This week is Mental Health Awareness Week; the theme selected by the Mental Health Foundation is “kindness”. Their reasons for choosing this theme are moving and compelling.
During this extraordinary time of isolation, challenging relationships, lost work and lost family, even small acts of kindness can make a significant difference to our wellbeing. But kindness is a concept that suffers from glib misinterpretation and disingenuousness. Somehow, being kind isn’t definitive enough. It’s vague and a little soft. It’s also been hived off from strength and success – winners aren’t recognised for being kind.
You’ll have struggled to miss the outpouring of emotion and analysis at the death of TV presenter Caroline Flack earlier this year. Some of it was serious and heartfelt, but even at the time, some felt exploitative.
As with any suicide, the reasons are complex and can’t ever be fully understood from the outside.
But however cautious we must be on the details of this terrible incident, on the broader issues, there are lessons. One which social media and the press seemed to pick up on was the lack of “kindness” in online interactions with Ms Flack.
In a social media post at the end of 2019, she shared the common meme, “In a world where you can be anything, be kind”. Of course, we can’t know the extent to which she felt the victim of unkind behaviour, but this message does suggest one of two things – the importance of kindness to others, and also to yourself. In one or both respects, it seems as if Caroline Flack didn’t receive the kindness she needed.
Kindness is open to interpretation. The old refrain “You have to be cruel to be kind” has fallen out of favour – it’s hard to think of a less appropriate way to generate kindness – but some thinking clings to the idea that people don’t know what’s good for them.
Critics still justify objectively unkind behaviour as “telling the truth” that someone “needs to hear”. For some, the motivation is heartfelt – they do feel like a dose of something cruel will help the person in the longer term. It ties back to strength. Kindness alone isn’t enough; we need the slap before the hug.
And being kind is difficult. It means different things at the same time. Is it kind to share a drink with a lonely friend struggling with alcohol addiction? On one level, yes – they may crave the company and the valuable opportunity to interact without judgment. And yet, from a health perspective, it’s obviously unkind to exacerbate a condition that may kill them.
To the outsider, Caroline Flack had an enviable existence. But obviously she was deeply troubled. Her life was lived in a very public sphere where people felt able to comment and critique every aspect of her actions and appearance. It’s difficult for the rest of us to comprehend a life lived this way.
Amongst the barrage of comments, how could anyone safely filter only the kind messages?
All acts of kindness are bound up in two things – the act itself and the emotional impact on the person being kind. How positive does that glimmer of appreciation feel when someone recognises your act of kindness, however small? Maybe you baked biscuits for an isolated family, or perhaps you ran a charity marathon in your back garden. However grand the act, the feeling is the same.
An act is kind when the recipient acknowledges it. You may not witness their gratitude, but innately, you know when you’ve been genuinely kind.
We know that social media is fraught with danger for anyone with the propensity to find life challenging. You can run into people with problems of their own, using the internet to deflect or distract from their anxieties, fears and anger.
Some people just feel emboldened to be nasty online – the very opposite of the kindness Caroline Flack called for. Of course, that’s seems to have become the nature of modern life, but hidden behind the outpourings of unkindness, it’s hard to imagine the angry poster feeling comfortable with being kind to themselves.
That lack of personal kindness, in an anonymous environment, spills into bile and vitriol towards others.
And being kind to yourself can be by far the hardest thing. Many people, especially those with mental health challenges, battle with an internal narrative that’s intensely cruel: “You’ll never be good enough, you’ve failed, you’re unpopular, too fat, too thin.” Many forms of the same message.
It’s much easier to help with your neighbour’s shopping than it is to recognise that those voices are telling you things you’d never dream of saying to someone else.
Perhaps we should begin Mental Health Awareness Week with a look inwards. Make our first act of kindness one to ourselves. Whether it’s forgiveness for a feeling we didn’t want to have, or just allowing ourselves a moment to live without expectation, personal kindness can offer a way to assess the things we do to others.
Everyone can make mistakes, misjudge a mood or allow their feelings to run away from them. If we remember to respond with kindness towards ourselves, we’re much more likely to do the same to other people.
So, in a world where you can be kind, be sure to begin with being kind to yourself.