I met a delightful colleague recently who introduced me her term ‘kindfulness’ which I immediately fell in love with. Her idea that so much toxic culture and therefore toxic outcomes results from a failure of kindness, both towards ourselves and towards others. She advocates for the widespread, indiscriminate practice of kindfulness.
“All I know is that my life is better when I assume people are doing their best” – Brene Brown, Rising Strong
I thought about what she said and realised how much truth there was in this. We are geared up to think that people are doing their worst, that we are doing less than our best. We have become so judgemental and focussed on evaluating and critiquing what everyone else is doing. All this is breeding is toxicity. We judge ourselves for not going to the gym or doing the washing and then berate ourselves to the point where we equate not meeting a task as a reflection on the very fabric of who we are. We missed a workout or didn’t make the bed snowballs into ‘I am an inadequate person’.
Likewise with those around us. The guy who cuts in front of us on the motorway is an idiot and can’t drive. The coworker who constantly leaves early is lazy and useless. It becomes so much a part of our moment to moment conversation, thinking and perceptions that everyone around is not living up to some imaginary standards. Their behaviour escalates into a reflection of all of their behaviour and then everyone else’s and as a consequence, we do not bother to show them any kindness or compassion.
It may not come as a surprise that doctors are a competitive bunch but we’re also tribal. Surgeons hang with surgeons, physicians with physicians and so on. The tribalistic behaviour has given rise to some hilarious jokes and stereotypes. Such as my personal favourite, what’s the difference between God and a cardiac surgeon? God doesn’t think he’s a cardiac surgeon. (Boom tish) These jokes are a reflection of how we judge each other without compassion, kindness or understanding and say all heart surgeons are arrogant, all orthopaedic surgeons are dumb, another specialty is useless at something and the list goes on.
What these jokes, then stereotypes and harsh judgements actually foster is an inability to be kind to each other at times. And when we can’t be kind, we get judgemental. When we get judgemental, we get frustrated, angry or aggressive and significantly less tolerant of others, their behaviours, their flaws and even their successes.
Being kind to ourselves and each other is not just about cultivating the manners our grandmothers spoke of. Being kind and compassionate to ourselves and to each other is good for mental and physical health. Training people to be more compassionate increases their well being, alleviates anxiety and improves their ability positively contribute in a social setting. Being kind to others also increases a sense of self-kindness and wellbeing about oneself. We can happily teach people to be kind and compassionate and in the school setting, this can have positive effects on school safety and development of young minds.
At work, where we are subjected to sometimes long hours of toxic culture, being kind is the correct antidote that we should be using. Showing compassion to others difficulties, whether they be in the office or outside of it increase a sense of well being and therefore productivity. Workplaces that are rife with bullying see an increase in the number of sick days taken and employee turnover, not to mention the development of depression and anxiety in those subject to bad behaviour. Self-compassion is associated with less burnout and anxiety at work, all good for the office but also good for the humans involved.
Kindness is not about being a door mat or standing for poor behaviour, performance or systems; letting that slide is probably going to make you feel worse about yourself and more resentful towards that person and therefore less likely to be kind to them. But perhaps we need to stop confusing strength and aggression and vice versa.
It’s fairly safe to say that what we’re doing to ourselves and each other isn’t exactly working, with rates of burnout, depression and anxiety much higher than most people feel comfortable with. Toxic workplaces are miserable and road rage is a term that is now part of the modern vernacular. So let’s try something different. When someone cuts you off, when someone forgets to do their work or when you have a burger instead of a salad, be kind. Notice it, give them and yourselves a break and carry on.
Or even better, practice ‘kindfulness’ actively. Smile at the person opposite you on the train, wish the barista a good day when you get your morning coffee or offer some help to someone who looks like they might need it. It’s not a massive amount to ask and the dividends may be great.