Niceness vs. Kindness (Episode 62)

In this episode, Kay Coughlin talks about the important difference between being nice and being kind. As people with caregiver responsibilities, we often think we’re at the limits of what we can handle. That’s when a commitment to kindness can make all the difference. There are times for both niceness and kindness, but how do you know the difference?

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Transcript: Nice vs. Kind (episode 62)

Hi there. I’m your host Kay Coughlin. And you’re listening to From One Caregiver to Another. I am a life coach for family caregivers who want to get some rest and feel less lonely. I’m not only the CEO of my own business, but I’m also a wife, mother to two teenage young men, and I’m the primary caregiver for my own mother. I figured out how to navigate all of these responsibilities and get into the mindset I need so that I can set boundaries and prioritize myself. That’s what I help my clients do too. And if we can do it, I know you can too.

Welcome to episode 62. I am excited about this. I think this is going to be a good one. I hope you think that too.

This topic today of niceness versus kindness, it’s on my mind because I’m preparing for a week long workshop that I’m going to be offering in April. And it’s called “Prioritize You.” You know, niceness and kindness is one of the things that’s going to come up during this workshop. I’m already planning to talk about it because it is one of the things that keeps us from prioritizing ourselves. And what I mean by that is we have this thought that we have to be nice to everybody else. And it just means that we don’t put ourselves first. This workshop is designed for family caregivers and parents who can’t seem to put ourselves first.

It’s really, really close to my heart because it’s something that I’ve struggled with for most of my life. I don’t struggle with it as much anymore because now I’ve really taught myself to become very intentional about taking care of myself. And that’s what I want for you too. And that’s what we’re going to do in the workshop.

If you’re interested, you can find the link to register and that’s on the events page of my website. You’ll also find the link over in my boundaries community. And if you haven’t joined that yet, why not? So I will put the links to both of those in the show notes.

Before I get too far into the episode today, I also want to tell you that I did a podcast episode that was called “You can’t hurt somebody else’s feelings.” That’s number 40. And I just think that would be a really good companion episode for the topic that I’m talking about.

Niceness and kindness. They have very different purposes for us in our lives and in our relationships with other humans and the way we interact.

I want to give you a heads up that as you listen to the episode today, it’s probably going to sound like I’m being pretty hard on the idea of niceness and on the practice of being nice. Even though it sounds like that, I don’t really believe that. That is not true for me or my life. Niceness has a very important place in our lives and in the way we act together as humans.

So for example, if I’m in traffic, I want other drivers to be nice to me. If I’m at the grocery store, I’m a pretty short person, I want people to be nice and help me reach for items that are high up on those grocery store shelves. And niceness certainly has its place. If you think about customer service, whether that’s in-person or on the phone, if we are trying to be nice, there’s a likelihood that’s going to go a lot smoother. Customer service often has to deal with things that are very difficult and niceness can really smooth that over.

So now that I’ve told you I’m not going to be hard on niceness, I’m going to be hard on niceness. So I’m going to start there.

I want to talk about niceness first. Nice, I think, is a baseline for us as humans. It is nice to offer to open a door for someone. It is nice to help someone who’s struggling to open the trunk of their car or wrangle a stroller onto a subway. It is nice to help people when you see them struggling like that. It’s nice to decide not to spit on somebody when they make you mad. And speaking of being mad, it’s really nice to find language to use if you’re talking to me when you’re angry with me. Language that’s going to be a little more productive than screaming at me or using every curse word, you know?

So, you know, niceness, I think going for that as a baseline, you really can’t ever go wrong.

Niceness though is mostly a surface level thing that we do in relationship with other people. And when we interact with other people, it’s kind of transactional. It does help to keep things pleasant and to smooth things over sometimes, or maybe even often, but niceness doesn’t really change anybody’s life. I don’t think it really changes our relationships on a fundamental level. It keeps us from, uh, probably it just keeps us from devolving into monsters and into really, really nasty behavior towards one another.

One thing that I’ve noticed about being nice is that it seems to have a lot of rules that go along with it. Oh gosh, aand this is rules about the tone of voice. when you’re being nice, you probably have to use some kind of sing-songy fakey pleasantness tone of voice. And another rule is that you probably have to hide your real thoughts and your real feelings. And maybe you even need to lie, or if you’re not outright lying, then maybe you,at least can’t be honest.

And there are a lot of things that you can’t do according to the rule book of being nice. And these are things like being firm or asking hard questions or expressing anger in a healthy way. Those things aren’t generally seen as nice. And so it’s a rule that you can’t do them if what you want is to be seen as nice.

And look, if you’re trying to be nice, you certainly can’t put your needs ahead of somebody else’s. That’s another rule of niceness, is other people always have to come first and have to come before you.

Another thing about niceness is that the rules about what is nice and what is not nice? Those rules change depending on the situation that you’re in. You’re expected to be nice in a different way on a subway or in a drive-through line or at church or on an airplane. There are people you are supposed to be nice to and people you’re not supposed to be nice to, and it’s confusing and it changes based on what’s going on around you. And I think it’s a moving target. I don’t like moving targets. I don’t like expectations that are unclear because it is hard to do anything well, when you don’t know what the expectations are or when they’ve changed and nobody has told you. Or when you didn’t know in the first place. And this is true for everything, but it really is especially true for niceness. It’s like a standard that you can’t expect to live up to, if you don’t understand what it is that people want from you.

And I mentioned this before, when I was talking about the workshop that I have coming up on how to prioritize yourself. But you know, a lot of us really do have this belief that we have to be nice that it’s some kind of requirement in our life, or in our situation, or in a particular relationship, that we are the ones who are always producing and giving the niceness.

And it sounds like this, we actually say to people, oh, you be a good girl. Be a nice girl. Be a nice boy. You have to be the nice person in that relationship. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s another one of those rules. It doesn’t make any sense and it really holds us back. And again, it’s another standard that we can’t hope to live up to because it’s, it’s really indefinable. How do you tell somebody what that means? How do you measure it? How do you explain it?

You know, if an alien landed on this planet and you had to try to explain the concept of being a nice girl, what would that even mean? How would you even describe it?

Now a lot of this niceness, I have to say comes from trying to be perfect and trying to please other people. The language that I use a lot there is being a perfectionist, being a people pleaser. I happen to be a perfectionist. And so I kind of know what I’m talking about on this one. And I’ve definitely felt the pain.

So the way I would describe it now is I think there’s a special kind of emotional labor that goes into trying to minimize the way somebody reacts to you, especially if it’s a bad or a negative reaction. That’s perfectionism is, is trying to make people see that you’re doing everything right and everything well, and hello, that is definitely my inner core fear. That’s where I go when I am having emotionally unhealthy days.

And then there’s this trying to anticipate how to keep somebody else happy. That’s going to be people pleasing.

So niceness comes from those places of perfectionism and people pleasing. And the thought behind it really is, I want this person to think a certain way about me, and so I’m going to be nice. I want them to think that I’m perfect or that I’m good, or I want them to like me. And so I am going to be nice to increase the chances that they’re going to like me.

We can’t control other people and the way they think. And, and so that’s, that’s never going to work out well, but especially not when it comes to trying to use niceness in that way. You know, if you haven’t listened to the episode that I did recently on emotional labor, that is a fascinating topic. And I think that’s another episode that you might want to go back and listen to. It’ll probably help to really frame up and explain some of what I’m talking about today with niceness and kindness.

I think that niceness is also a big symptom of human giver syndrome, which is another topic that I talk about a lot in other episodes of this podcast. When it comes to human giver syndrome, what happens is that we give and we give and we give with really no trying for substance or depth or anything that lasts. And we just don’t have any concern about having healthy relationships with human giver syndrome. Mostly what happens with human giver syndrome is we end up having relationships that are either one way in terms of who’s giving everything, or it certainly feels that way. That’s a very shallow way to be in a relationship.

Being nice is like that too. And that’s why it shows up so much in human giver syndrome. Niceness is really shallow and it doesn’t tend to produce long lasting results of much of anything. So I’m done being hard on niceness. I’ll talk before I’m done today about when it actually really is a good idea and appropriate to choose being nice instead of being kind.

But before I do that, I want to give you my thoughts on kindness. Kindness requires a whole different level of commitment than niceness. I don’t even think of niceness as a commitment to anything. And niceness is a bunch of habits and it does make life smoother and easier a lot of times, but kindness goes so much deeper.

I know for me that I actually feel kindness much more deeply. And that’s when I’m on the giving end, but also when I’m on the receiving end of kindness, kindness changes me. It changes other people, kindness connects us to other people. And not only that, but kindness has a lot more impact on other people than being nice does.

And that’s even among strangers. A bunch of years ago, and this has probably been I mean at this point, it’s 13 or 14 years ago. My husband drove a big jeep. And he used to go off-roading, and so he carried all of this equipment for fixing other cars that were broken down and fixing other off-roaders that were broken down. And he carried equipment to tow people out of tough situations. And, and he really just carried this stuff around in the back of his Jeep all the time.

He had this kit that he carried around with him and he was on his way home from work one day and he saw a school bus that had slid off the road. It was winter time and it was stuck in some snow, just on the side of the road. And he just pulled over to the side of the road and checked in with the bus driver and offered to pull the school bus out of the snow. And because he carried that equipment with him, he just did that.

To me, that is a real demonstration of kindness among strangers. I don’t think I’m ever going to forget that story. It changed me. I guarantee you that it changed that bus driver’s day.

And I have another example here, my mom, and you know, that’s who I’m the primary caregiver for. My mother, she lives next door to us. My mom loves to knit and crochet. And right now she’s in the middle of making dozens of pairs of these lovely fingerless mittens. I think she crochets them? And she gives these beautiful, sweet fingerless mittens to a local women’s shelter. We have no idea who receives these beautiful mittens, and we don’t even go inside to drop them off. You have to leave them outside the building and that’s, that’s a deep kindness. It certainly changes my mom.

And I, I really have no question that it changes the recipients because it’s such a sweet gesture and these mittens are terrific. I have a couple of pairs of them, myself, and I absolutely love them. That’s kindness among strangers.

When we reach deep and try for kindness in our most intense relationships though. And often these are our most important relationships. So that’s going to be with your spouse or if you’re a family caregiver, or certainly as a parent. That sort of kindness often looks like setting boundaries and setting rules, and those can be boundaries about how people are allowed to talk to each other and what we’re going to do when people talk in ways that are not nice and kind, and it can be rules about how much screen time is allowed.

There’s nothing easy about that sort of kindness, because it can also look like talking about taking personal responsibility and what the consequences are when we’re not responsible for our own actions.

And one way this has shown up in my relationship with my mom is that I do talk to my mom about the amount of physical activity that she is, or is not, getting each day. And what that could mean for her long-term health. And I just want to say for the record, my mom does take her physical activity very seriously, but it’s not something that she loves to do. And so she really does appreciate that I check in with her about it. And, you know, she can also tell me to go jump in a lake if I bring it up and she doesn’t want to talk about it, but we have a relationship where we have decided, even though it’s hard, that we are going to really try for that sort of kindness between one another.

Being kind means that you are sharing the load and the relationship, the load of that emotional labor. It requires honesty and it does require an intention of connection in a relationship. Unfortunately, it also requires often some vulnerability. I wish I could change that for you, but I can’t. That’s the way it works. And of course you can’t control if someone in a relationship actually does connect with you.

But you can have that intention of connection. I think that’s where the vulnerable part comes from. Because if you go into a situation where you’re really trying to behave in ways that you think are, are very kind and you want to be connected, you, you are risking rejection. You are risking that that person won’t be connected with you or won’t feel connected.

That’s how vulnerability goes. There’s some risks with that with kindness. You really can be thoughtful and gentle and compassionate and still be honest. That’s what I mean when I say that there is no rule book for kindness, you get to choose that you can be more than one thing at the same time. Like I can be gentle and I can be honest. They don’t cancel each other out when you’re trying to be kind.

Kindness does deepen our relationships with people over time, or maybe even immediately, but I just want to point it out if you haven’t already figured it out or thought about it, it can be awkward to be kind. It can be really awkward and uncomfortable to be honest.

And here’s the kicker. Being kind might not feel very nice in the moment. It might not feel nice to you. It might not feel nice to the person who’s on the receiving end, but that is the truth about kindness is you’re not being held back by the rule book of niceness. And so you can go deeper over time.

So because kindness doesn’t have that same rule book the way niceness does, as a concept and as a practice, it really makes kindness so much more flexible for us in the ways that we can use it in our relationships and in the ways we can apply it to situations that we are in. And our lives change so much every single day because we’re human and we’re in situations that we can’t control, kindness then becomes a really great, I guess, relationship tool. I think I want to think of it that way as a relationship tool, because it’s so flexible.

When you are being kind, you can also be firm. You can express anger in a healthy way, if you need to, and you can express other challenging emotions if that comes up. And if it’s important, you can have compassion and empathy for everybody.

And that includes you. You can have compassion and empathy for yourself. When what you’re going for is kindness, rather than being held back by that surface level niceness, with kindness, you get to decide what’s right in that situation and what’s needed every time.

I do think that tough love is a part of kindness. It doesn’t capture everything about kindness, but it’s a lot closer in terms of a concept than niceness is. And I think it’s a good illustration of the way that kindness can be long-term, can have long-term effects, and not just be effective in the moment. So if you think of tough love, one of the situations that I think of is telling a loved one that they might be drinking too much.

And that is the tough love sort of kindness that I’m referring to. That is not a moment that’s just one and done and gone and over, that’s going to stick around.

Okay. So since we’re talking about kindness and tough love. And I just talked about, you know, having to do an intervention and tell someone that they might be drinking too much.

This is a really good time for me to bring up that I personally think kindness is scary. It’s scary. There are times when I am nice instead of kind, because I just don’t want to be vulnerable. I don’t want to be accountable and I don’t want to put in the effort that it takes to be kind. I mean, who wants to have to be the one to tell someone they might be drinking too much?

Who wants to be the one to tell a loved one, that they have a serious illness, like maybe diabetes, and they’re going to have to change their whole lifestyle to treat it. That does not feel nice or good. And there are times when I just can’t do that, but those are also really good examples of the difference between kindness and niceness.

Now, obviously you’ve figured out at this point that I’m a big fan of kindness, but it’s just not an easy thing to choose. So here’s an everyday example of choosing between niceness and kindness. When somebody cooks a meal for you that you really don’t like. And I think this is common, I think we can all relate to this.

So in that situation, if you pretend to like it because you’re trying to be nice, that’s niceness and that’s either totally surface level, or maybe you’re doing some people pleasing there and trying to manage the way they feel about you instead of acknowledging your own feelings. Okay. So that’s niceness.

If you’re being kind in that situation, you can lovingly say, thank you so much for all the trouble you went to here. This means so much to me. And then you can also admit that you don’t like the dish and you would prefer not to eat it. That’s an example of kindness.

Now, when it comes to the way that we treat ourselves, I want to state for the record that I think it’s confusing to try to think about yourself and what it would mean to be nice to you. It’s not that it’s bad. It’s so surface level. I don’t think it means much, actually, when I say, oh, I want to be nice to myself. It literally feels like that word has no meaning for me in that context. And it definitely does not light a fire under me to prioritize my own needs when I just want to be nice to myself.

Contrast that with the idea of being kind to yourself. Now, that is a whole new level of self-compassion. To me, that is inspiring. That really makes me want to be gentle and loving and choose things that are going to be good for me in the long run. And that makes me want to act towards myself in a way where I can ask the question and answer it honestly, was that kind, was I going for being kind with myself and the long-term effect that that could have in my life.

So I want to wrap this up by saying one more time, there definitely is a need in all of our lives for both niceness and kindness. All we can do ever is just make our best guess about which one is needed in any given situation. Sometimes we’re going to want to dig deep and get brave and be vulnerable and go for kindness, even if it’s gonna make things uncomfortable and awkward in the moment.

Sometimes all we’re going to have to give is being nice. And, and that’s it, you know, we, we’re not gonna have anything else that we can dig deep for and that’s okay too. We’re all humans.

And anyway, I can guarantee that you are going to have plenty of chances to try again, if you think you missed an opportunity to be kind. There is no perfect choice ever because we’re humans. What we do is we try things and they work out or they don’t and we learn and we grow.

I really hope that after today, you’re going to think about this difference between niceness and kindness, and maybe you’re even going to be able to become a little more intentional about choosing when you want to do one or the other.

And I also really, really hope that you are going to feel a little better able to choose to be kind to yourself so that you can make sure your own needs are met every single day.

If you liked this episode, you have to go check out my free community to talk about boundaries. It’s a safe space for us to do the work of making decisions about what’s okay and what’s not okay. And communicating those decisions to the people around us. It’s not easy, but we can support each other while we do the work. You’ll find the link in the show notes, or you could just go there now. And it’s at facilitator on fire dot net slash boundaries. I can’t wait to be with you again in the next episode, From One Caregiver to Another.

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your guide

Kay Coughlin, CEO of Facilitator On Fire, is a business coach for the non-profit sector and social justice businesses. She is also well-known for being an advocate for family caregivers.

In every forum she can find, she shouts that it's OK for every human to earn a living, set and enforce boundaries around their bodies, thoughts, feelings and actions. You can join Kay's free, private online community to talk about boundaries here.

Kay also teaches about emotional labor, how to rest, and Human Giver Syndrome, and is the host of the "From One Caregiver to Another" podcast and author of "From One Caregiver to Another - Overcoming Your Emotional Grind."

Kay is well-known for her public speaking on boundaries and self-care. 

Facilitator on Fire is a subsidiary of Donor Relations Mindset LLC, which Kay founded in 2015. She lives with her husband and children in central Ohio, and is the primary caregiver for her own mother, who lives right next door. Kay can be found on LinkedIn and Instagram.

Copyright 2022. All rights reserved, Julia Kay Coughlin and Facilitator On Fire.

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