At least once a year in school, my teachers had our class do a name-game activity to get to know each other. We would go around the room and introduce ourselves with our name plus an adjective that starts with the first letter of our name.
Sound familiar? By the third or fourth time we’d played it, I found it to be a pretty standard-issue game.
Even still, my teacher each year would explain the directions anew, and then get the game rolling: we passed Awesome Allison, then Magnificent Morgan, followed by Funny Fred and Cool Caleb.
And then we finally got to Kind Katy.
For those who know me, this truly is an apt description. ‘Kind Katy’ has been my moniker for almost two decades not because it was the only ‘k’ adjective I could ever seem to think of, but because my kindness is by far the trait that I am most known for.
I listened to peers tell me time and time again how nice I am. In my childhood, I heard adults express their admiration of my generosity and big-heartedness. Now in my adult life, I am validated in my compassion and empathy.
Being ‘kind’ sounds like a pretty sweet gig, doesn’t it?
But if I’m being honest, I’ve always sort of hated being ‘Kind Katy’ – thinking back on my elementary name-game days, I never liked introducing myself that way. It felt…anticlimactic. Boring. One-dimensional. But I had to pick an adjective that started with the same letter as my first name, so I was rather limited in my selection.
On the other hand, we’ve already established that it was an apt description, and it stuck with me, for better or for worse.
Unfortunately, though, almost twenty years later, I’m discovering the depth of why I’ve always hated being labeled ‘kind’ – and it goes a little beyond simply feeling like a boring introduction.
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Kind /kīnd/ adjective
having or showing a friendly, generous, and considerate nature.
"she was a good, kind woman"
While in school as a therapist, I learned the importance of asking questions and defining words so that I was on the same page as my clients; before continuing on in my post, I wanted to take a few moments to clarify my definition of ‘kind’.
The definition above comes from the dictionary widget on the Google search engine. “[H]aving or showing a friendly, generous, and considerate nature” – kind of a vague definition, isn’t it? I certainly thought so.
So, I went to the synonyms section for clarity!
And what I surmised from my brief research is that ‘kind’ is a pretty big umbrella term, covering such traits as generosity, selflessness, compassion, graciousness, leniency, patience, big-heartedness, and some more interesting finds like handsomeness and liberalism.
In essence, ‘kind’ and ‘nice’ (which I use synonymously) are terms that cover a large array of traits, rather than being a single trait in themselves.
With that said, when I discuss ‘kindness’ or ‘niceness’, I am referring to the umbrella term of the above-mentioned traits, and I will specify when I am venturing underneath the umbrella to look at particular traits (or the ‘synonyms’ that Google dictionary offers).
Because it’s not necessarily ‘kindness’ that I hate – it’s some of those terms hanging out underneath that umbrella.
… … …
Kind Katy. What a nice, safe-sounding nickname.
Katy, you’re just so nice.
But oh my god, Katy, the world does not revolve around you!
You’re so kind, Katy.
But you’re selfish and immature, and I have no desire to be friends with you.
You’re so nice, though!
But you’re selfish.
Wait – now I’m confused.
Nice people aren’t selfish.
But…somehow I’m both?
How can I be selfish and nice?
How can the same people who praise me for my kindness turn around in an instant and call me selfish?
I couldn’t understand. ‘Kind’ and ‘selfish’ oppose each other – how could I be both at the same time?
It was here that I encountered my first significant experience with cognitive dissonance (“the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change” – from Google dictionary). I needed to figure out how to expunge my selfishness while embracing and expanding my kindness.
So I listened to what my friends and peers said; I bent over backwards for them; I did everything I could to be what they wanted.
Somehow, that was still never enough. I was only ‘nice’ when they liked me, and ‘selfish’ when they didn’t…and I never knew which I would be to them on any given day.
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Okay, so being a child was hard because I fielded confusing and conflicting messages – but I’m an adult now, and the messages should be more consistent, right?
Oh, how I wish.
Recently in my adult life, I found myself in a dating relationship with someone who had been a dear friend of mine prior to our romance. Within a few months, the relationship had ended, and I found myself face to face with heartbreak and grief. Not only did I lose the relationship, but (I would soon discover) I had completely lost a friend.
But despite the end of this romantic encounter, this was not the end of my professional relationship with this individual, or their new partner; in fact, I had to work with both of them for a short period, only a few months following the breakup.
Naturally, I experienced those strong feelings of heartbreak and grief every time we entered the space altogether. As a highly sensitive person, this was often difficult for me to manage because my emotions would flow freely and intensely, but I did my best. I needed to show up for my project coworkers, and this included the two of them. The intensity of the larger situation demanded it; it wasn’t about me, and I knew that. So I worked as hard as I could to manage my feelings and find a way to set myself aside.
But there were times that I couldn’t handle it emotionally, and so those few months were a living hell for me. My feelings bubbled over and I had to focus on myself, with which they seemed to take issue. Nonetheless, I desperately wanted to make things right with them, and yet my attempts at reconciliation were met with hostility, or simply ignored.
I was left unseen. My story was pushed out. I was silenced.
I believe that reconciliation has to go both ways – one side cannot shut out the other in favor of themselves, and then expect the other to bend to their demands.
What I have learned about myself and my needs is that, as much as I believe that we can all heal and support each other better when we meet each other in the middle, I have to put my attention on myself if mutual and reciprocal support cannot be offered by both parties. If they weren’t going to acknowledge my pain in my experience, then I had nothing to offer them until I could process and acknowledge it for myself. I couldn’t be the ally that they demanded me to be because I couldn’t pour out of an empty cup.
The small offerings of empathy and compassion I was able to extend went unnoticed, as they seemed to only see the moments in which I needed to put myself, my health, and my story first in my own life.
At the end of our time together, my former friend told me that my behavior towards them and their partner had been horrible – they said I had traumatized them both with my cowardly actions.
I had never asked them to take care of me; I had only put a boundary in place so that I could take care of myself first. But for that, I was called selfish and a coward.
This same person, only six months earlier, had told me that I was the kindest person they had ever met.
What changed? Had they been lying about my kindness?
Or were they operating from a specific definition of kindness?
… … …
So the conflicting messages about my ‘kindness’ and ‘selfishness’ followed me into adulthood – and the cognitive dissonance of those messages deeply impacted me. For most of my life, I have believed that something was wrong with me – the messages about my supposed selfishness were damaging enough, but somehow the confusion of adding kindness to the mix actually perpetuated my feelings of self-loathing. The only way to combat my ‘selfishness’ was to be nicer, kinder, to give more…and whether I had been ‘nice’ enough was to be determined by my peers. They got to decide whether my actions had earned their love and attention.
But in the months followed the encounter mentioned in the previous section, I began to wonder if the problem wasn’t actually me.
And when my best friend only weeks ago told me that she and I are just “too nice,” I started to think more deeply about my cognitive dissonance between ‘nice’ and ‘selfish’.
As I started reflecting on this notion of ‘kindness’, I’ve found in my life that people are often quick to rescind their praise of my ‘kindness’ when they find themselves unable to get what they want from me.
When I refuse to accommodate them.
Aha. You see, that’s another word that Google dictionary lists under synonyms for ‘kind’ that I hadn’t mentioned yet.
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Accommodating /əˈkäməˌdādiNG/ adjective
willing to fit in with someone's wishes or needs.
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An old flame had recently reappeared in my life; he started texting me every other night at late hours, demanding Facetime calls, and making inappropriate comments about my clothes.
I felt annoyed. Frustrated. Uncomfortable. I remembered why we weren’t a good match and why I had ended things in the first place.
Yet I was afraid to put up boundaries with him because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings and be rude. I didn’t want to be unkind – even though this was not a situation I asked to be in. In my mind, being kind to him trumped my own boundaries and sense of personal safety.
My strong learned impulse was to accommodate this ex – to be ‘nice’ to him, either by giving him (yet another) chance, or doing the emotional labor to let him down in a way that didn’t hurt his feelings, or even just in allowing him to talk to me whenever he wanted simply because he was lonely and it wasn’t hurting me to entertain his interactions.
But I so badly wanted to put a boundary in place with him…and yet, I felt like I couldn’t!
Because that would be mean.
I was experiencing the same cognitive dissonance I had been taught to hold my entire life because I had been conditioned to accommodate others at the expense of myself.
Because that’s nice.
But whenever I have made the choice to put myself first (i.e., to maintain my boundaries), suddenly I’m no longer nice.
What I am discovering is that, in my life, ‘nice’ has been used when someone actually means ‘accommodating’, and I take issue with that. It implies that my person, energy, love, and talents are allowed to be taken by others; it gives me no agency in my own life.
My generosity is not someone else’s to take at their whimsy. My boundaries are not permeable and pliable so that anyone who cares to enter my space and take from me may do so whenever they want. My love that I give freely is not anyone else’s to suck out of my heart.
To accommodate someone or something is an action. It’s a verb – and there are times that I do choose to adjust my boundaries for someone, to give more love than they are able to return, or to offer more than I planned to offer at the time.
But to turn that into an adjective and label me as ‘accommodating’ (using the shield of ‘nice’) takes away my agency to choose that for myself and puts an expectation on me to set my needs aside to accommodate anyone and everyone who deems they desire something from me.
And when they don’t get it, it’s not because they were trying to take advantage of me; it’s because I’m selfish.
‘Niceness’ is in the eye of the beholder.
I felt utterly confused when people called me both nice and selfish because I couldn’t understand how those could exist together. But it’s because my peers were putting a label on me that they didn’t define clearly – a label that they sought to put on me.
At the end of the day, I’m not nice. Because if nice means accommodating, then I’m not nice, and, frankly, I don't want to be.
But I am generous. I am compassionate. I am thoughtful. I am strong. I am courageous. I am grounded. I am passionate. I am friendly. I am understanding. I am creative. I am respectful.
I have self-respect.
I have self-love.
I put up healthy boundaries so that I can continue to give the love I so enjoy giving to others, and I refuse to let people take advantage of me on their terms.
That’s not selfish.
(Photo credit: Paul Jarvis on Unsplash)