When Good Intentions Aren’t Enough
You were only trying to help or give, so why the negative reaction?
Posted Jan 14, 2016
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:
- “I was only trying to help, they didn’t have to bite my head off!”
- “After all I’ve done for them, why are they so disrespectful?
- “I didn’t help or give to get something in return but some gratitude or reciprocity would be nice.”
- “Why do they resent me when I have been so good to them?”
- “Why do they refuse to take my excellent advice?”
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.
- Givers may be perceived as controlling because they put conditions on their help, dictate the terms of repayment, or try to “micromanage” the recipient.
- Unwanted and unasked-for gifts or assistance can place burdensome obligations on the recipient and lead to resentment. Knowing the giver went through some trouble or effort to gift them, or that the giver expects them to follow-through on the giver’s helpful recommendations, can create internal conflict when a recipient doesn’t particularly like the gift or a giver’s advice.
- Some givers have a bossy style that comes off as controlling. Most people don’t like to be bossed, although most will tolerate it if they think the giver’s position warrants it (for example, a manager generally has the right to tell subordinates what to do or a child might accept a parent’s bossiness). But if the bossing is not seen as legitimate, recipients usually feel disrespected and act out.
- Recipients coping with a recent loss of independence due to aging, illness, or accident may also respond negatively because the giver’s intervention is a painful reminder of the loss of their independence.
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:
- Pulling back on our generous gifts
- Making sure the gift is wanted, especially if it requires some sort of follow-through on the part of the recipient (e.g., a gift of a pet, tickets to a play, etc.)
- Keeping our unsolicited advice and suggestions to ourselves, and instead, offering emotional support in the form of listening and “cheerleading.”
- Showing more sensitivity when intervening, especially when recipients have experienced a loss of autonomy due to recent illness or disability
- Taking the “bossy” down a notch or two (or three)
- Asking if and how you can help, instead of assuming your intervention will be welcomed or assuming that you know what is needed
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.