Kindness and honesty: Can we have one without the other?
September 3, 2013 6 Comments
I’ve blogged before on the tension between kindness and honesty: how, often, when we try to communicate honestly we sacrifice kindness, and when we try to be kind to others we sacrifice honesty. I concluded that it was important to find a balance between the two: holding that tension whenever we communicate with others, or indeed ourselves.
Lately, however, it seems to me that kindness and honesty are more inextricably linked than I previously thought. It struck me that kindness without honesty is not really kindness, and that honesty without kindness is not really honesty. So whether we are somebody who – in life – prides ourselves on our openness and straightforwardness, or on our compassion and generosity, we have to engage seriously with the other aspect in order to be truly as we are aiming to be (honest, or kind, respectively).
Kindness without honesty is not kindness
The first one is, perhaps, the easier to explain. If we are keen to be good for the people in our lives, and if we strive not to harm anybody, we may find ourselves sacrificing honesty for kindness. We pick up on what people around us seem to want from us and try to provide that for them, whether or not it fits with us.
So, for example, we might take on more work than we can comfortably manage in order to help others, claiming that we’re fine. We might say that we feel more for somebody than we actually do in order to make them feel good. In a conflict we might lie about what we find difficult about somebody in order to save them pain.
These are all examples of kindness without honesty, and they all frequently backfire.
Working too hard without taking time to look after ourselves often results in us working less well and/or eventually having to stop suddenly because we simply can’t keep it up. Such a situation is usually worse for the people around us than if we had been honest about the load we could reasonably commit to in the first place, or if we had said as soon as it was becoming difficult.
Similarly if we offer too much to people in our lives and then don’t follow through on that, they are left confused and hurt. If we keep trying to give what we have offered (in terms of time, emotion, or commitment) even when we don’t really have it, people generally pick up on this, or we end up so resentful that we pull away from them completely.
Finally, if we are never honest about our experience of other people because we want to save their feelings, we prevent them from learning things that may help them in the long term. Or perhaps we ensure that – when somebody does tell them – it is in a less supportive and helpful way which may be too painful for them to be able to hear.
So aiming to be kind rather than honest often ends up being unkind. Real kindness requires us to be honest with both ourselves and others, even if that is painful and hard.
Honesty without kindness is not honesty
This one is a little more difficult to explain and I am still working it through it myself. I think that if we are honest with somebody without thinking compassionately about that person than we are not being fully honest with ourselves, or with them.
So, for example, we might honestly tell somebody who we are struggling with that they are stupid, or lazy, or annoying. But it is not really honesty if we only see part of the picture and fix that as the truth. Full honesty involves seeing the way the person is being, but also having the imagination to understand the reasons why that might be the case. It also involves honestly looking at our own behaviour and how what has happened emerges from the exchange between us rather than being a matter of isolated individuals who could have internal characteristics such as stupidity, laziness, or annoyingness. Finally, full honesty requires us to see the whole person, rather than only the part of them that we are currently focusing on.
Bringing honesty together with kindness helps us to do all these things. Kindness encourages us to ask ‘what might be going on for this person that they are behaving like this?’, starting from the assumption that it makes sense rather than seeing them just from the self-centred point of view of our own desires and how they are blocking these. Kindness to ourselves enables us to look honestly at what we bring to the situation, without being overwhelmed by guilt and shame when we realise that we are also being imperfect people and contributing to conflict, confusion and pain. Finally, kindness opens us up to other aspects of the person – particularly the ones that are impressive – when our attention is in danger of being fixed on ‘negative aspects’. It allows us to see that what we are finding difficult may well be inextricably connected to things that we find valuable about this person (stubborness and being committed, for example, or flakiness and being easygoing).
Honesty plus kindness helps us to see more clearly – indeed honestly – the vulnerability which we all share which underlies much of our behaviour. Then, instead of moments of conflict making us feel disconnected, isolated and alienated, they actually have the potential to connect us more fundamentally, as we recognise the familiar fears and dreads, hopes and desires, that drives the very behaviours that we are finding so difficult. But we need at least a little kindness to cut through the sense that we are up against a bad, blameworthy, inexplicable individual who is just getting in our way.
Honesty, without the kind recognition that we are all suffering and defending ourselves against suffering, is not really honesty.