Emotional Debts and the Expectation of Kindness

Illustration by Katherene Quiteno.

I recently found myself very frustrated after an interaction with a man who had asked me out. And for once, I wasn’t blaming him for being a pawn of the patriarchal establishment. I was frustrated with myself, because I had consented to a hug when I consciously didn’t want to. I had given my consent simply because the other person had been “nice enough” to me.

As a woman, I have been socialized to bear the emotional burden of the people I interact with– whether they are complete strangers or people I love and want to support. I have been told to be smiling and forthcoming, irrespective of my mental/emotional/physical circumstances. I have been told to act gratefully every time somebody shows interest in my physical appearance.  I have been told that womanly grace comes from a place of humility and kindness; overcompensating kindness for existing, towards everyone but me.

The concept of “kindness” invades many aspects of those socialized as women, including the sphere of consent. I’ve been told to reject insistent men in clubs gently, because an upfront rejection might “hurt” their feelings. Never mind that they are the ones making me uncomfortable by persistently pestering me. And never mind that the friendly stranger may not be friendly at all, the threat of violence constantly looming over the prospect of me refusing their complement.  

Years of being told to put other people’s emotions before mine made me hug the guy who asked me out. I felt guilty for rejecting him. Even though I know I have a right to reject people, I felt indebted to him for finding me attractive, and expressing said attraction in a kind way. The hug was conciliatory—a way of alleviating the emotional burden he had heaped on me.

That is why it is important to examine our criterion for kindness. The problem with eliciting an interaction with a stranger is in the assumption that everyone wants to engage in human interaction all the time. If it’s ‘harmless’ friendly flirting, then there’s nothing wrong with it, right? But we can’t always read somebody’s mind to assess whether they are in the emotional state to interact openly. If someone has earphones in and are walking quickly, it is not the best idea to stop them for some friendly flirting. As big as our smile may be, and as flattering as our compliments, we are coercing the person into a space that they want to avoid. That is a way of blatantly disrespecting somebody’s personal boundaries. That is not kindness, but an expectation of kindness through coercion.

Everybody has an individual understanding of what it means to be kind. However, like anything else, it is useful to be critical of where our definition of kindness comes from, to arrive at more individual meaning. More than that, though, it is essential to recognize where we are in this process of unlearning toxic behavior and forgive ourselves for falling short of our own expectations. In a society that constantly teaches us to hate our bodies, our minds and our lives, the only person who we owe kindness to is ourself.

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