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When Generosity Is A Bad Thing

Julia B. Colwell
December 11, 2014
December 11, 2014

OK, let's all say it together: "Tis more blessed to give than to receive."

This adage has served us in countless ways. Americans are remarkably charitable; no developed country is close to the U.S. in terms of charitable giving and volunteering. The mental health benefits of giving are well documented, as research has shown that offering ourselves to others makes us feel happy, creates health, generates social support, evokes the powerful feeling of gratitude, and stimulates the generosity of those around us. Kindness and generosity are the two of the key traits that psychologist John Gottman has determined to be key to successful relationships.

However, I've noticed in my psychotherapy practice and in my life that there is a dark side to giving, a murky place people can go that can pull them under, leading to resentment, exhaustion, emotional shutting down and depression. There is such a strong social pressure to be givers — and not receivers — that we end up disconnecting from what we really need and want.

Here are some ways that we move away from the life-generating effects of giving and toward the compulsive, exhausting dark side ...

We give so as not to appear selfish.

The word "selfish" holds a great power for many of us. As a common result, we often seem to act in ways as if to prove we are not selfish.

Women seem particularly motivated to make sure that no one might ever use this invective against them. In the media especially, we see women volunteering for the next committee, losing sleep sewing costumes and preparing food for others, participating on the phone tree, listening and offering their shoulders to cry on. By contrast, men are stereotypically compelled to be the hero, stepping in to lift heavy objects, rescue damsels, and fix all things broken.

We give to control and manipulate others.

Extra favors, expensive gifts and special attention are all lovely gestures — until they come with their own price-tags. We're all familiar with getting things from others "with strings attached," immediately intuiting that, by taking the gift, we're now bound to repay it in some way down the line.

We give even though we don't want to.

There are social pressures to give that are hard to withstand. Buying cookies from the co-worker's child's school fundraiser, donating to the corporate "giving" program that has no personal value for us, avoiding our spouses' miffed reactions by just going to the work party or hanging out with the in-laws: these are all times when people override what they really want in order to placate those around them.

But giving can use up our energy "equity." So long as giving generates more energy for us, we're in the plus column. However, all too often people give past what they have, creating exhaustion, overwhelming credit card debt, and ultimately resentment, discouragement, and internal strife.

We give to make ourselves feel better, regardless of what the other person wants.

Like the prototypical Boy Scout forcing the old lady to cross the street to get his merit badge, we can get lost in our own desire to give and lose sight of what the other really wants.

Would you like to steer clear of the dark side of giving and back into what is most life-bestowing?

Here are some questions to ask yourself to come back into the flow that truehearted giving creates:

1. Do I really want to give?

I am hereby proclaiming that it is your birthright to only do (and give) what you want to do (and give). It's a quick and slippery slide from stepping into the heroic "I'll take care of it!" to the martyred "Why do I always have to do everything around here!?" Taking time to tune into your body and mind, to become clear about whether you're doing what you really want, will steer you away from resentment and exhaustion.

Living off dividends and not using up equity is a time-proven economic principle. Protect all of your energetic fuel tanks in the same way. It's your responsibility to turn your faucets off and on and not drain everything that's in there.

2. Am I giving to control or manipulate others?

Get clear and clean with what you put out into the world. Give because you want to give, not because you're expecting others to change their behavior. If you can hand it over without clutching on to some sort of result, you're in the flow.

3. Am I giving as a barter?

Making unconscious deals with others is part of the human condition. "I'll scratch your back if you'll scratch mine" can work just fine. Like #2, however, my doing something for you in order for you to do something for me can be a set-up for disappointment, bad agreements, and pseudo-connection. It is a good idea to be aware of this dynamic, and to avoid it if you think it will set you up for disappointment or other negative emotions.

4. Am I giving to make myself feel better, regardless of what the receiver really wants?

Tuning into whether the other person wants what you have to give — and taking no for an answer — can be the most generous gift of all.

Julia B. Colwell author page.
Julia B. Colwell

Psychologist Julia B. Colwell, PhD, has spent over three decades exploring relationship dynamics with individuals, couples, and groups. The author of The Relationship Skills Workbook: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to a Thriving Relationship (Sounds True, October 2014), she is the founder of the Boulder Center for Conscious Community. Julie is proud to say she has kitchen-tested everything she teaches in her 25-year relationship with her spouse Kathryn Kucsan in Boulder, Colorado. You can visit her website here.