We usually expect our gifts and help to strengthen our relationship with recipients. But that doesn’t always happen. Indeed, givers are sometimes taken aback when recipients respond negatively. They often think things like:
After thinking about it and researching it, I think it’s safe to say that when our helpfulness or giving threatens the recipient’s self-esteem or decreases their sense of control (or both), they’re likely to react negatively. There are four conditions when this is more likely.
Condition 1: The recipient feels the help or gift implies their inferiority or incompetence and that’s hard on their self-esteem or feels insulting. Sometimes being in a position to provide help or to give highlights the giver’s competence or success and that makes the recipient feel incompetent, unsuccessful, or lower in status in comparison. A giver’s “delivery” can also be experienced as condescending or critical, leading to the recipient’s defensiveness. And when recipients feel like we’re helping or giving because we pity them, negative reactions are likely, because pitying someone implies their inferiority.
Condition 2: The recipient believes they cannot easily repay the giver or reciprocate, triggering burdensome feelings of indebtedness and guilt. This is especially an issue when the gift or assistance is large. Some recipients even experience this as an uncomfortable relationship power imbalance and reassert their power with rebellion or rudeness, or minimize the giver or the gift/help to reduce their dissonance.
Condition 3: The recipient experiences the giver’s intervention as an infringement of their personal freedom and autonomy. When people experience a loss of personal control they often become angry, reactive, and rebellious.
It’s worth noting that some people have particularly strong feelings about their personal freedom and are especially quick to perceive helpfully intended intervention as an affront to their privacy and dignity or as a violation of their individual right to do as they please (toddlers, teens, and people with particular personality traits are prone to these perceptions).
Condition 4: The recipient feels the helping or giving doesn’t arise out of care for them but out of duty, or only because it’s required or expected (for example, as part of your role as parent, stepparent, or sibling). Likewise, if they think you’re only doing it so you can feel like (or look like) a good person, or that you’re trying to change them because they embarrass you.
We only have limited control over how recipients perceive our intentions and respond to our assistance and gifts. The above conditions don’t even have to be true for your giving to negatively impact your relationship with a recipient. All that’s required is a belief in their truth (this is one reason why negative reactions from recipients can catch givers off-guard). But negative reactions usually mean we should reconsider our giving in that relationship. Among other things, this may mean:
Above all, remember that helping, giving, and receiving are complicated because people vary and human relationships are complex. Good intentions aren’t enough for successful helping and giving. Finesse and sensitivity are required to prevent your generosity from backfiring.
For my other blogs on the topic of healthy/unhealthy helping and giving see:
Burn, S.M. (2016). Unhealthy Helping: A Psychological Guide to Overcoming Codependence, Enabling, & Other Dysfunctional Giving.
Fisher, J. D., Nadler, A., & Whitcher-Alagna, S. (1982). Recipient reactions to aid. Psychological Bulletin, 91, 27-54.
Nadler, A., & Fisher, J.D. (1986). The role of threat to self-esteem and perceived control in recipient reaction to help: Theory development and empirical validation. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 19, 81-122.