Sunday, December 1, 2013

Kindness Matters



I'm not a kind person. I judge people. I often have snarky and sarcastic remarks running through my head and at times I even say them out loud, especially if I know it will get me a laugh. And I am selfish. I am not a giving and generous person by nature or, if it was in my nature at one point, it was replaced early on by something, if not self-serving, than at least self-protecting. 

For example: I used to live with someone who would be irked if I went into the kitchen for a glass of water, cup of tea, snack, etc and didn't ask him if he wanted one too. Forget about just bringing him one, regardless. He told me I was rude. I told him he was a grown adult and that if he wanted a cup of tea, the kitchen was thataway. I wasn't hypocritical about it, I didn't expect anyone to fetch my tea, either. I just didn't have that generosity of spirit. If I went to Starbucks to get coffee, I didn't just pick one up for you, what if you didn't want coffee. I might have wasted, I don't know, 2 bucks? I mean, come on. 

I guess this is how I was raised. I mean, I don't remember that we did favors for each other or that I was ever held accountable to be more giving with my friends and family. I wasn't mean or spoiled. I like to buy presents for people. I just was very protective of my time, energy and money and didn't really want to share any of that with anyone else. 

Some of it was fear. What if I did something and you didn't like it? What if you sneered at my attempts at generosity or worse, ignored them. For a long time, I didn't ask people things about themselves a. because I am terribly shy and b. because I didn't want to offend them. Is it any of my business? Maybe I shouldn't ask, which leads to maybe I shouldn't help, maybe I should just mind my own business. 

Such is introversion. For most of my life, interacting with others has been a confusing maze of misunderstanding and  missed social cues. As a kid, I never understood-and hated-when adults laughed at what I said. I was a pretty serious kid. Nor do I understand, still, why some people give me "that look" after speaking with them for more than a few minutes. As I've aged.  I've learned to hide it better. I make small talk, I laugh or look concerned in the right places. Always, there's me looking on the interaction from off to one side, critiquing the interaction. It does not come naturally. 

A lot of this has been hammered out of me by my husband, who is generous with his time, possessions and, to my irritation, his advice. But he wants to be involved, he wants to interact with other people in ways that seem totally alien and uncomfortable to me. But, little by little, over the years, I have tried, very specifically, to act against my selfish instincts: to bring something without being asked, to steer the conversation away from myself. I don't want to. What I want is to be home, alone and reading and drinking hot cocoa without having to interact with anyone. That is the state that feels, not good, but familiar. 

I think the thing that really helped me understand myself and change was learning more about introversion. I read that introverts do like to be around people, but that being around people saps them of energy, as opposed to extroverts who get energy from being with others. Now, when I'm tired and irritable after being at a thoroughly enjoyable party I understand that I have used up my people energy for the day. And that's ok. If someone is a very high energy person, I no longer feel guilty for trying to avoid them, I just know I may have to limit my time with them because they drain me. I think this has led me to actually come out of my shell more often, because I understand what I need and when I need it. 

The other thing that helped immensely was becoming a nurse. Not only did it force me to interact with patients, but I found that if it had a focus, it came easier. Plus I got to be the one in control of the interaction: you were in my hospital, needing help, not knowing what to do and I'm here to help. Weird, possibly pathological, but if you're in uncertain territory, it levels the playing field for me. I'm not proud, but There it is. 

Anyhoo, as these things increased my confidence and comfortability around other humans a weird thing happened: I became more kind. As I became more outwardly focused I saw just how many of us feel weird and disconnected. So of course I can connect on that level. First I had to get my head out my ass and stop focusing on me me me. Then I had to look past the external crap that other people put on. It's not always a quick process. I've known people for years who get on my last nerve and then they say or do something endearing...well, you just never know about people. 

This has led me to a kindness-reward circuit: I act nice, people are nicer. Not in a strict, one-to-one ratio but overall it seems to even out. I had a psych patient ask me if being nice meant I got taken advantage of a lot. I told him no, I'm not a pushover. But that's his reality and it used to be mine: that being nice meant you put your guard down. But that doesn't just keep the bad out of your heart, it keeps out the good, too. And the bad can find a way in if it wants no matter how much you think your heart's protected. The amazing thing is, all that kindness and good feelings has made my spirit more resilient, not less. How wonderful is that?