I grew up believing that giving to others was the only way I could be kind. If I did not give to others, I would be deemed mean, and unworthy of connection. In elementary school, I was seen as “too nice” by my peers. I was the kid who brought a fully equipped pencil case to school and unquestionably allowed my classmates to borrow any of the stationery they wanted. There were many times my classmates failed to return my things and when they asked again, I gave again. I thought saying “no” would mean I
was no longer nice. Who would I be if I was no longer the girl who was “nice”? At the beginning I took it as a compliment, but over time, it became more than that. I did not know who I was without that identity. This association between constantly giving to others and the “nice” identity taught me that neglecting my own needs was the only way I could be kind. In fact, I began to believe that being kind meant pretending I could not even have needs to begin with.
Beyond school, the beliefs and image I had of myself as a female of Chinese ethnicity also contributed to the pattern of neglecting my own needs. I grew up learning that communicating my needs would inconvenience others and disrupt my relationships. I believed that my role was to accommodate others’ needs wherever I could, leaving no room to recognize my own. As a child, I witnessed my mom modelling these beliefs in the ways she prioritized other family members’ needs above her own. I also witnessed this at school where I and my other female peers were praised for being quiet, cooperative, and good listeners. I did not have an easily accessible image of a self confident, strong, and self-respected Chinese female; instead, I internalized the image of being respectfully quiet and focused on maintaining positive emotional ties with others. I became familiar with downplaying my needs by default, romanticized selflessness, and believed it was one of the only ways I could be kind and maintain the persona that others expected of me.
A path forward.
This pattern of giving and dismissing how much I received from others was what I believed was kindness. As a young adult in my mid-twenties, I am now learning that an important aspect of kindness is recognizing that I have a variety of needs: emotional, physical, intellectual, and social. Paying more attention to my needs is actually improving my sense of self and my sense of connection to others. It also enhances my ability to provide kindness to others-not kindness from a desire to be just the “nice” girl, but from a place of genuine care and self-respect.
Naming my personal needs.
Identifying and being aware of my needs has been an important step in helping me communicate my expectations in relationships. Instead of talking about my needs, I can often make the mistake of staying quiet and becoming overly fearful of disappointing or inconveniencing the other person. I deal with this by pretending my needs do not exist and find reasons why the other person cannot meet them. However, despite ignoring my needs, they still linger, and I often (unknowingly) wait for the other person to notice my unmet need. When they do not, this can result in an accumulation of resentment. Being able to become aware of, and acknowledge my needs in relationships can help minimize this deep well of resentment that can deteriorate my relationships from the inside.
Recently when my roommate got a boyfriend and started having him over at our place every weekend, I initially thought (and wanted to believe) I was okay with it. I rationalized this decision by recognizing that he was her boyfriend, this was a new relationship she was excited about, and that having him at our place allowed her to spend that much quality time with him. I also told myself that it was also her living space, so she was entitled to having who she wanted over. Despite drawing these explanations, I quietly grew resentful towards her. When I finally told my roommate my concerns, we were able to compromise. In the end, it was largely my responsibility to communicate my need. Otherwise, my roommate was oblivious, and my resentment just made me distance myself from her.
Self awareness. Learning to identify and label my emotions of discomfort (e.g. annoyance, frustration) helped me recognize a potentially unmet need. Listening to these emotions rather than dismissing them allows me to move forward with initiating a hard conversation. Before I could even motivate myself to identify my need, I had to recognize and accept that I was angry in the first place. I also had to remember that I am an introvert who prefers environments with low levels of stimulation, and that this need was being neglected. That process of identifying and naming the need in itself was (and still is) challenging. Indeed, without acknowledging these needs, I would not have been able to have that conversation with my roommate.
Taking healthy risks. It’s scary putting needs out there because you never know how the other person will respond. I try to remind myself that the point is not to please the other person, but to acknowledge my needs and refrain from resentment and judgment. In this case, the point of expressing my discomfort and anger to my roommate was not for the purpose of convincing her to no longer have her boyfriend over, but it was to remind myself that the apartment was my space as much as it was hers. More importantly, it was to remind me that my needs are important and are worth voicing.
Making room for me in relationships. The times I noticed and stated my needs, have allowed others to also accommodate and practice giving kindness. In return, I could fill my cup and have energy to give genuine kindness to others. It is hard to realize that not everyone is going to step up and meet me halfway, or even hear my needs in a given relationship. Before naming a need, I try to remind myself that the main goal is to respect and advocate for myself, not to change or evoke a specific behaviour or response from the other person.
Good support. Having a listening ear and validation helped me feel acknowledged in my need. I am always grateful that my feelings are validated by family and close friends. Validation (the act of supporting another’s reality as they see it), provides the emotional boost and support needed to identify a need. In turn, that support can help with the motivation to take the risk and ask.
Oftentimes kindness is pictured as a grandiose act of service for another. However, I learned that kindness can be practiced in small ways throughout my daily life, and in ways that match my values. I am learning that I cannot be genuinely kind if I am giving from a place of fear, of wanting to please, and of needing others’ approval.
In fact, I find that I am the most kind in the relationships where I am comfortable to be honest about my struggles, shortcomings, and frustrations. I want to genuinely be there for others as I am, not who they want me to be. This is not easy for me to practice, but I believe this kindness-where I show up as my honest self, is what I need to be truly engaged and supportive in all my relationships.