NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, March 23, 2020

The Powerful Impact of Kindness During Difficult Times

I'll never forget that day.  I hadn't seen my friend, Mary*, in many years and I was feeling awkward and a little uneasy as I waited for her to come to the restaurant where we agreed to meet for lunch in the old neighborhood (see my article: Coping with Loneliness and Social Isolation)..

The Powerful Impact of Kindness

Throughout childhood and adolescence, we had been inseparable. People in our neighborhood would tease us by saying we were the "Bobsey Twins" because wherever you saw one of us, the other was either right there next to her or not far behind.

We often talked about wanting to move out of our neighborhood in Brooklyn, which felt like a small, claustrophobic town in many ways.  But when we graduated high school and I was ready to leave, like a few of my friends who said they would move away the day after graduation, Mary wasn't ready to move away and she remained behind with her family.

We maintained contact for a while, but our lives changed in ways we couldn't have anticipated.  I was busy with a full time job and part time college classes at night.  And Mary met the man who eventually became her husband and she focused on her relationship with him.  I had also made new friends in the women's residence where I was living in the West Village and I was spending more time with them.

Over time, Mary and I gradually lost touch. Whenever she ran into my mother in the old neighborhood, Mary asked about me and wanted to know what was going on in my life, and I was eager for whatever news my mother could provide to me about Mary.  But, for some reason, we didn't pick up the phone anymore to speak to each other directly.

Then, one day, when I was in my early 20s and visiting my mother in her kitchen, she told me that she had some bad news about Mary.  I braced myself for bad news about a health problem or news about problems in Mary's marriage.  But what my mother told me shocked me beyond belief--Mary was incarcerated for stealing money from her employer.

I remember feeling completely stunned, as if time had stopped and I was caught in a moment of suspended animation.  This didn't sound at all like the Mary that I knew. When I could finally speak, all I could stammer was, "Why? How? What happened?"

My mother told me what she knew, which wasn't a lot. She had run into Mary's Aunt Rose in the grocery store and she confided in my mother.  I knew Aunt Rose well, and I could imagine how upset she must have been.  As I was thinking about this, my mother handed me an address where Mary could receive mail, and she told me that Aunt Rose said Mary would like to hear from me.

I looked at that piece of paper with the address for several days feeling helpless and useless. I wasn't sure what I could say to Mary, after so much time had passed, that would make any difference to her.

I composed several drafts of letters and crumpled each one after a few sentences because my words felt so inadequate to the situation.

The letter that I finally sent to Mary was similar to the drafts I had crumpled up, and it felt woefully inadequate.  But I knew she wanted to hear from me, and I didn't want to disappoint her, so I sent it.

Time passed.  I heard nothing from Mary, and whenever I thought about the letter I sent to her, I felt embarrassed and awkward.  I wanted to say just the right words to let her know how sorry I was that we had lost touch and how I was thinking about her, but I felt like I had failed, especially since I didn't hear a word from her in so long.

Then, one day I got a call from Mary after she had been released from prison.  It was a brief call and she sounded just as awkward as I was feeling.  We agreed to meet for lunch at a restaurant in the old neighborhood that we used to go to when we were teens.

When Mary arrived, she looked thinner than I remembered her, but when she smiled that unmistakable crooked smile, I felt a little more at ease.  After a few minutes of small talk, she told me why she embezzled the money from her employer.

It started in a small way when she needed money, she explained, and then, because it was so easy, she started taking more and more money.  Little did she know that her employer was capturing her on video, and by the time they confronted her, they had all the evidence they needed to send her to prison. She couldn't afford an attorney, so she accepted the court-appointed attorney and he encouraged her to plead guilty, which led to her incarceration.

All the while that Mary was telling me her story, she was looking away.  Then, she turned to me and told me, "But I want to tell you what really made a difference while I was incarcerated--that letter you sent me.  You helped me to remember that I was much more than my current circumstances and you encouraged me to be hopeful.  And whenever I felt myself feeling hopeless, I reread your letter and I felt better.  I'm sorry I never wrote back but, after all these years, I wanted to let you know and to thank you because your letter kept me going."

As I listened to her words, I was stunned.  At that point, I barely remembered what I wrote, but here she was telling me that the letter I thought was so inadequate and insignificant had actually had a powerful impact on Mary that I never could've anticipated.

She went onto say that she still had the letter, and whenever she felt down, she reread it and it brought back memories of our childhood friendship, all we had meant to each other and a renewed sense of hope.

I wish I could say that Mary and I resumed a close friendship, but that didn't happen.  Although we had a long history together when we were young children and teens, we both had changed a lot and we had little in common anymore, other than our history.  But I was grateful that she told me about the impact that my letter had on her and that she continued to find it a source of hope and inspiration.

In my own life, friends' acts of kindness have meant so much to me.

I remember when my mother died several years ago, I was missing my friend, Alice*, who had moved out of state several months before.  At that point, we had been close friends for over 20 years, and I missed her terribly as I lived through my mother's final days in hospice.

On the morning of my mother's funeral Mass, Alice drove five hours to be with me.  When I saw her outside the church, I hugged her and felt enveloped in her love and friendship.  I had been dreading that day, but now with Alice sitting next to me in the church pew, I felt my grief, although heavy, was bearable.

To this day, whenever I think of my mother's passing, those memories are inextricably linked to being with Alice and feeling loved and supported by her.  I still miss my mother, but whenever I think of her passing, I also remember the warmth of Alice's arm around my shoulders and how she radiated love and compassion on that day.

I also remember that Alice knew my mother at a time when my mother was vibrant and robust, and we still talk about those times and reminsce.  We can still laugh at things my mother used to say and do, and it feels like a healing balm to be able to go back in time and remember those happier times.

The Powerful Impact of Kindness During Difficult Times
Like me, you might think that a small gesture of kindness feels so inadequate during difficult times.  But, like me, you probably would discover that what you thought was inadequate meant so much to someone going through a difficult time.  It can be the thing that gets them through.

It can feel corny and unsophisticated to talk about random acts of kindness, but I don't think it's corny at all to be able to reach out to someone in kindness. It's not about doing it perfectly or having the exact right words or even making a grand gesture.  It's more about your intention and how it touches the other person.

So during times when you feel yourself struggling about how or what to do or say, don't focus on feelings of awkwardness or inadequacy.  Instead, trust that most people will understand that you're trying to make a difference in their life--however small your act of kindness might be. In all likelihood, they will understand your intention and be touched by it.

I heard recently that suicidality is on the rise as people feel increasingly lonely and isolated.  So, it's more important than ever, in a world where people are often unkind to one another, to try to find ways to extend kindness to people you know and, maybe, even to people you don't know.

Random Acts of Kindness
Random acts of kindness can include:
  • Expressing gratitude to a friend or loved one (see my article: The Importance of Expressing Gratitude to Your Spouse or Partner).
  • Calling a friend or family member to check in on how they're doing during a difficult time.  Let them know you're thinking of them by reaching out.
  • Telling your local grocery store clerk or stockperson how much you appreciate him or her being there during the COVID-19 health crisis.
  • Asking an elderly, sick or disabled neighbor if you can pick up grocery for them.
  • Sending a friend or loved one a funny cartoon or words of inspiration.
  • Reminding a loved one that the crisis will eventually pass.
  • Meditating or praying with a friend on a video chat or phone call.
  • Making amends, where it's appropriate to do so, with a loved one.
  • Checking in with a loved one who has a history of depression, anxiety or substance abuse to find out how they're doing.
  • Helping a friend by reminding them that they have gone through other difficult times and they will get through the current stressful time.
  • Helping a friend to find therapy when your friend might be feeling too overwhelmed to do it on his or her own.
We all need to overcome our feelings of awkwardness and embarassment during times of crisis to reach out to others.

Sometimes we're more focused on appearing intelligent and witty, but that's not necessary to have an impact on someone's life.  Even a kind word or expression of gratitude on someone's Facebook page can make a difference when that person realizes that they're in your thoughts.

Like me, you might not find out about the impact of your kindness until many years later or ever.  But opening your heart to someone, even with a small gesture, can make all the difference for that other person.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you or someone you know is feeling overwhelmed, getting help from a licensed psychotherapist can make all the difference.

We can all benefit from acts of kindness, but there are times when the clinical expertise of an experienced therapist is also what is needed and can make all the difference.

Psychotherapy can be a life changing process. It can make the difference between allowing despair to become overwhelming and unmanageable and feeling supported and resilient.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

During this time of social distancing, based on licensing laws, I can provide phone sessions and online sessions for adults in New York State.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

*Names and all identifying information have been changed to protect the identify of people mentioned in this article.