Whether it involves family, romance, or friendship, a relationship with toxic patterns of behavior can change how you perceive yourself and other people. And particularly when it’s abusive, it can mess with your perceptions of kindness. I’ll give you a few examples:
Kindness Becomes Unreliable and Short-Lived
Often, there are moments of kindness even in an unhealthy relationship, or periods of time when kindness and consideration are on the ascendant. You may feel, if not happiness, then relief during those periods. Sometimes, you allow yourself to hope that things will get better in the long-run.
When those hopes are dashed often enough, you perceive kindness as something that isn’t a consistent part of relationships. You see it instead as fleeting and provisional. Even if you walk on eggshells in an attempt to maintain peace and avoid any outburst or explosive conflict, it won’t last.
The idea of being in a relationship of mutual consistent kindness may come to seem unrealistic. And when you experience kindness from others, you have a difficult time trusting its longevity.
Kindness Serves As a Get-Out-of-Jail Free Card
In a toxic relationship, acts of kindness may become an effective way of giving cruelty a pass. If you complain about mistreatment, you’re reminded about the times (or time) that the other person was kind to you, did things for you. How can you be so ungrateful? How dare you complain about anything?
Kindness can also be a way of smoothing over a nasty fight or an incident of abuse without having to deal with any of the underlying issues. Instead of a meaningful change for the better, what you get is a gift and some good behavior, at least for a short while. Until the next explosion.
In these situations, kindness comes across as superficial. Like papering over a wall where mold is spreading or the wood is rotting.
Kindness Communicates an Insult
Kindness no longer seems very kind when you realize that someone is helping you just because they’ve characterized you as incompetent. They’re telling you, without necessarily saying the words, that you’re incapable of doing all kinds of things. This sort of “kindness” becomes a way of diminishing your abilities or keeping you from developing.
Kindness Performed for You Isn’t About You
You may come to realize that acts of kindness are more like acts of self-aggrandizement or a performance put on for others. Kindness may be limited to occasions when there’s a third party, an audience for the selflessness.
The kindness may also only occur when the other person wants something from you. Otherwise, you may as well not exist.
How Can You rethink Your Perceptions of Kindness?
A toxic relationship may make you more wary about other people’s motives, and this cautiousness has its benefits for sure. The problem is when you can’t detect or trust kindness when it’s sincere.
What are some of the things you can do to reconsider your perceptions of kindness and open yourself to sincerely kind behavior? Although the following suggestions are broad, and aren’t 100% effective in all situations, they’re at least a starting point:
- Look at acts of kindness in a wider context, not in isolation. (Pay attention to how someone interacts with you as a whole – and see if the kindness is embedded in patterns of behavior that are damaging or abusive.)
- Allow yourself time to get to know people better. (For instance, if someone you have just met keeps pressuring you for intimacy, closeness, moving in together immediately, etc. you can definitely take a step back and regard them with caution.)
- Figure out the things you want from relationships in your life – what mutual giving, trust, and love look like to you. What do you consider unacceptable treatment (to receive or inflict on others)?
- Distinguish between kindness expressed in concrete actions or speech, vs. a fuzzier “kindly feeling.” There are people who claim to be kind, but their kindness doesn’t seem to manifest in consistent thoughtful behavior. It seems like they’re paying lip service to the idea of kindness.
- Work on improving how you communicate, both as a speaker and as a listener. This includes strengthening your ability to stand up for yourself and explain your thoughts.
- Also, work on communicating well with yourself. For example, how do you talk to yourself when you’re struggling? Do you speak to yourself reasonably, or do you tear into yourself and chronically put yourself down? Even if there are various aspects of your life that you’d like to change – and even if you’re full of regret or disappointment about how things are going – there’s no need to be horrible to yourself or to ignore anything that’s good or that has good potential. Treating yourself horribly may “feel normal” by this point, but it doesn’t have to be your normal. With practice, you can start replacing horrible put-downs with more measured and nuanced speech (avoiding extremes of negativity without going into extremes of unrealistic positivity).