But First, Kindness

Melissa McMillan sitting on a couch in her pajamas, holding a mug of coffee.

I’ve always been the “nice girl.” It’s a label I’ve carried for as long as I can remember. 

Back in my high school French class, I remember being voted “Mademoiselle Sympa” by my classmates, which translates to “Miss Nice” in English. And, throughout my 32 years on this planet, I’ve had numerous people tell me I’m one of the nicest people they know. 

Of course, all of these people were paying me a sincere compliment. And, of course, I received each compliment with great appreciation. I mean, who wouldn’t? 

But, I’ve come to realize, “nice” is not really what I want to be. Nice is a substitute for the real thing. It’s like a Kraft Single: delicious on a grilled cheese, but you wouldn’t serve it on a cheese board alongside a bottle of wine. 

The real thing – the thing I really want to be known for – is kindness. 

At first thought, kindness and niceness seem like the same thing. But, as a recovering nice person, I can assure you they are different. In the Merriam-Webster Thesaurus, kind and nice are not even listed as direct synonyms of one another; they are listed as “related words.”

If you look up “nice” in the dictionary, you’ll find words like pleasing, agreeable, socially acceptable, appropriate, and polite. Yet, if you look up “kind,” you’ll find words like sympathetic, helpful, gentle, affectionate, and loving. 

One sounds like obligation; the other sounds like love. 

In her book, The Disease to Please, Harriet B. Braiker, Ph.D. says:

“Being nice is shorthand for a full-blown belief system that dictates how to act with other people so that bad things won’t happen to you.”

Niceness is not just trying to please people; it’s trying to control people. It’s trying to control outcomes, which never really works the way you think it will. As Braiker goes on to say: 

“Unfortunately, though, the formula doesn’t always work…While they may not deserve it, nice people are sometimes rejected, abandoned, disdained, disliked, or hurt by others. And, nice people also are frequently beset by seemingly self-imposed emotional burdens such as worry, anxiety, depression, and even panic attacks.”

Again, as a recovering nice person, I can attest to this: nice does not equal safe. In fact, being nice has often lead me to overextend myself and to worry myself sick in an attempt to please others. Not to mention, I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been preyed upon or taken advantage of by people who perceive niceness as weakness. 

What I’ve learned (and am still learning) is being nice will not save you from the pain of being human. This is not to say that kindness will save you either. It won’t. But, unlike niceness, that was never the point of kindness in the first place.

Kindness is a way to move through the pain rather than avoid it. It’s a way to love yourself and to “love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s a posture of compassion and grace that unites us in our shared humanity. 

Melissa McMillan sitting on a couch in her pajamas, holding a mug of coffee. The text reads, "But First, Kindness."

Photo Credit: Debra Snell Photography

I do want to make it clear, at this point, that I am not telling you you can never get angry. All emotions are allowed at all times. However, you are still responsible for your behavior (how you act and react) in states of anger. You can be angry and be kind to yourself by allowing yourself to fully feel your anger instead of repressing it. You can also be angry and be kind to someone else by simply stating your anger without screaming or becoming physically violent. Anger and kindness are not mutually exclusive. 

Kindness is also not a mandate to forgive someone who has wronged you, nor is it meant to excuse bad behavior or any form of abuse. Forgiveness is never mandatory. It’s a choice you can make for you (NOT for the other person), when and if you’re ready, and without reconciliation. 

Furthermore, one of the kindest things you can do in any relationship is draw firm boundaries. And if those boundaries are not honored with the utmost respect, the next kindest thing you can do is exit the relationship. As I’ve said before, firmness and kindness are also not mutually exclusive. 

Again, feeling like you can never get angry or feeling like you just need to accept whatever crap sandwich is fed to you – that’s being nice. And we’re not here for that. 

We’re also not here for hate. We’re not here to hate ourselves or others. There’s already too much of that, and, in case you haven’t noticed, it hasn’t gotten us anywhere. Hatred will always keep us stuck as individuals and as a society. But kindness moves us forward. 

Kindness says, “I may not understand, but I’m going to try.”

Kindness says, “I’m human, too, and it’s hard. So let’s be gentle with ourselves.”

Kindness says, “What does the world need from me, and how much am I willing to give right now?”

Kindness says, “No.”

Kindness says, “Would you like a hug?”

Kindness says, “If I were love incarnate (P.S. You are!), what would I do?”

Kindness is third way thinking. It’s not a fork in the road – a choice between taking the nice route or the mean route; it’s a completely different path altogether. It’s having a “but first, kindness” mentality. 

I’m overwhelmed, I’m worked-up, I’m hurt, I’m tired, I’m jealous, I’m judging, I’m proud, I’m happy…but first, kindness. 

But first, I’m going to ask for help. But first, I’m going to take a breath. But first, I’m going to feel my feelings. But first, I’m going to rest. But first, I’m going to stop comparing. But first, I’m going to try to relate. But first, I’m going to celebrate. But first, I’m going to be grateful. 

Understanding the difference between niceness and kindness has been life changing for me. It’s opened my eyes to my own failed attempts to belong by being as socially acceptable and accommodating as possible. It’s also helped me to see that I can be all of the things I want to be – generous, loving, and empathetic – without selling my soul or sacrificing myself on the alter of burnout. And, I firmly believe, understanding the difference can do that for you, too. 

You don’t have to be nice to belong. You don’t have to sacrifice your health or sanity to please others. You don’t have to be mean to prove your worth (being mean only proves you’re capable of being mean). You are enough. Your belonging will always be fundamental to your humanity, so the only thing left for you to do is be kind.


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