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21 May 2020

Why is receiving kindess difficult?

This week’s Mental Health Awareness Week has the theme of kindness. For many who suffer from anxiety and depression, as I have done, one pressing aspect of kindness is how difficult we can find it to receive kindness from others.

By Rachel Kelly

This has been a challenge for me in the past. When depressed it is all too easy to feel not good enough to accept the charity of others. The wonderful religious poet George Herbert puts this feeling beautifully in in his poem ‘Love . When invited by God to accept his kindness and come and sit and eat with him, he replies ‘I, the unkind, the unworthy?’

Rachel Kelly

How then can we feel ourselves to be worthy of the kindness of others? The question has never been more pressing. Currently, millions of us are having to rely on the kindness of strangers in a new way, whether that is a nurse in a Covid ward, or the neighbour helping out with homeschooling, or the friend who picks up a prescription for an elderly parent. Here are my top six answers which have helped me in my own struggle to be able to say thank you:

  1. Pause to appreciate the kind person who has reached out as just that – a person rather than someone performing a function. This could be the shop assistant, or the individual who picks up something you have dropped, or the stranger who helps guide you out of a parking space, or the voice at the end of the SANE helpline.  
  2. Slow down, something that is possible even as lock-down eases. Such life-enhancing moments of receiving kindness are often fleeting and can get drowned out by our ordinary everyday lows. We worry about our future. We feel fed up at the sight of yet another load of washing. The answer, backed by research from psychologists such as the happiness expert Professor Paul Dolan, is to notice these kindly interactions instead. Think of them as stop-and-savour moments. And make the magic last longer by giving yourself an extra second or two to stop and say thank you. Then focus and take a mental photograph of that moment, deliberately lingering on what can otherwise feel transient by making it something you really notice.
  3. Embed this new habit to receive the kindness of others by changing how you begin your day: make a promise to yourself each morning to be open to the care and kindness of others. We can miss receiving kindness from others by being in a perpetual rush ourselves, including first thing.
  4. Realise that accepting kindness from others, and being kind to yourself, is good for us. In turn, we then have more to give to others. Being selfish has a bad name, but actually nourishing yourself is the best way to in turn nourish others. Scientists such as Kristen Neff, from the University of Texas, have found that people who practise self-compassion, which is kindness towards oneself, are good at helping others too.
  5. Nourish this kind of inward-looking kindness with affirmations, saying to yourself that you are good enough, and you are allowed to accept the kindness and compliments of others. You might want to write out your affirmations on ‘cue-cards’ and keep them in your bag, or stick them onto a bathroom mirror.
  6. Realise just how important it can be to our psychological health to be more open to our feeling, including feelings of gratitude.. There’s mounting evidence that suppressing your emotions comes at a cost. In one study, James Gross, professor of psychology at Stanford, asked volunteers to watch a gruesome film and either hide their emotional responses to it, or to act naturally. In a follow-up study a different group of volunteers were shown amusing and happy films and asked to do the same.

Suppressing their emotions didn’t make people feel any better – and when they were suppressing positive emotions it actually made them feel less positive, the researchers found. It also required physical effort; the volunteers’ blood pressure went up when they were trying to hide their feelings. Subsequent studies have revealed that emotional suppression impairs your memory, while the people you’re interacting with find it burdensome.

What do I take from all this? That this is a time to stop suppressing our emotions. That we can give and take kindness in our exchanges and connections with others. That we are good enough. That we can not just straightforwardly accept the kindness of others, but it is good for us to do so. That an unexpected gift of this period will be a chance to reset. Next time someone is kind to you, see if you can quite simply say thank you.

Rachel Kelly is a writer, mental health campaigner and Ambassador for SANE. Her memoir about her experience of life-threatening depression Black Rainbow: How words healed me: my journey through depression was a Sunday Times bestseller in 2014 and has resonated ever since. Her latest publication is titled Singing in the Rain: An inspirational workbook – 52 Practical Steps to Happiness and published by Short Books in January 2019.

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