When Giving Hurts

It feels good to give. Acts of kindness and generosity toward others instill a deep sense of satisfaction and connect us to the human experience. From early childhood, we are taught to help others who are in need and share what we have. Altruism, the unselfish regard for the welfare of others, is infused in our culture and spans major religious belief systems. Evolutionary Psychologists have also argued that altruism and cooperation are necessary for survival.  However, at what point does giving and altruism begin to erode at our own well-being and happiness? Further, what would it mean if we began to say ‘no’ more often than we are used to and make ourselves—rather than others—a priority?

The Giving Tree

There is a well-known children’s book titled The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. In this short picture book, he eloquently captures the experience and consequences of giving more than we should. Silverstein begins the book depicting a young boy and his relationship with a human-like tree. The tree has a very nurturing relationship towards the boy and feels a loving connection from him. As the book progresses, the boy grows older and years pass before they see each other. With each reunion, the boy is in need of something and the tree offers itself—its apples, branches, trunk—to help the boy and the tree feels good by doing this. By the end of the story, the tree, a once vibrant and fruitful being, is reduced to nothing more than a stump which the boy, who is now an old man, sits on—and this makes the tree happy. This powerful metaphor offers a cautionary tale of what happens when we give more than we should.

Secure Your Oxygen Mask First

If you ever go on an airplane, you will hear the flight attendant say during the safety check to secure your oxygen mask first before assisting others. The reason for this is that we cannot take care of others unless we take care of ourselves first. As shown in The Giving Tree, when we give at our own expense, we become a stump. So, how can we take care of ourselves while also being generous, kind, and thoughtful to others?

This question can become challenging as we navigate professional and personal relationships. Bosses ask you to stay later at work when you already have plans, family asks you to go to Sunday dinner when you would rather be doing something different. We all have needs and we have to figure out when to give, how much to give, and when to hold back. As we look inside of ourselves and begin to have a feeling that what we are doing or giving feels more than what we are comfortable with, we are faced with the difficulty of negotiating boundaries, saying ‘no’, and dealing with the disappointment and anger of the person who is asking.

For some people, this process comes relatively easy despite its discomfort; however, for many others, giving more than we should is reflexive and the idea of taking care of ourselves comes second to the well-being of others. Despite this challenge, finding a balance for self and others is possible and can be obtained through a therapeutic relationship that attends to the emotional challenges of establishing boundaries and one’s personal history that set this relational style in place.

If you notice yourself giving more than what you are comfortable with or find it difficult establishing personal boundaries in your life, I encourage you to call me to learn more as to how I can help. Loving others and loving yourself is possible.

Thanks for reading!

-Dr. Dan


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