All of us know people with a penchant for giving, who generously offer whatever is needed by others. Some of us are those people. That’s great because giving is good. Not only is generosity a spiritual precept of every major religion; giving sweetens, deepens and adds meaning to our lives whether we’re offering or receiving. Anyone who doubts that giving is a force for good should consider what life would be like in a world populated only by takers.
But what if it’s your habit to give too generously? Most of us know someone–most likely, though not necessarily, a woman–who gives too easily, too reflexively, too much. Especially in this, the “season of giving” in which the holiday culture goads us to buy, make, or arrange gifts for everyone we love, and for some we barely tolerate.
Like today. The first day I’ve had time to Christmas shop, I found myself giving over and over, starting with an extra hour’s sleep to my husband by taking our son to school. Other gifts: A carrot-pineapple cake from the bakery for my mom; healing CDs mailed to under-the-weather friends; compliments to folks I saw whose voices, shoes, haircuts, earrings and Santa hats delighted me; Derek Walcott’s stirring poem Love After Love to a friend in need; the benefit of the doubt to a woman who cut me off on a major thoroughfare; a gift recommendation for a man at the Apple store who was clueless about what to get his wife; smiles to passersby at the mall–a few of whom even smiled back, and more. Nine hours later, I was pleasantly worn out, not exhausted, by my small but mindful offerings. Giving too much feels entirely different.
My dear friend Mary Jo knows. As a mother and a social worker–two callings that easily bring out the over-giver in people–she has learned to keep an eye on her giving before it becomes “a detriment.” Like with her two grown sons. “If I’m always givng stuff to them–money, advice, doing things for them–at a certain point, they’re not doing for themselves. With the famlies I work with, there’s a line I walk between being giving and compassionate, and doing so much for them that they start depending on me, developing a ‘gimme’ attitude that suggests, ‘You owe me.’ I mean, some don’t even say, ‘Thank you.’ …I know I’ve crossed the line when I start feeling burned out, weary and unappreciated.”
Does her last statement ring any bells? Here are five ways to know if you’re offering more than you should:
1. You derive no pleasure from your giving. Being generous should make you feel as good as it does the person you’re offering yourself, your time and your gifts to. If it doesn’t, it’s a problem.
2. Your generosity exhausts and depletes, rather than satisfies and fulfills you. If your giving leaves you drained, resentful and/or bone-weary, consider being more circumspect with your offerings. Or forego some of them altogether.
3. You notice nobody is giving back to you (or if they are, they’re not making an effort to give you what you really want or need). It may not be others’ fault. Some givers have real trouble allowing others to return the favor.
4. You let your own needs and desires go unnoticed or unmet. Think about it. Don’t you deserve some of the splendid treatment you offer others? Don’t forget to give to yourself.
5. Your bank account, fridge, gas tank, wallet and/or precious repository of time for yourself are empty. ‘Nuff said.
If the list sounds all too familiar, be like Mary Jo, who has learn to put the brakes on her over-giving. Mostly. “These days, I’m much clearer from the start what my expectations are–at work and at home,” she says. “They’re higher than they used to be. People can produce more than you give them credit for….
“But I think I’ll always struggle with giving,” she admits. “Because I really enjoy it.”