by Natalie Way
If you’re like us, you’re probably all too familiar with quotes about kindness. Some can be genuinely insightful (like the classic “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted” from Aesop’s fable of “The Lion and the Mouse”) and some just sound like cheesy platitudes (“Be the rainbow in someone else’s cloud”). But there’s a reason why these sentiments keep getting passed from Pinterest board to Pinterest board.
Showing kindness—as rewarding as it may be—is hard. Our own insecurities, combined with life’s oh so lovely little stressors, cause us to put up walls. And once those walls are up it can take a lot to tear them down.
Why We Put Up WallsBuilding emotional boundaries is normal. Like, as normal as hitting the snooze button for five more minutes of sleep. Has anyone ever said no to five more minutes of sleep? Absolutely not.
Psychologists link our mental walls to defense mechanisms that we use unconsciously to protect us from anxiety. At first these walls may make you feel safe, at ease, immune to threats you can’t control. In the long run, though, they can isolate us and cause us to miss out on so much: genuine relationships, feelings of self-confidence and a sense of fulfillment in life.
One of the best ways to break these barriers is through small acts of kindness. Yes, this involves stepping outside of your comfort zone, which is easier said than done. But committing to just one thoughtful gesture a day is possible—and it can be gratifying for you too. Being kind can lead to what researchers call a “positive feedback loop” between kindness and happiness. “The practical implications of this positive feedback loop could be that engaging in one kind deed (e.g., taking your mom to lunch) would make you happier, and the happier you feel, the more likely you are to do another kind act,” says Lara Aknin, a graduate student in psychology at the University of British Columbia and an author of a study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies.
So how can you put kindness into practice in your day-to-day life? Grab a sledgehammer (not literally, of course) and start by breaking down those walls.
How to Break Down Emotional Walls
Real talk: Breaking down barriers is not going to happen overnight. It’s a slow process that requires a lot of introspection, so be gentle with yourself and take the time you need.
Licensed psychologist Jonice Webb recommends a five-step approach to breaking down your walls:
1. Open up to trustworthy people in your life about difficult barriers in your life.
2. Make friends with your emotions and tune in to how you're feeling each day, especially when tough stuff comes up.
3. Take your own needs seriously and ask for support when you need it.
4. Let people in and focus on forming meaningful relationships.
5. Get to know who you are and identify your likes, dislikes, values and struggles.
Once those walls start to come down, the idea of living with compassion won’t seem like such an uphill climb, and being kind will be a part of your everyday life.
If you’re ready to take that bold step toward feeling more fulfilled, try daring yourself to put the following small acts of kindness into practice.
Dare to Buy a Stranger a Meal
This one requires a little bit of preparation and extra cash, but it’s one of the most selfless acts you can do. Paying for a stranger’s meal — be it a latte and croissant at your local coffee shop or dinner at your favorite pizza place — is sure to make a profound impact. If you’re a little nervous about pulling this off and not spoiling the surprise (and we don’t blame you, it can be nerve-wracking!), wait until you receive your bill. That way, you can mention your plan to the waiter and they can bring you the stranger’s bill to pay at the end of your meal.
Dare to Text Your Friend You Haven’t Talked to in Years
Keeping in touch with every friend can be tough. But there’s something so rewarding that comes from sending a quick ‘What’s up with you?’ text to a friend you’ve lost contact with. The fear here is that a text like this can seem random or your friend might not respond. But no matter what happens, making the first move will give you the satisfaction of making (or trying to make) a connection with someone who meant something to you in the past. Who knows? You might rekindle that friendship and have some more fun times together.
Dare to Let Someone Have the Last Word
There’s something so … delicious about getting the last word in during an argument. We’ve all been there. But if you find yourself a odds with someone — whether it’s a sibling, coworker, or a stranger on social media — try challenging yourself to honor their perspective. Vying for the last word means you’re only focusing on your side of the argument, and that probably won’t help solve the problem. But if you can practice kindness by backing off and letting go of your ego you might reach a resolution quicker — or, at the very least, avoid getting into a bigger argument.
Dare to Make a Connection
A few times a week we’re bound to pass the same couple of people that we’ve probably never stopped to meet. A simple act of kindness could be to introduce yourself to the barista you see every morning at your coffee shop or the neighbor who walks their dog on the same route as you. We’re not saying you have to become BFFs, but making a connection is linked to happiness, health and even a longer life.
So, we encourage you to take on these dares and consider making small acts of kindness part of your regular routine. It might involve being a little more vulnerable than you’re used to, but there’ll be plenty of payoff for both you and the people in your life.
Natalie Way is a writer and editor based in New York City. She has experience covering real estate, interior design, and lifestyle.