Opinion: Kindness can work wonders. Especially for the vulnerable
18 May 2020
In a piece for The Observer at the start of Mental Health Awareness Week, Professor Peter Fonagy (UCL Psychology & Language Sciences) write about the week's theme of kindness.
“Be kind” has been a recurring message in 2020. Our gratitude to the key workers at the front line of the pandemic shows how much we value kindness. Yet kindness is not always easy to sustain, and as a society we seem to struggle to be kind to certain groups.
Thinking seriously about why this might be can help us to understand both the nature of psychological distress and our difficulties with reaching out to those in need.
Kindness is more than mere sentiment. Real kindness and concern require us to understand how the other person came to think and feel the way they do, no matter how alien or difficult that might seem to us.
Our capacity to see both our own and others’ point of view is the essence of our humanity, which from an evolutionary point of view has enabled our planetary ascendance. Our species’ dominance is the result of our capacity to collaborate, which allows us to transmit and develop complex ideas.
Successful collaboration requires us to tune in to the social cues that tell us whether the people we meet are trustworthy. While collaboration is essential, so is vigilance, because not everyone is trustworthy. But when vigilance dominates, we close our minds.
When we are looking for people who we can trust to teach us what we need to know, one of the key clues is whether they seem concerned about us and interested in what we think and feel, even if our views differ from theirs. In other words, are they showing kindness?
Teachers who show consistent awareness of their students’ concerns are the most likely to succeed in getting them to learn. The teacher I remember best presented each of us with a book at the end of each term that she chose as best suited to our character. I could never quite figure out why she chose the books she gave to me, but I remember her lessons, along with the kindness her action conveyed.
Kindness overcomes our natural and necessary vigilance and opens our minds. Trust creates a human chain for transporting items of culture across generations.
Tragically, those whose experiences have left them least able to trust – people with mental health issues, drug problems, homeless people and yes, sometimes people from other cultures and ethnic groups – are often excluded from this human chain. Those of us who have not experienced the challenges they have faced can find their suspicions hard to understand, and we struggle to be kind to them. We regard them as problematic and threatening. They are “alien”, “unengaged” and “hard to reach”.
Stigma is the cruellest of social forces because it works in two directions. While we may want to be kind and show concern, if we can’t understand the other person’s concerns then our good intentions will not penetrate their defensive barriers. A traumatised child feels obliged to remain hyper-vigilant just to survive. The result is often a vicious circle of social disengagement, distrust and withdrawal: our tolerance of their needs and the challenges they present is limited, and we withdraw kindness when it is needed most. This is the challenge we face when thinking about mental health and social inclusion.
Study after study shows that children who have been maltreated struggle in school, even when surrounded by well-meaning adults striving to show “kindness”. Their capacity to trust is so damaged that learning becomes almost impossible. Often these children are stigmatised as “troublemakers”. But it is not motivation that they lack. It is the kindness that springs from genuinely understanding their perspective.
Tomorrow is the start of Mental Health Awareness week. Its theme this year is kindness. It’s important because our ability to think about other people’s minds has enabled us to create a shared social world in which we can think together, trust and cooperate. The pandemic has reminded us that only by thinking together can we hope to survive and flourish, and that excessive vigilance breeds lack of concern, unkindness and social irresponsibility. We need to apply these lessons more widely, both for our collective mental health and to help the most vulnerable and isolated.
This article was originally published in The Observer on 17 May 2020.
Professor Peter Fonagy