The world is divided into “givers and takers” or so we are told. Conventional wisdom advises that being a “giver” is the preferred choice, the moral high ground. Most of us don’t want to be thought of as selfish and non-reciprocal — self-involved. A giver is labeled “good,” an adjective we enjoy applying to ourselves.
Can you be too good? Can you be too giving — to the point of self-harm, to the point of allowing others to “use” you routinely? Is too much emotional generosity the equivalent of effacing your needs? Might it be like standing in a lunch line, affording deference and preference for latecomers to go first, and reaching the front too late for a meal?
If the answer is yes, how might you know whether you are giving too much?
Here are some signs your social life amounts to social work without salary, caring for others to the point of encouraging their misuse of you:
- Are you the “one” who listens to problems, the first person your acquaintances contact when upset? By itself, this might simply indicate you are kind and empathic. But disappointment follows when others don’t offer time or compassion for your worries.
- Do friends and acquaintances impose on you unreasonably? Do they regularly ask you to drop what you are doing to help them? Do they call late at night over small upsets without regard for your need to get up early the next morning?
- Beyond words of thanks, do your friends express gratitude in concrete ways, like sending you a greeting card, flowers, candy, or picking up the check at dinner?
- Do you recognize that reciprocity depends on respect? Those who become another’s servant do not command honor. Were fulfilling a master’s requests a guarantee of good treatment, slaves would be the best cared for class in the world.
- Do you find yourself disappointed too often when “friends” contact you only in need, not with social invitations once they bounce back from their troubles?
- Do you believe your singular value is what you can do for others? Do you doubt your worth beyond the ability to aid or console?
- Do too many relationships begin with the other’s effusive gratitude for your kindness, but move to a point where your generosity is taken for granted almost as an entitlement?
- Are you exhausted by the demands and requests of those closest to you?
- Can you say no when a favor is asked, be it your time, money, or a ready ear?
- Do you fear being dumped should you become less available when needed?
- Do you find yourself worrying about hurting people when you imagine what might happen if you say no?
- Do you hesitate to express strong opinions to your buddies? Are you afraid of rejection or criticism if you disagree?
- Are too many of your friends “troubled souls?” Do you associate with an unstable crowd, making it easy to take on the counselor, helper, or social work role?
- Do you believe saying no is selfish? Were you told you were selfish growing up?
- When feeling unappreciated, do you think perhaps you didn’t do enough to please your friend?
- Do you make excuses for the other when you are dismissed or taken for granted? Do you live in the hope he will change?
If you answer yes to a number of these questions, you might lack self-confidence and self-assertion. Another term often used in these types of relationships is dependency. Sometimes “co-dependent” is used instead.
Too many of the earth’s inhabitants see fellow humans as objects, like a wrench or hammer: helpful when needed, but requiring no gratitude or careful treatment when the job is done. The error is allowing yourself to be used as if you were picked from a tool chest, submitting to the role of instrumental object, imagining you must do whatever friends require, twisted or tossed aside as they wish. You have discounted your worth and given them control along with the discretion to grade you by how much you satisfy their wants. Worse yet, you accept the grade assigned. The thought of standing up and setting limits collapses for fear of abandonment.
Nor are you advised to think of yourself as an altruist or akin to a religious martyr in your pursuit of the good. Religious martyrs are put to death against their will by their enemies — on one occasion only, of course. Those who offer themselves up as a less drastic sacrifice for their faux “friends” do so voluntarily and far too often. Sainthood should not be expected to follow.
This habit of relating to people doesn’t vanish by itself. You make a mistake hoping those you love will change instead of realizing you are the one who must do so. If you see yourself here, consider going into psychotherapy. Life is more fulfilling when relationships work both ways. The sooner you address this problem, the more likely your satisfaction will increase. Moreover, you will discover a truth of great import: those who leave (and some do exit when you change) aren’t worthy of your goodness. The cliché is true: you are better off without them.
The top image is called Twilight by Karin Bar. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The bottom image is a t-shirt available at http://www.philosophersguild.com/