The theme of 2020’s Mental Health Awareness week was kindness, so why do we find it so hard to accept it from others?

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This week I was in a supermarket trying to pay for our weekly shop, fumbling for my card at the bottom of my bag. I was aware of the queue forming behind me and was feeling hot and sweaty. Seeing my distress, the shop assistant smiled and told me not to panic. "Take your time," she said.

“But I don’t want to keep everyone waiting," I countered, finding it hard to accept that she was being so patient and kind. She smiled again, and said "Right now, no-one is in a rush." Only then did I slowly feel more relaxed and naturally found my card as if by magic.  "Thanks very much," I said, as I paid the bill. "You really should ’t have kept everyone waiting for me, but I appreciate it."

As I walked home, I pondered random acts of kindness from those we have never met and the power of a stranger’s care; I wondered why we find it hard to accept the kindness of others.

The question has never been more pressing; currently, millions of us are having to rely on the kindness of strangers in a new way, whether that is a nurse in a COVID ward, or the neighbour helping out with homeschooling, or the friend who picks up a prescription for our elderly parents.

While offers of kindness aren’t in short supply, taking up those offers isn’t always met with the same enthusiasm. Why do we find it so hard to accept kindness?

We’re hardwired as a nation to put on a brave face; to say ‘really, I’m fine’ when we’re anything but. It’s easier to say this than to show our emotions, especially anything that hints of weakness or vulnerability. A recent poll by the mental health charity  Mind  revealed that four in five British 18 to 34-year-olds admit to putting on a brave face when they’re anxious and a quarter believe that showing their emotions is a sign of weakness. In general, we find it hard to reveal our inner emotional lives and that includes accepting kindness from others.

My friend Emma is a case in point. When I told her I was writing this article, she related. "When recently someone said how much I meant to them and that some work I had done had made a difference, I batted the compliment away.” She said she didn’t feel worthy of kindness. “I suffer from not feeling I’m good enough.”

Instead of being self-deprecating, we discussed how Emma could have reacted differently. A quick breathing exercise - in through the mouth, out through the nose and making sure the out-breath is longer than the in-breath - would have stimulated her parasympathetic nervous system - which triggers a feeling of calm and relaxation. In this mood, we are much more likely to accept compliments.

What then are other steps we can do to adjust to this new era when the giving and taking of kindness has never been more necessary?

1. Pause to appreciate the person who has reached out

Seeing the person being kind to us as a person rather than someone performing a function can really help. In this way, we connect with them as another human being, someone with hopes and fears and feelings just like us. By recognising their humanity, we are more likely to recognise and accept their human kindness. You might like to imagine their lives: do they have a family? Where are they from? How long they worked at that shop or been part of the neighbourhood? Imagining a person’s life and the fact that we all face many of the same issues at the moment, helps us appreciate their kindness. Once you cultivate appreciating that person, the next step is to accept their help more easily. Most obviously, you could say thank you and go into a little detail of what in particular you are grateful for: that they made time for you; that they didn’t make you feel guilty that you were in need of help. Just a few sentences spelling out your gratitude makes all the difference.

It can also be beneficial to slow down and savour when you’ve been helped. Such life-enhancing moments of receiving kindness are often fleeting and can get drowned out by our ordinary everyday lows. Think of them as stop-and-savour moments. Make the magic last longer by giving yourself an extra second or two to stop and say thank you.

2. Pay the kindness forward

Know that accepting kindness is good for us and we then have more to give to others. Scientists such as Kristen Neff, from the University of Texas, have found that people who practise self-compassion, which is kindness towards oneself, are good at helping others too. This kind of inward-looking kindness might involve using affirmations, saying to yourself that you are good enough, and you are allowed to accept the kindness and compliments of others.

3. Make being grateful second nature

We don’t realise just how important it can be to our psychological health to be more open to our feelings, including feelings of gratitude. In showing you are grateful to someone rather than batting away their offer of help you are allowing your true emotions to be expressed. There’s mounting evidence that suppressing your emotions comes at a cost; in one study, James Gross, professor of psychology at Stanford, asked volunteers to watch amusing and happy films and either hide their emotional responses to it or to act naturally.  “We found that suppressing their emotions didn’t make people feel any better – suppressing positive emotions actually made them feel less positive,” says Gross. It also required physical effort; the volunteers’ blood pressure went up when they were trying to hide their feelings. Subsequent studies have revealed that emotional suppression impairs your memory, while the people you’re interacting with find it burdensome.

4. Know that you are good enough.

As I advised Emma, take a moment to breathe and speak to yourself in a kindly voice. You deserve kindness just as much as anyone else. If this doesn’t chime with your feelings, you could write down the statements above, and repeat to yourself as affirmations. Fake it till you make it.

6. Learn the language of gratitude

If it feels awkward to say ‘yes please, I’d love your help’ you could make this less awkward by first acknowledging that this is something you find difficult. Then you might simply say ‘thank you.’ One phrase can be easier and more powerful than a sentence. When you say thank you and stay with any awkwardness it will pass. Over time the process will become easier, especially when you see how much accepting kindness gives to the other person.

This is a time to stop suppressing the emotions that make us feel uncomfortable. Giving and taking kindness in our exchanges and connections with others is an important outlet. We are good enough. We might struggle to accept the kindness of others but it is good for us to do so. An unexpected gift of this period will be a chance to reset; next time a shop assistant is kind to me in a supermarket, I will quite simply say thank you.

Rachel Kelly is a writer and mental health campaigner. Her memoir about her experience of life-threatening depression  Black Rainbow: How words healed me: my journey through depression  was a Sunday Times bestseller. Her latest publication is titled  Singing in the Rain: An inspirational workbook – 52 Practical Steps to Happiness