I was given a thin well-used book when I was a little girl called, Tzedakah - a way of life. It was a collection of simple stories, dealing with the Jewish concept of justice or righteousness (Tzedakah). Each was only a few pages long and written in large font designed for young readers. The parables centered on how a poor person in the village, from the beggar to the local rabbi would make a significant sacrifice for another without any regard for personal benefit. It would be a kind deed of great human kindness, ‘right’ and ‘just’.
The characters were my superheros. I was impacted by the depth of their kindness and generosity, especially because they had so little. My family was firmly committed to the spirit of Tzedakah, so this too was inculcated in my home.
Except for parental love, most of us can’t quite match this level of righteousness, but might occasionally demonstrate selflessness with no expectation that our good deeds will be acknowledged, recognized or appreciated. From time to time, we all have helped someone without expecting anything in return. But prioritizing the well-being of others at any expense, financial or emotional is not always the cornerstone of everyday helpfulness.
Although not all people derive the same sense of purpose, happiness or meaning from helping others, I believe in varying degrees, most of us have this helpful trait. It is what allows us to have friends, family and get along at work. It is what makes us feel good.
There are exceptions of course. Psychopaths or full-blown narcissists do not have this trait to any extent.
As a helper-type myself and as a coach to other helper-types – including those who work in the helping professions, I am sensitive to how sometimes one may engage in inappropriate amounts of helping and caring. When one finds themselves saying: “my needs are always on the backburner”, “I’m tired of giving all the time”, “my self-respect is being compromised” or when a loving friend or family member brings attention to the lack of reciprocity in your relationships, it’s a good time to take stock of what is motivating and driving your helpfulness.
If you are chronically neglecting your own needs and have a feeling of being taken for granted or advantage of, or unappreciated, maybe you are overextending yourself in relationships – at home and at work. Or maybe you have a strong attachment to fix, influence or change someone. While taking responsibility for improving someone’s life may feel initially rewarding, empowering or fulfilling, it can result in resentments on both sides, particularly when you are over-invested in the outcomes of your suggestions. A telltale sign that self-coercion is at work is when being helpful feels onerous, like you have to do it or you are not a good person. You should feel free to give.
The presence of feeling resentful or frustrated in your relationships is not evidence that the ‘other’ is in fact guilty of taking advantage of your kindness. The giver might be exceeding normal expectations of giving. When you over-extend or over-invest, people sometimes recoil, feeling your desperation to be liked or acknowledged. There is an exaggerated expectation to match what is being given.
We can speculate that unhealthy giving or people-pleasing, also referred to as ‘codependency’ can be linked to family of origin issues or rescuer roles within the family, spiritual or religious beliefs, personality traits, emotional needs and boundary issues.
Motivations run the gamut:
I love kindness, generosity and taking an interest in others. I believe in Tzedakah as a way of life. Over-extending oneself in relationships and being out-of- balance may be part of the give and take of life. Maybe you are madly in love or maybe duty and obligation require it.
There is great freedom and joy in being invested in your own life and of creating an identity that manifests your values in many domains and not just in helpfulness and generosity.
If you feel a generalized lack of satisfaction or you are neglecting your own needs because of inappropriate amounts of helpfulness, maybe it’s time to find more balance in how you “do” relationships.
My family, relationships, movement, nature, flexibility of mind, exploration of alternative perspectives & openness are central to my life.