I have been trying my whole adult life to make sure other people “don't mistake my kindness for weakness."
It's exhausting. I'm exhausted.
I understand the point of this phrase, and that the people in my life who tried to teach it to me offered it up with the purest of intentions. I know what this phrase means because I have allowed myself to be manipulated, misunderstood, taken advantage of, slandered, and personally and professionally attacked by people who have, ultimately, mistaken my kindness for weakness.
Kindness vs. Badass
I was 21 the first time I heard this kindness-as-weakness advice. And ever since, I have been trying to "fix" this about myself by growing thicker skin, throwing up walls to protect myself, and practicing exuding confidence in every arena. I ask myself almost every day, "what would my ‘badass’ friends and mentors do in this situation?" Every time I answer that question and act accordingly, I weave another thread into my own badass superhero cape. It’s a legitimate tool in my arsenal – something I can pull off the shelf when I need it.
My badass superhero cape looks… badass. It’s bright and flashy and grabs attention. It’s made of perfectly selected words and oozes self-assuredness. But it’s itchy, and uncomfortable, and has a chip on both shoulders, and no matter how I style it, it just doesn’t fit right. Because it’s not who I really am. Wearing it gives me a false sense of confidence… which is really just fear, because what if all these people figure out I’m not a badass at all?
I sold my baby-grownup-self on a warped concept of strength and leadership. The world - or maybe just me? - values a certain kind of leader: charismatic, engaging, full of life and spark. I can certainly adjust the dials on my personality and crank up these channels when I need to. But all the energy that effort requires depletes me. Because the most authentic version of me is quiet and introspective. I am confident, but it doesn’t come from flash or volume; my confidence comes from knowing who I really am on the inside and living that way on the outside too. (Everyone and anyone can gain true confidence from this kind of self-awareness and self-acceptance.)
Kindness and the professional arena
As a fresh college graduate, I dove headfirst into professional arenas requiring the highest levels of charisma and ambition. And therefore, all of a sudden, I hit a giant disconnect between my giftings and my career choices. The softer, gentler (truest) nature of my personality became a liability in my line of work. And that constant state of never feeling quite suited for the job left me open to the most painful shadow side of the comparison game – wondering if my brand of leadership could ever hold a candle to those leaders with more splashy and vibrant, or aggressive and commanding styles. My confidence sank. I started over-evaluating my conversations and responses. And that hyper-vigilance shaped the way I navigated every professional and relational endeavor for the next 15 years.
But here's the thing: after all that time trying to conform myself to what I perceived as an ideal professional image, I've come to the stark realization that nothing about my hard-wiring needs fixing. This isn’t a justification or an argument for the flawed parts of my personality; I don’t get a free pass to treat people poorly or behave inappropriately “because that’s just how I am.” And on the flip side, I don’t get to blame other people for treating me poorly because I didn’t have the courage to speak up.
We’re all called to grow and become more glorious versions of ourselves – not better versions of someone else. I am exactly who I am. Yet how often did I allow my environment to tell me I would have been much happier/better/more successful as somebody else? We live in a gilded social media world that praises loud, fast, and snarky, and hails provocative content as king. It’s the most sinister fertile soil for weeds of insecurity and alter-ego.
Not funny anymore
The old joke around our house was that my husband married me because I’m nice.
It used to be funny. Until our whole marriage fell apart and I got completely sick and tired of being nice. In the real world, in a real damaging way, the person I trusted most mistook my kindness for weakness. It was my last straw. My ill-advised solution was to throw on my badass cape and make some really arrogant, desperate, bad decisions that cost me everything I cared about.
The irony isn’t lost on me that in order to put it all back together, I had to draw deep from the well of kindness. The thing I’m actually good at.
I had gotten so good at projecting what I thought was the opposite of kindness – badassery – that I missed every opportunity to maximize my own authentic potential. I settled for a hollow image of superiority rather than a deep-rooted true confidence in who I really am.
Who I am – and who you really are – is remarkable.
The kindness chip in my personality is more than "nice." It's gentleness for a maxed-out, spiraling child. It's patience for a stressed or hurting partner. It's forgiveness for words said in the heat of the moment. It’s humility to share the spotlight with others and willingness to give more of yourself than you expect to receive in return. It’s masterful ability to navigate hard conversations and comfort fragile feelings. It's choosing to believe the best about people and trusting them with the most tender pieces of yourself.
It takes a lot of guts to tap into true kindness, gentleness, patience, and humility because it makes you vulnerable to wounds. It’s easy to get eaten up by people less mindful of softer personalities. And when that happens (because it will), fight the instinct to throw on your badass cape. Instead, go back to the drawing board on how you can be a better advocate for yourself. Refine your communication. Reset and clarify some boundaries. Practice saying no. Be specific about what is and is not okay. You can be kind and not be a doormat. This is teaching people how to treat you.
Unlearning image and learning authenticity
I’m still learning how to use kindness as my superpower. It started with lots of unlearning, actually. Sometimes I trusted the wrong people and failed to set healthy boundaries. I allowed myself to be taken advantage of. I didn’t speak up when I felt disrespected. I cared too much about what other people thought. I sacrificed my own needs to dangerous ends.
And then sometimes I see someone’s aggression coming and I overcorrect. I cut people with words. I throw up too-thick-too-tall boundary walls and live scared behind them. I get self-righteous and critical. I go back to that old caped-up version of myself. I still mess this up. Probably will until the end of time.
Yet I’m practicing better every day. Kindness doesn’t mean submissiveness. Gentleness doesn’t mean spinelessness. Patience doesn’t mean laziness. Now I understand that kindness means speaking directly, honestly, timely, and with no room for confusion. Gentleness means listening with compassion and honoring what’s lovely in the other person. Patience means carefully waiting and choosing not to act on impulse.
These are qualities I’d admire in any leader. No matter how colorful or how calm their style.
What’s your superpower?
If you’re that tender person too, who feels itchy and uncomfortable when you put on your badass cape, or any other disguise that makes you feel more like someone else you think is “better,” please throw that disguise away. It doesn’t look good on you, just like mine doesn’t look good on me… because it doesn’t really fit.
Whatever that softer side of you is, that’s your real superpower. It's just as valuable as any other bold characteristic in our more outspoken friends. Your superpower might be kindness, like mine. Or it might be prudence, or generosity, or listening, or perspective. The big loud world doesn’t like to hold much space for these quiet strengths. But they’re the healing medicine people need for their tired, hurting hearts.
How much more fulfilling would our relationships, our work, our dreams and goals be, if we chose to intentionally cultivate those softer superpowers as our greatest strengths?