The Dark Side of Being a Giver
Discussing martyrdom, low self-worth, and giving-to-get.
Posted Mar 18, 2019
Is it better to give than to get? Being a giver is an attribute valued by society at multiple levels: in close relationships with a spouse, significant others, family, friends, or co-workers; or in a broad, less personal way, such as giving to charities or volunteering time to help those in need. Giving has many benefits for one’s health, psychological well-being, and spiritual growth (Brown, 2003). Givers are valued for their prosocial traits, such as selflessness, altruism, or kindness.
Yet, there may be a dark side to giving and givers. The altruistic aura of giving may hide the underbelly of the true motivations.
In some cases, the individual’s giving may be a paradoxical form of narcissism: The giver is a martyr, whose selflessness is prominently on display for all to admire. In such cases, the person who “gets” suffers through guilt or may feel psychologically suffocated by the giver and their oft-advertised sacrifices. This type of “I” focus by the giver may create unrealistic expectations of the value that others will place on their giving actions. It may lead to the chronic hyper-activation of stress hormone release (as has been associated with narcissism in general), as well as poor physical and mental health. It may also result in interpersonal rejection.
There may also be compulsive giving that is driven by low self-esteem. In such cases, individuals believe that they will only be liked if they do things for other people. Such a pervasive lack of regard for themselves leads to devaluing their own needs. Low self-worth stunts psychological development and growth. Such individuals may be perceived by others as “sweet, but boring.” Consequently, this type of behavior results frequently in shallow relationships with others, and ultimately rejection.
Lastly, there may be mercantile motivations to giving; that is, “quid pro quo” expectations, or “giving-to-get.” This type of giving to get can lead to “score-keeping” in relationships. Such individuals may be ever vigilant as to how much is received in proportion to how much is given. Relationships for giving-to-get givers involve cataloging a balance sheet of what they have done and what others owe them. This can lead to a perpetual sense that the relationship is an ongoing “deal negotiation,” rather than a friendship, a marriage, or a familial or other interpersonal connection.
Whether it is martyrdom, low self-esteem, or score-keeping giving, all of these forms of giving are pathological and can have a corrosive effect on relationships. These types of giving can engender resentment, anger, disappointment, and guilt — to both the giver and the getter. This may be why some studies have found that giving can be associated with negative outcomes, such as feeling overwhelmed or burdened by others’ problems, or feeling frustrated, particularly when there is low reciprocity in such interactions (Brown, 2003; Konrath & Brown, 2013).
Giving is a positive and valued behavior. But giving-to-get, whether by a holier-than-thou approach, self-effacement, or quid pro quo manner is not. Giving behavior in these circumstances can be maladaptive as it is exploitative rather than altruistic. It may be that these “shadow” motivations in giving are what lead to “burnout” and to an uncomfortable sense of dissatisfaction in all forms of our relationships — from marriages, to parental, to work, to friendships. These motivations poison the goodness of giving, and in turn leave the metallic residue of distaste for ourselves and for others.
Yet, frankly, we have all engaged in these not so flattering and toxic ways of giving, at least at some level. Make no mistake, very few of us are selfless souls like Mother Theresa. Still, this is not a condemnation, but an acknowledgement of our frailty, for flaws are the very nature of our humanness. Nevertheless, in order to deepen our relationships with others, to live in an authentic manner, and to grow spiritually, we must acknowledge and address these shadow sides to our nature. The next time you feel resentful, overburdened, angry at your spouse, child, parent, or friend for not valuing what you do for them, ask yourself, “How am I giving?” As Kent Nerburn (2006), in his writing about the sacred in our ordinary lives remarked, “the darkest waters hold the deepest truths” (p.36). It may be an impossibility to always give with a pure heart — but how much more joyous it is in the moments that you can do so.
Brown, S. (2003). An altruistic reanalysis of the social support hypothesis: The health benefits of giving. New Directions for Philanthropic Fundraising 42, 49-57. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/0d81/fbeae4d9e00e802172a851113e901504f211.pdf
Konrath, S. H., & Brown, S. (2013). The effects of giving on givers. In M. L. Newman & N. A. Roberts (Eds.), Health and social relationships: The good, the bad, and the complicated (pp. 39 – 64). Washington, DC: APA Books.
Nerburn, K. (2006). Ordinary sacred: The simple beauty of everyday life. Novato California: New World Library.