by taking part in that cycle.
Prioritizing kindness over niceness does not equal rigid boundaries or pushing “my way or the highway.” Kindness can be flexible. What kindness does involve is checking in with ourselves on our values and personal integrity. Kindness requires mindfulness and self-knowledge. The beauty of this approach is that kindness to ourselves creates a natural outflow of genuine kindness to the rest of the world. When we are unkind to ourselves, we end up failing to show up as our best selves in our relationships. Self-kindness allows us to naturally bring authenticity, respect, and openness to the people we love.
I have personally experienced this shift in attitude in my relationships when I prioritized self-kindness and compassion over niceness. I recently decided to take some space from a loved one. In the past few months, he had crossed a number of boundaries, and I noticed myself forcing my way through our time together. I carried tension, resentment, and anger into our interactions, and I imagine he felt that energy coming from me. When another boundary was recently crossed, I set a firm boundary with him and myself that I would not see him or talk to him unless it was under circumstances that felt good to me. I waited and waited until it finally felt right to reach out, knowing that it might not feel that way for a long time. When it finally did, I found myself genuinely enjoying our interaction, and feeling love and compassion toward this person. I will continue to engage in this way in our relationship, not only for my own sake, but because I think this is the kindest and most respectful way to interact with him as well.
Kindness means respect for self and others, mindfulness of values and boundaries, and genuine connection in favor of false pleasantness. Remember when you are setting boundaries that there is another option between nice and mean. Choosing kindness means choosing love.