Kindness has the power to boost the physical and mental wellbeing of everyone involved – so why do we often associate it with weakness? Stylist investigates.
When I heard that the official theme of Mental Health Awareness Week 2020 was kindness, I’m ashamed to say I was a little disappointed. As someone who writes about mental health for their job, I understand the important roles kindness and compassion play in raising awareness of and helping those struggling with their mental health. But for some reason, something in me felt a little hesitant about kindness as a theme.
Why? Because, like most people, I seem to possess a subconscious bias against kindness. Despite having seen the importance of kindness, there’s still a part of me that wants to dismiss it as a “fluffy” subject which doesn’t hold quite the same gravity as other wellness topics.
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As I say, it’s not only me who experiences this subconscious bias: as a society, we have a tendency to see qualities such as kindness and compassion as a sign of weakness.
It makes no sense – that’s for sure. Despite all of the progress we’ve made when it comes to talking about mental health and taking care of our minds, there’s still a hesitance to speak about kindness openly – and that needs to change.
At a time when so many of us are experiencing mental health struggles – whether thats anxiety, depression or loneliness, for example – it’s more important than ever that we see kindness for what it really is.
Why is kindness so often seen as a weakness?
Our tendency to associate kindness with weakness goes much deeper than we might expect. Underneath our reluctance to see kindness as a strength is the belief that people who care for the mental and physical wellbeing of others are somehow emotionally “weak” – that to consider the needs and wishes of others is to somehow minimise your own value.
Why? Well, firstly, there’s the issue of gender. Traditional gender stereotypes suggest that women are caregivers – that is, that they’re predisposed towards actions fuelled by emotion, including acts of kindness and compassion. On the flipside, men have traditionally been defined as strong, stoic breadwinners – unemotional and therefore unshakeable. By defining men as strong and “in control”, gender stereotypes lead us to believe that the emotional responses associated with women are, by opposition, weak.
Of course, these gender stereotypes are much less prevalent in today’s society, but something remains of this assumption that to be masculine is to be unemotional – and therefore strong. A 2018 YouGov study revealed that, from a sample of 2,058 British adults, only 3% of respondents associated masculinity with positive human traits such as care and kindness. When masculine qualities are often held up as a sign of strength, it’s no surprise that kindness has come to be associated with weakness.
There’s also the fact that, by definition, kindness is viewed as giving a part of yourself for another’s benefit – something which, in evolutionary terms, goes against our innate need to survive and make ourselves stronger.
“It may be that those who go out of their way to help another are seen as weak because it appears as though they are they are putting the needs of someone else before their own needs,” explains Charlotte Armitage, a media and business psychologist.
Armitage also highlights that being kind could be viewed as an attempt to receive the validation of others – a move which could be interpreted as a sign of vulnerability: “When people are kind it may also be perceived that they are being kind in order receive validation from another person, which indicates a potential psychological vulnerability that some may interpret as a weakness.”
Why kindness is a strength
Besides the fact that kindness plays an integral role in the functioning of society, there are plenty of reasons why kindness can – and should be – associated with strength.
As Armitage explains: “Kindness is not typically associated with strength but, in actual fact, sometimes it’s the strongest people who are able to be the kindest; they don’t feel the need to use defences, or put up barriers to protect themselves, and can therefore offer genuine kindness because they feel safe and secure with who they are.
“To truly offer kindness shows a level of psychological strength and resilience which is grounded in acceptance of oneself. This level of acceptance requires a significant amount of internal strength and takes hard work to achieve.”
Alongside this, kindness also plays an essential role in boosting the mental and physical wellbeing of everyone involved, as Dr Mark Winwood, clinical lead of mental health at AXA PPP healthcare, explains.
“According to research from Emory University, when you’re kind to another person, your brain’s pleasure and reward centres are activated, as if you were the recipient of the good deed – not the giver. This phenomenon is called the ‘helpers high’. This can actually help to reduce feelings of anxiety – so in short, being nice is one of the easiest and inexpensive ways to keep anxiety at bay!”
He continues: “As well as having mental benefits, kindness also has a number of physical benefits. Like exercise, kindness and altruism also releases endorphins, that euphoric feeling that money can’t buy.
“Physically, making others feel good can also affect the actual chemical balance of your heart. Finally, kindness releases the hormone oxytocin (also known as the ‘love hormone’), which causes the release of a chemical called nitric oxide in the blood vessels, dilating them and lowering blood pressure.”
Being kind to yourself can also have a significant impact on your health, too – a recent study carried out by academics at the universities of Exeter and Oxford found that taking time to think positive thoughts about oneself and building a kind inner voice has the potential to calm your heart rate and even boost the immune system.
Finally, there’s also the fact that just one act of kindness – no matter how small – has the potential to change lives. Indeed, as Armitage argues, the impact an act of kindness can have on the person receiving is enough to demonstrate its strength.
“Showing someone even the smallest gesture of kindness reminds them that there are good people in the world and that people do care,” she says. “For someone to feel like as though another has gone out of their way to do something for them, no matter how small, can instigate feelings of gratitude, happiness and togetherness – all of which we need now more than ever.”