Have you ever seen an animal that cringes when you raise a hand to pet it?
We all know why: Someone hurt the poor thing. Not just once. Over and over, until it is sure of the meaning of a raised hand. It anticipates the pain to come with your approach. You can often tell whether a man or a woman was the abuser by its reaction to either.
For all our opposable thumbs and higher-functioning brains, we are not too different from these animals. In fact, one could argue that this stored knowledge is a critical and brilliant part of our brain made to keep us alive, to warn us of danger, to inspire a quick escape from it, even if we don’t have the means to carry out that impulse. A pretty obvious survival mechanism.
Sometimes the most obvious answers don’t occur to me.
I couldn’t place my extreme discomfort, antipathy even, of kindness some years back. It had grown on me over time, so that one day its form solidified, and I didn’t know where to turn at a compliment, a present, a favor, or a hand at my back.
The first hint of it, at least that I recollect, was close to a decade ago when my brothers-in-law gave me offhand compliments. Par for the course in their households. A freakish anomaly in mine.
“Your hair smells so good!”
“Oh, Sara, you look so pretty in that dress!”
“You have a beautiful smile!”
I cringed and shuddered on the inside. Sometimes I even smiled weakly and left the room to hide until the sensation passed. I punished myself for their compliments, assuming my aversion was evidence of weakness and emotional instability. In fact, I was handed that solution by another and gobbled it up.
“You’re just insecure,” he said. “It’s nobody’s fault that you think so poorly of yourself.”
I couldn’t “receive” compliments. I was filled with self-loathing that I’d created. It was my fault.
It took time, and increasingly strong reactions (though I worked hard to constrain these to internal, rather than external ones) for me to realize that I was responding to my known reality:
In my life, kindness was a setup. It set the stage for drawing me back into a relationship, assuaging my concerns through gaslighting, projecting the blame for everything on me, and offering me a tiny dose of hope before we began the downhill part of the cycle again (wherein I was shown with brilliant cruelty, what a worthless piece of trash I was).
Have you ever noticed that the people who have the most contempt for the victims are the ones who did the damage? It is like crushing a butterfly in your hands and blaming it for being fragile.
I confided in a close friend after getting into a state one day a couple of years ago. A man had been kind to me, without demanding anything in exchange, simply for the sake of goodness. He reeked of sincerity and I responded by breaking into a cold sweat, then an explosion of tears once I was alone.
“I hate it. I wish I’d never met him!” I screech-cried into the phone.
She did what wise, loving friends do and asked questions. The most important one: “Why do you think you react like this? Why do you go to “I wish I’d never met him” when he’s only done something kind to you?”
“I…” I halted and thought carefully. “I’m scared. I don’t believe it. It feels so foreign. I know what to do with hatred and meanness. They are old companions. I don’t know what to do with kindness. I’m scared. It feels like a setup. I’m waiting for the hammer to come down and crush me.”
She was silent, letting me sit in that revelation.
“It’s a cop-out, really,” I admitted. “I won’t accept kindness because I’m scared.”
“That’s good,” she answered. “So, what are you going to do?”
“Let him be kind to me,” I resolved. “Let good men be kind to me.”
I have to revisit this small, terrified place inside of me whenever kindness stirs it back up. Whenever admiration knocks, I find that little, weeping girl in my heart and hold her to my chest, soothing her with,
“You are safe. He/she is not ______. You don’t have to be afraid anymore. You know how to protect yourself and this is not one you need protecting from.”
Sometimes I call that friend up and run a scenario by her. She asks more questions,
“Good people don’t think they have power over you if you give them a compliment. Do you feel that way?”
“No, of course not.”
“So, what are you going to do?”
“I’m going to be kind to others without fearing that will give them power over me.”
“Do you feel like people owe you something when you’re kind to them? Are you kind to people just to get something from them?”
“No, that would never occur to me. I am kind because I want to be.”
“So, I’m going to let people help me and not feel like an inconvenience or debt is hanging over my head.”
My experiences and questions like these challenged the “reality” I’d lived and reframed it into something much more hopeful and freeing.
I find it ironic, or perhaps appropriate, that I could never understand the meaning of that verse, “There is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out all fear” until recently and it wasn’t through study, meditation, or a sermon. It was through experience. There’s no fear of harm when you’re safe. Kindness is an extension of another’s love, not a means to exploit or wreak more cruelty.
Now I see that tenderness is one of my greatest strengths, and kindness has become a friend.
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