Protecting the Impulse to Be Kind

When I was a sorority girl in college, we all took turns on phone duty – answering the house phone lines, paging girls, or taking messages when calls came in. But in the January of 1989, it wasn’t just guys calling for dates, we had a lot of calls coming in from journalists who wanted pictures of a girl who had been in our sorority in the 1970’s.

Florida was about to executive Ted Bundy and one of his claimed victims was Georgannn Hawkins, a young woman who had been a Theta at the University of Washington. The way I heard the story was that she was studying for spring term finals with her boyfriend who was a Beta. She’d left the Beta fraternity house, which was on the same block as our sorority about 5 or 6 houses down, about midnight one early June night and walked down the well-lit alley that ran behind our houses. She’d gotten her keys into the back door of the Theta house when Ted Bundy had approached her with a ruse to help him put his books in his car.

We never gave out the photo to the journalists that called but I was curious enough to go downstairs in the sorority to find the picture of Georgann Hawkins. A really pretty girl with lustrous brown hair parted in the middle. A young woman who died after she was willing to help someone else.

I remember this being hard to take in at 19-years-old. That kindness, something that was so highly prioritized in my home growing up, could be preyed upon in such an awful way.

Now more than 30 years later, I have all sorts of examples of kindness gone wrong. Listening to the news gives plenty, as does personal experience for me, my friends and family, although thankfully none so dramatic. After all, statistically speaking it is unlikely that we or our loved ones will die at the hands of a serial killer. But pretty likely we all will cross paths with sociopaths, narcissists, scammers, or hustlers.

But even so, kindness is still reported to be pervasive. When the University of Sussex conducted the largest in-depth study on kindness in 2021 that one of the findings was “Three-quarters of people told us they received kindness from close friends or family quite often or nearly all the time. And when we asked about the most recent time someone was kind to them, 16% of people said it was within the last hour and a further 43% said it was within the last day. Whatever people’s age or wherever they lived, kindness was very common.”

Studies have shown that being kind increases our well-being. People who volunteer live 20-40% longer. Kindness, whether on the giving or receiving end, helps us to report higher levels of well-being.

So how do we stay kind? Turns out there’s a strong link between setting boundaries and being able to be compassionate and empathetic. When we know what we can and cannot do, and communicate what is and is not okay for us, it seems we can refill our tanks more easily because we’re not wasting energy doing things that we know are not okay for us.

“I was recently struggling with a boundary issue (yes, still) and I told my therapist that I refuse to go back to saccharine – that I like solid better. Before I really understood how impossible it is to be compassionate to myself or others when people are taking advantage of me and when I’m prioritizing being liked over being free. I was much sweeter but less authentic. Now I’m kinder and less judgmental. But also firmer and more solid. Occasionally salty.”

Brené Brown in Atlas of the Heart

That testament from Brené Brown as well as the story of Georgann Hawkins makes sense to me. I’m much freer to go out of my way to be kind when I’m doing it for the right reasons and in a way that doesn’t go against my intuition. From personal experience I can say this – my desire to be kind has survived some difficult situations because it’s part of the open way that I want to meet the world. I’ve learned that kindness is its own reward in its ability to frame hopeful and inspiring outcomes. But if we meet in an alley, I probably won’t offer to carry your books.

I’d love for you to check out and follow my latest project – The Heart of the Matter. It’s a blog of fantastic writers and thinkers delving into what matters in life (and also what doesn’t). You can find it at https://sharingtheheartofthematter.com

For most posts like this – a little story-telling mixed with philosophy, please visit my personal blog at https://wynneleon.wordpress.com 

And if you want to follow me, you can find me on Instagram and Twitter @wynneleon

(featured photo from Pexels)


25 thoughts on “Protecting the Impulse to Be Kind

  1. I found myself nodding along. When the con man entered my life, he weaponized my kindness against me. I then learned discernment before kindness.

    1. Wow, VJ – the words “weaponized” and “discernment” really resonate with me. Thanks for adding that wisdom – discernment before kindness. Yes!

  2. This! “But if we meet in an alley, I probably won’t offer to carry your books.” 😉 Duly noted, LOL! And yes, I agree you — all the way. Knowing what (and who, sometimes) to say ‘no’ to makes everything else easier — especially, as you said, refilling our own tanks, fueling up for our own journey w/o toting along other people’s ‘stuff’ (errr…books!). xo, Wynne! ❤

    1. Knowing what and who — yes, yes, yes! Such a wise addition to add the “who” to the equation. And given that qualifier, I’d probably offer to carry YOUR books. 🙂

  3. “there’s a strong link between setting boundaries and being able to be compassionate and empathetic”

    This is a great point. No matter what we do in life, as you said, we need to know what we can and cannot do for someone, and there is no shame in telling someone, “I’m sorry, but I’m unable to help you.”

    I have found that sometimes it is better not to give a reason, otherwise the person might take that as an opportunity to challenge the reason. I have experienced that myself with people who either have no sense of boundaries or who are manipulators and have tried to get me to do their bidding. If people still push and push, that’s our cue to understand that a sense of entitlement over other people’s time isn’t enough reason to cave to pressures.

    When I have caved, I’ve regretted it. I found I was treated poorly and expected to do far more than I was physically capable of managing, so I learned to speak firmly but pleasantly when I gave my refusal.

    1. A really good point about not giving reasons and holding firm to the boundaries and not caving. For me, this is a continual work in progress but I’m heartened to know that its such important work to continuing to be able to care and be kind. Thanks for the great comment, Tamara!

  4. This was always a hard lesson for me to teach my kids. How to teach them to be kind, but to have limit? It doesn’t seem to go together, but it’s so important, because we live in a crazy world. I’m still not sure I handle this all that well myself. It’s such a gut thing. I think you’ve nailed it though Wynne. You give me a lot to think about . . . and oh yea, no dark alleys, no helping with books. By the way, that had to be such a crazy call to get on the Sorority phone. I was in fraternity, I can remember getting strange calls, but usually people looking for a brother or friend, but nothing like that.

    1. Oh yeah, teaching kids boundaries. You are way ahead of me on that one. Yes, such a gut thing – so it seems part of the lesson is teaching them to listen to their guts?

      And yeah, it was a crazy call. I didn’t know that history before those calls came in and it certainly was eye-opening about the places we walked all the time! And for me to think about what I would say “yes” to.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Brian!

      1. The craziest call I ever picked up was from the football coach trying to get a hold of one of my brothers in the middle of one of our parties. My friend knew the coach and was getting his help on a paper. I thought the call was a prank. I’m just glad I didn’t hang up the phone. Ugh.

  5. I love when you say – I’ve learned that kindness is its own reward in its ability to frame hopeful and inspiring outcomes. But if we meet in an alley, I probably won’t offer to carry your books – I believe it really work like that. Thank you for the beautiful post Wynne !

  6. What a fascinating story, Wynne! I was on the edge of my seat. 😃 Love the lessons you draw, both from Brene Brown and the Bundy victims. And this! “I was much sweeter but less authentic. Now I’m kinder and less judgmental.” That’s fantastic! And loved the ending too. 😊

  7. Some folks are just born kind. Others, like myself, have to work a little harder at it. I hope to get better at seeking out and acting on those little urges to perform random acts of kindness. Still a work in progress, I am! Come to think of it, I guess we all are, in one way or another! Another lovely post, Wynne!

    1. Yes, we are all works in progress. Well said, my friend. And the boundary/kindness thing is a hard one in my opinion. Thank goodness we have things to keep working on so we don’t get bored! 🙂

  8. One thing I have been playing with these days in my co-regulative interactions with people is differentiating kindness from being nice. And to appreciate your point, about boundaries- being kind to the self is a healthy self-care place to prioritize. Congratulations on your new venture. Looking forward to checking that out. Thank you Wynne.

  9. “No good deed goes unpunished.” That saying sometimes proves to be true, but the impulse to be kind is stronger than our fears. We may get hurt sometimes, but hopefully never as seriously as the college girl who became Ted Bundy’s victim.

    A very thought-provoking post, Wynne. I agree with the idea that we do need to protect ourselves with good boundaries. Interesting how you linked the two concepts, boundaries and kindness. <3

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