Editor’s Note: Resource Perspectives features articles written by members of Lovefraud’s Professional Resources Guide.
Re-thinking identity as a giver when giving too much can hurt
By Fannie LeFlore, MS,LPC,CADC-D
If you’ve been victimized by someone, chances are the positive qualities you possess were viewed as an opportunity to take advantage of you – often by someone who lacks caring and concern, consciousness or character, usually in combination.
Being un-thoughtful and even callous in our stressed, hurried and often competitive and conflict-oriented society can become as easy as brushing one’s teeth. Taking time to listen or give comfort to another requires the kind of care and empathy that many good people demonstrate routinely, but later question the value of these qualities in the aftermath of being targeted, left confused or possibly devastated by an encounter with a sociopath.
If you’ve taken pride in being a decent, ethical, loving, conscientious and considerate individual, chances are you never contemplated in depth that dire consequences could result from being a giver – whether giving others the benefit of doubt or money, or otherwise offering a helping hand.
As someone inclined to give, you’ve likely taken pride in but rarely considered the costs in a world with many different people who have different motives and operate from different values and perspectives. Due to ignorance and ill will, toxic people generally view kindness as weakness — even though it actually is a strength.
People who embody empathy, who are accustomed to giving and sharing positive qualities with others in personal and professional relationships, may be tempted to turn away from these strengths after a bad experience or series of negative life-changing events. Instead, refining these positive traits throughout life — by challenging assumptions and setting boundaries — is a more productive approach for avoiding ongoing victimization, rather than taking a simplistic, cynical and bitter stance that inherently deflates the good and dismisses the beauty of life.
When you’ve been a giver in relationship with someone who feels entitled, you learn through painful experience that what you give can be taken for granted and squandered. It can be turned against you by toxic people who call what is good bad and what is bad good. It can become difficult to know how to balance innate empathy and also maintain a sense of well-being when another person or others around you are always ready to take or even exploit what you value in yourself.
Obligation to give
If you grew up influenced by Christian teachings, you’ve heard that it’s better to give than to receive. Others may have advised that you shouldn’t expect blessings to sprout from people you assist through investments of time and energy, because reciprocation or appreciation is likely to come from elsewhere. There’s also an embedded belief that, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” This can be interpreted to mean if you are financially well-off, have an abundance of understanding, intelligence, empathy and valuable experiences, you should willingly help and share your resources and resourcefulness with others whether they deserve it or not.
When taken to extremes, these and other admonitions can set people up for exploitive and abusive relationships, not just with sociopaths but with a garden variety of users and abusers, takers and fakers.
You might feel obligated to be more of a giver because you’re been trained from childhood for this role, and it’s habitual. You may feel guilty saying no to requests from even people who do not deserve your time or loyalty. You may tolerate extremely toxic situations and try to improve them single-handedly since people expect you to problem-solve while they go their merry way engaging in other activities or distractions. If you’ve complied so much that you no longer feel you have a right to object, or fear resentment from others if you attempt to change the circumstances with takers who willingly absorb all that you offer and yet are ungrateful, you are likely to become unfulfilled and depleted.
Boundaries are key
The best way to avoid being victimized again, even if you choose to continue giving, is to develop a more balanced approach by becoming more open to receiving and giving, and by practicing boundaries that become as routine and natural as brushing your teeth.
Boundaries involve defining what is and is not okay for you. You need to be flexible at times and rigid at times, even though practicing boundaries can become difficult since each situation may require a different response and different people may require a different approach. Some people, as the late author M. Scott Peck has written, can be invited into your kitchen to sit down and eat, while others should not be allowed past your front door. Among ways to determine this is whether the person you’re dealing with lacks boundaries himself, or whether she demonstrates respect for your concerns and needs without requiring constant vigilance and reminders.
Since we cannot control what others choose to do, the most important component is to re-think our own identity, which will allow changes for developing new boundaries and maintaining both self-awareness and integrity as life unfolds. Whether you take a lot more than you give or give a lot more than you take, it’s crucial to ask why and make a conscious effort for more balance. Too much giving or taking create problems when relating to others or seeking personal happiness. A proper amount of both give and take promotes less stressful and healthier living, according to various research on psychological and social well-being.
Out of balance
A very self-centered partner, friend or family member is likely to accuse you of engaging in tit-for-tat when you start expecting them to give back. They might say that what they receive from you is something they’re entitled to, or that you voluntarily offer what they gladly accept.
Over time, the erosion of your energy from takers and fakers, users and abusers, can make you feel so out of balance that your life feels less about your needs than catering to others – whether it’s what they want, what they expect or what they think you should do. This essentially is what feeling victimized amounts to: Somebody takes all you give and leaves you with little to nothing, or feeling used or abused.
Often, when you keep giving so much of yourself, it’s not simply to please and make others happy. Underlying factors also reflect a lack of self-awareness about your own needs, lack of honesty about what you really feel, not believing that you deserve things you want, and a lack of clarity about your own boundaries.
Time to change
When you’ve been burned in personal and professional relationships by users and abusers, takers and fakers, you’d be doing a disservice to yourself if you didn’t change. There are in fact toxic people and situations in life that do not serve your best interests. Even if the new knowledge feels threatening, it forces you to challenge previous assumptions. It demands understanding that a sense of personal safety and security can no longer depend on a just world theory or be based on whether you are considered a decent person or not.
Re-thinking the foundations of your identity as a giver require giving yourself permission to seek a more balanced approach in how you relate to not just others but yourself as well.
If you’re in conflict over past assumptions about what it means to be good, a giver, it’s important to redefine yourself – without needing permission from others. Making adjustments in your identity requires integrating new lessons for renewal of self-awareness. What others from your past told you, and how they defined you, needs to be challenged, despite hoping for understanding or wanting approval from others.
Own your reality
Start by owning, without apology, your present realities. You may have enjoyed accolades and other benefits from being viewed as primarily unselfish or a giver, but these roles may no longer fit. You may no longer have the same level of energy, time, money and other resources to share with family, friends and significant others. Even if you do, you have a right to change how you handle things when being a primary giver no longer works well for you. You have limitations and needs like others, or maybe you simply want something different in relationships, including more reciprocity.
While you share commonalities, you also are separate and so are others. You are different and so are others. To assume that someone else thinks and feels exactly how you do is a set-up for assumptions and coming to inaccurate conclusions. That’s why questions are important for clarification, since one person’s meaning may vary from another’s. Seeking clarification also helps us get a better picture of where others are coming from and, coupled with their actions, can provide clues about whether someone is more a giver, taker or combination of both.
Questions to ask yourself
Ask yourself these kinds of questions: Who says a good person or someone who considers herself a giver has to always give? Who says you shouldn’t challenge others’ perceptions of you, especially when they attempt to manipulate you in being someone they can take advantage of? Who says you have to be predictable in every way to prove to others they can trust you? Who says being loveable requires you to behave with consistency – as in (fill in the blank) would never do that, such as saying no? Who says you’re being phony if you don’t always agree with what others expect of you? Who says that someone who gives also should never receive anything back from those whom she gives to?
Here are some approaches to prevent feeling victimized or otherwise overwhelmed by potential takers and toxics:
- Tell them that if they have expectations of you, you’ll have expectations of them.
- If they hint about something, don’t focus on drawing them out. Let them find courage to ask directly for what they want from you.
- Practice saying no more often, especially when someone has become overly needy and doesn’t know when to stop asking for help or favors from you.
Be prepared for what can happen when you start enforcing boundaries. Some people will no longer like you, nor want to interact with you as much. Learn to be okay with this. Embrace that you have a right to take care of yourself, redefine yourself and decide what is okay for you. You can determine when and what to give of your time, attention, money and other positive qualities and resources.
Keep in mind that whenever an individual no longer wants to deal with you because you’ve set boundaries, it is indicative of progress because you no longer have to engage in wasted time and energy. If someone cannot tolerate you saying no once in a while – despite knowing that you are cooperative and supportive otherwise – it’s likely they had their own agenda and less interest in reciprocation or other mutual benefit anyway.
Ask yourself what are you really losing? Remind yourself that your positive qualities have value. Just as you can appreciate good things about others, what you offer should not be viewed as license to exploit, devalue or take for granted. And if someone else chooses to view things otherwise, your evolving boundaries will make it possible for you not to participate in their distorted perspectives.
About the author: Fannie LeFlore, MS, LPC, CADC-D is an Entrepreneur, Journalist and Licensed Professional Counselor. These combined career areas are the foundation of the expertise and quality professional services provided by LeFlore Communications, LLC in Milwaukee, Wis. Areas of Expertise: Communication Skills, Codependency Issues, Counseling of Diverse Populations, Crisis Intervention, Abusive Relationships, Sociopathy and Narcissistic Personality Disorder, General Mental Health and Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Issues. Fannie also was Co-writer/Editor of The Road Less Traveled and Beyond by M. Scott Peck, MD.