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Nadiya Hussain on kindness

Chef and author Nadiya Hussain talks to our kindness tsar, David Hamilton, about the transformative power of caring for others and being kind, how she saw her mother in a new light after having her own children and how she overcame childhood trauma

by Psychologies

Nadiya

7 minute read

Q. Have you experienced any significant acts of kindness in your life?

A. When I was living in Leeds, I was a stay-at-home mum. I didn’t have any friends and my kids had just started school. My anxiety was shocking. I was plodding into school one day because I’d hurt my back. I didn’t realise it at the time, but another mum figured out what was wrong. On her way to work, she made a detour and knocked on my door. She said: ‘Right, come on, sit down.’

I thought, ‘Hold on a second. You don’t get to come to my house and tell me to sit down!’ When I look back on who I was then, as much as I wanted friends, I don’t think I let anyone in because that was my safe place; being at home alone. I didn’t want anyone to be kind to me because it would set me off; when someone’s caring towards you and you feel like you haven’t had that for a while, it makes you realise what you’ve lost – I was far away from home and missing my family.

She sat me down, got out some Tiger Balm and rubbed it into my back. Then she said: ‘You keep that and I’ll be back later.’ She came after work and massaged more balm into my back. She was the first person who made me realise the importance of human touch. I think she could tell that I needed somebody to say, ‘Right, you need help.’ I’ll never forget that.

Q. Has your parents’ kindness had an impact on you?

A. My parents are kind people. I think because they are immigrants, they struggled a lot with making friends and settling in. They value family and the people around them because those people are ‘home’.

Every week when I was growing up, there would be somebody sleeping on our sofa; anyone who needed a place to stay the night – someone my dad worked with, an acquaintance or just somebody who needed a bed – my dad would offer them our sofa.

I have this thing with my father… When he’s asleep, even now, to wake him up, I’ll slap him on the cheek. Whack! It’s affectionate, but solid – I slap him and run. And he hates it! He goes, ‘Look, I’m an old man, I’m going to have a heart attack if you keep doing this to me.’

Sometimes, Dad would come home late and he would sleep on the sofa, if it was available. Imagine – there’s a man sleeping on the couch and I thought it was Dad. So I did it – I ran up and whack! Suddenly, I realised ‘this bump is much bigger than my father’. The guy turned around and went, ‘Ooh!’

I ran upstairs, shook my dad and said, ‘Who is that man? I just slapped him in the face!’ Dad laughed so hard.

Kindness is something I have grown up with because my father has the biggest heart.

Q. How do you practise kindness toward others?

A. Being kind comes naturally to me. I think it’s maternal. My brother works about eight minutes from me and he turned up one Saturday saying, ‘I feel really sick.’ I dropped everything and made sure he was OK. I put him on the couch, gave him spare clothes and made him lie down. It’s natural for me to look after people.

Q. Do you remember to be kind to yourself?

A. The person I find the hardest to be kind to is myself. I always question, ‘Am I good enough? Am I being kind enough? Do I look good?’ I’m forever criticising either how I look or feel, or the way I’ve done something and whether it’s wrong. There is a lot of thinking involved in being kind to yourself, especially if you’re not used to it.

Q. What do you do to alleviate stress?

A. I can really work myself up and then I just go ping! I’ve got Bob in the garage – he’s a stuffed dummy. Occasionally, I go and give him a couple of punches to relieve my stress or anxiety. Petting animals helps too. I get quite anxious. My son does as well, so we’ve got a pet rabbit, and it’s calming.

Q. Do you teach your children about being kind? [Nadiya has two sons and a daughter.]

A. I don’t think that as parents we set out to teach our kids about kindness; we do it by setting an example. My little girl has light-bulb moments. We’ve got courgettes in the garden and I was explaining about the male flowers and female flowers; that they’re the ones that give you courgettes. We were picking the flowers and I was saying that we need to remove them to allow the courgettes to grow. She said, ‘That’s really kind of you, Mummy.’ And I’m thinking, it’s just science, it’s not kind, but she goes, ‘If we don’t do that, then our courgettes will die. We have to look after them.’

Q. In your book, you speak very movingly about your ordeal of being bullied as a child. What would you say to the bullies now?

A. There’s an unevenness to my nails where they smashed my fingers, so I cover it up with colour. I have to do that, otherwise I can see the unevenness and my brain goes there and I don’t want that. If I were to see the bullies now, I think the nasty part of me wants to rub their faces in it and say, ‘We all have the ability to be nasty.’ But, in the same breath, that experience made me who I am – and I’m strong. I told myself for years that I was weak and one thing we’re not very good at doing is telling ourselves that we’re not weak. I’ve come out a better person because of it. I look for a positive in it and I struggle, but I am trying to raise my children to be good people. I’m constantly telling them, ‘You don’t want to be that person; you don’t want to be the one who’s mean.’

I feel sorry for those bullies. I always wonder how they turned out. Did they get married? Did they have kids of their own? I hope, for their families’ sakes, that they changed as people. [Nadiya recently revealed that she was a victim of sexual abuse by a relative at the age of five while living in Bangladesh. During her experience of bullying, aged 11, she developed PTSD.]

Q. I admire your compassion for them…

A. I think that, as a victim of bullying, you blame yourself. I blamed myself for being short and dark and I even blamed my father; I’m short and dark because of him… But I can genuinely forgive the bullies because it’s about saying, ‘There was actually nothing wrong with me!’ I can forgive them because they were kids; I don’t know what they went through or what their backgrounds were, how they were raised and what happened to them.

Q. When you brought your first child home, you say your mum rescued you and you saw her differently. Tell us about that…

A. I was only in my 20s when I had my son. He was screaming and I couldn’t do anything to pacify him. I was so tired and in pain. Mum scooped him up and there was a wisdom about her; something I’d never seen before. She’s not really maternal; she doesn’t do hugs, kisses and ‘I love yous’. For her, it was: cook, feed, repeat – that is her default setting. I had spent my life battling my mother, constantly telling her no and locking horns with her. She was always wrong as far as I was concerned, no matter what she did. Then, suddenly, she was Grandma!

From that instant, my love and respect for her changed. All those things in the past, where I’d seen her as public enemy number one suddenly became different. It was the only time in my life that I felt I needed her. Throughout the book, you can see that she couldn’t always be there for me because she had to care for those who needed her most; she was often in hospital with a brother or sister. [Nadiya has five siblings.] I used to think ‘she’s cruel and mean and unkind’ but, becoming a mother myself and seeing her in the role of grandmother, I understood.

For the first time in my life, when she was there with me and my crying son, I felt as if she was there for me. She wasn’t just protecting him; she was putting my son first and, in doing so, she was also putting me first. It wasn’t about anybody else. It was quite an important moment of realisation in my life.

Nadiya Hussain’s book ‘Finding My Voice’ (Headline Publishing Group, £20) is out now

Let's work our magic

Kindness unites people and makes all our lives better. In our new occasional series, ‘The kindness conversation’, Psychologies hopes to spread this simple concept and inspire more compassion in our immediate surroundings and the world. Leading our campaign is our kindness tsar, David Hamilton, author of ‘The Little Book Of Kindness: Connect With Others, Be Happier, Transform Your Life’ (Octopus, £6.99). David has a PhD in organic chemistry and, inspired by the placebo effect, decided to educate people about how they can harness their emotions to improve their health. But, remember, kindness is for everyone, including you!

Image: Dan Kennedy