Don’t you just hate those people that take advantage of others’ kindness? Today I saw a meme that had an image of the Mona Lisa extending her middle finger. The meme read, “This is for every person who took advantage of my kindness during 2021.” The meme received a lot of likes and comments affirming the vitriol towards those evil-doers who took from others in 2021 and gave nothing in return. They received kindness and blatantly took advantage of it.
Here’s the problem: those people don’t exist. Said differently, it’s not possible to take advantage of your kindness. If you give kindness with expectation of return, it isn’t kindness or if it is, it’s not the kindness that’s being taken advantage of. If you lack sufficient personal boundaries, others will take from you. And they may take a lot. But that isn’t someone taking advantage of your kindness. It’s a failure to establish how you should be treated or a belief you’re entitled to something as part of an exchange. If someone ambushes you while you were expressing kindness, you aren’t being taken advantage of. Rather, you’re being trapped.
The worst thing about this expression is its disempowering nature. That’s why it’s important to focus on what you can control and where your limitations lie rather than get sucked into believing kindness is a problem.
Expectation of Return
When you go to the grocery store to buy food, you don’t typically say your purchase was an expression of kindness. You went there to buy something you needed and offered back something the store wanted in return (money). This is a business transaction. It’s an exchange, not kindness. It might be underscored by kindness, pleasantness, or civility, but at its core, this is about each party getting something.
Kindness, by itself, is done for someone else for the sheer sake of doing the thing. When you hand a homeless person some money (ignoring for a moment all the controversy about that action), you’re probably engaging in kindness (I say probably, as I’m assuming here you aren’t just handing someone some money so you can film yourself doing it for likes on TikTok).
What that means is if you engaged in kindness, it’s done. The act is out there and nothing else can happen to it. You can’t take advantage of it because it’s no longer in front of anyone to take advantage of.
But often an act that looks like kindness is contingent on the assumption we’re getting something back. If I was nice to you, you should be nice to me. If I was nice to you, you owe me.
Definitionally, that’s not kindness. It’s an exchange. If you’re upset someone didn’t reciprocate your kindness, you weren’t actually being kind. You were trying to make a trade and you didn’t get what you wanted back.
Something we often conflate with “taking advantage of kindness” is poor boundaries.
In order to be emotionally healthy, it’s incredibly important we establish and maintain boundaries. Boundaries are the rules we follow and the behaviors we engage in that prevent us from losing everything either physically or emotionally.
For example, imagine someone came up and said, “Give me all your money.” Then you went to the bank and gave them every last penny you owned. After your next paycheck, the same person came up and asked for money again. And once more, you gave him or her everything you had. You wouldn’t be able to pay your bills, feed yourself or your children, or be able to function in any remotely healthy way. That would cause a lot of emotional stress and probably create a lot of unpleasant situations in your life.
Boundaries arise when you set up rules about what you’re not willing to do for someone else’s benefit. In the scenario above, we might simply say, “No, I’m not giving you all my money.” You’ve established a boundary. Indeed, that other person has a responsibility to care for him or herself just as much as do you.
Note, boundaries are important whether you know the person in need or not. You need boundaries to keep your own sanity and to keep your life reasonably within your control. I’ve seen a lot of instances in which people destroy themselves (even facing criminal or prison charges) in the name of family. Often the family members being sacrificed for do not reciprocate.
Probably the closest you can get to taking advantage of kindness is to lay out a trap that capitalizes on someone’s good nature.
For example, imagine I laid down in the middle of the road pretending to be injured. If someone driving by saw me, stopped, and ran out to help, they were effectively expressing kindness. That is to say, they went to help me for no reason other than to offer aid. They probably didn’t stop hoping to get something out of the situation and they also didn’t stop because they were engaging in poor boundaries (although those things could happen in this hypothetical). This was a desire to help out of kindness.
Now imagine after they stopped I pulled a gun out and told the stopping driver to hand me his keys. It turns out this was all a ploy to steal this person’s car.
You might say this was taking advantage of the passerby’s kindness. However, I’d submit this was way more. This was a flat out trap capitalizing on someone’s good nature. It’s an ambush or at best a serious manipulation. Something this extreme is not generally within the scope of what we mean when we describe taking advantage of kindness.
Kindness and Drama
The issue of boundaries is most readily visible in the drama triangle. If you’re not familiar with this model, you can hear more about it in the video below:
Most relevant to this article is how the victim and the rescuer (two of the orientations in the drama triangle) relate to boundaries.
Victimhood is notorious for inaction. Victims won’t do anything and wait for others to solve problems. They are helpless until a rescuer comes along and saves the day or some random event pulls them from the clutches of calamity.
Rescuers want to be heroes. They want to solve other people’s problems and become white knights or saviors for victims. But in so doing, they often give too much.
In other words, they find a victim (who needs to take because the victim doesn’t know how else to escape crisis). The rescuer doesn’t know how to stop giving or say no because they need to save the day. Rescuers have poor boundaries. Soon the rescuer becomes depleted or destroyed and feels like a victim him or herself.
If you find yourself saying people are taking advantage of your kindness, it’s not going to stop until you change your perspective. They aren’t taking advantage of your kindness. Either your expectations were wrong and you were trying to engage in a transaction that didn’t go how you expected, you’re wrapped up in being a rescuer and victims are bleeding you dry, or someone ambushed you.
Sometimes people will trap, manipulate, or deceive. Your best defense against this is to be alert, pay attention to your surroundings, and learn from past experiences. If it happens, do you best to manage the situation you’re in and try not to be in that spot again.
For all the other situations, it’s easy to say, “Those people over there are just selfish and taking from me.” But doing so will leave you upset. Then one of two situations follow: (1) you’ll continue to be taken from and grow increasingly resentful, or (2) you’ll become hardened and avoid kindness altogether, believing expressing it will lead to your destruction.
Do not throw away kindness. It’s unbelievably important for you and those around you. Rather, establish clear boundaries and avoid the drama triangle through self-empowerment. Don’t blame kindness and don’t eradicate it from your life. You can and should be kind. But do it in a way that doesn’t destroy you.
If you want to learn more about ways to seek self-empowerment, check out Emotional Embuffination, the book.