Why do we do it? Why do we continue to give and give, and try and try, and spend our precious life-hours catering to people who don’t give back?

selfish friends

I’m not saying these people never give back. Occasionally, they surprise us.The problem is that those occasions– almost without exception–have more to do with them and their needs than us and ours. Here are some examples of when these people include us in their plans:

  • They want to go somewhere, but they don’t want to go alone. (Often, their first choice was busy.)
  • They know we’ve got tickets, or we’ve been invited somewhere they want to go.
  • They need something we’ve got: expertise, a snow blower, a truck, a stage pass, a cousin who knows someone who might be able to help them.
  • They like the wine we bring.
  • We always pay.
  • They love our cooking.
  • We drive.
  • We always say ‘yes.’
  • We never ask for anything in return.

So why do we do it? Sometimes, we do it because we genuinely love the person and get pleasure from seeing them happy. This is often the case with our kids. It’s an instinct. We think if we model generosity, we’re teaching our children to be givers. We’re not. We’re teaching them to be takers. The kids who become givers have parents who have taught them that giving is an essential part of any healthy relationship, just as showing gratitude is. Those kids are givers, and they become delightful adults.

We think if we model generosity, we’re teaching our children to be givers. We’re not. We’re teaching them to be takers.

But if your giving goes beyond being generous or indulgent with people who give back, then there’s something else going on, besides generosity. Here are some examples of payoffs for giving to people who don’t give back:

  • It can produce dependency in the receiver that makes you feel indispensable.
  • You can bank your good deeds and cash in on them the next time you want to punish or guilt someone.
  • It makes you look good to others and feel good about yourself.
  • It makes you feel superior to those who give less.
  • It reinforces any beliefs you might have that you are worthless and other people’s needs are more important than your own. This doesn’t sound like a payoff, but feeling “less than” does provide you with a reason for not confronting a difficult, self-centered, or defensive person.
  • It’s the only way to get positive attention from people you think are cooler, smarter, or more important than you are.
  • You have a shopping addiction, and giving things away allows you to make space for your next purchases, while feeling like you’re helping those less fortunate than yourself.

But not all of us can identify with payoffs like the ones above. Some of us grew up in families where the children had no choice but to give. I’m talking about alcoholic families where children had to function as adults in order to cover for their parents, take care of younger siblings, or assume adult responsibilities to survive. These children did what needed to be done, and never had the luxury of questioning or even considering that they had needs that mattered.

As adults, we can change how we respond to self-absorbed people who take more than they give. The first step is recognizing that one-way relationships are not a given. If you keep finding yourself in them, it’s probably because you keep choosing them.

For example, for several years, my best friend was a woman who loved me—as long as I was the weaker one in the relationship.  Initially, it didn’t matter. I loved that she was wise, funny, thoughtful, and more worldly. She knew how to do things I hadn’t done before. And she had a grown-up job and knew how to make money. I gave her adulation, and in turn, she was happy to “mentor” me. The truth was she didn’t love me. She loved feeling superior.

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