Do You Give More than You Get? 7 Ways to Change the Pattern

When you give everything away, what's left for you?

Posted Dec 04, 2010

My client Terri* has a demanding full-time job and manages a household that includes her husband and their three children. Somehow she manages to sew Halloween costumes, bake cupcakes for class birthday celebrations, and get to her children's plays, concerts, parent-teacher conferences and athletic events. She has even been class parent for each child at least once.

Source: studiograndouest

On Thanksgiving Day she went with her family to watch the parade and returned home to put the finishing touches on dinner for twenty. "It's not work. I love these celebrations," she told me. But after she pulled an all-nighter cleaning the house for a family tree-trimming and eggnog party, she got into what she called "a stupid argument" with her husband and snapped at her children. "And what I really love is being with them and having a wonderful holiday season with them," she said sadly.

"My mother is always telling me I'm going to wear myself out. My husband says I'm trying to do too much. But I usually feel so happy doing all the preparations for the holidays. I love buying the presents and wrapping them up. I get such a kick putting out all of the Christmas decorations and baking cookies with the kids. I love spending time with my family and my friends, dressing up, all the things that go along with the holidays. It's my favorite time of year. I don't want to be having arguments with my husband and my children. I want it to be fun." She sighed and said, "Maybe I'm just getting old." And then she burst into tears.

Shortly after this conversation I was taking a yoga class, and the teacher started talking about the holidays and how hard they can be. "Part of the problem," she said, "is that we are trying to do so many things for other people. And that's good," she added. "But it's not good if we forget to take care of ourselves."

Then she added, "The best way to be nice to other people is to take care of yourself."

As I thought about this idea, I found myself thinking about Terri and many of my clients, friends, colleagues and relatives who suffer from what I call the "giving tree syndrome," that is, a belief that to be a good and generous person you must give yourself selflessly to those you love. The tree in the children's book "The Giving Tree" gives and gives without limit. It never gets replenished by anyone else and doesn't take care of itself, so in the end, it is used up. The moral of the story (although not the one implied by the book) is that if you give too much, you eventually have nothing left -- for yourself or for anyone else.

Terri gets great pleasure from giving to others. She is a generous soul with a lovely, generous spirit. But she and all of us who enjoy giving to others (and who know that this pleasure itself replenishes us in many ways) may forget that there is a limit to our energy. We would all do well to keep in mind the airline rule to "put on your own oxygen mask before helping others with theirs."

Even though we've all heard that line so often that we barely even notice it anymore (except to make jokes about it), it's a terrific mantra for life. If we try to take care of someone else without taking care of ourselves, we can become too depleted - of oxygen or energy or internal supplies - to help them. This of course does not mean that we are supposed to either literally or symbolically put on our own mask, use up all the oxygen and ignore everyone else; but in order to give to others, we do have to have enough internal resources to give them what they need.

The author and spiritual guide Pema Chodron speaks of the importance of having compassion for ourselves in order to feel compassion for others. But she clarifies that for her compassion involves an honest and open recognition of our weaknesses and failures, our faults as well as our strengths. This kind of self-acceptance makes it possible to accept the limitations of others as well.

Still, it's not always easy to figure out how to take care of ourselves. When I brought this idea up to another client who struggles every year during the holidays, she said, "but my children look forward to all of the activities. I can't disappoint them."

Terri's response was different. The problem for her was not so much that her children would be disappointed. "It's a fun time of the year for them no matter what! They'd be just as happy with fewer decorations and less baking," she told me. The problem was that the activities were all fun for her!! She didn't want to give anything up. For her, then, one struggle was to choose not to do some of the things she loved, in order to better enjoy some of the others.

Either way, neither woman had time to do everything she wanted to do or thought she should be doing and to replenish the energy she was expending, not just on the holiday, but all year long.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by the tasks and activities on your "to do list," even the ones that you know will bring you joy, you may also be suffering from the giving tree syndrome. One way to know for sure: if you're not able to enjoy the activities you love, or if you're feeling so used up that you aren't having fun and aren't any fun to be with, you're probably suffering from giving tree-itis!

Here are some ideas about how you might avoid this problem. After all, what good is it for anyone if you're too tired, irritable or overwhelmed to enjoy whatever activities you've been working so hard to plan?

1. Get enough sleep. This one may seem obvious, but it's not always simple to practice. As we get more excited and/or anxious, we often have troubles sleeping. One of Terri's problems was that she could get by without a lot of sleep. So it was one of the areas that got cut back when she was wrapping presents and cleaning the house - things she needed to do when the kids were not around. It was, however, one of the reasons for her irritability. Sleep helps restore our physical and psychological equilibrium, so when we don't get enough, we become short-tempered - and we function more poorly in general. So stop your activities, take a warm (not hot) bath or shower, and get yourself into bed in a timely manner. And do whatever it takes to relax enough to fall gently asleep - read, listen to music, drink a cup of herbal tea or hot milk. And speaking of showers and baths...

2. Maintain your personal hygiene. Not only baths and showers, but finding time to make sure that your clothes are clean and neat, your hair washed and trim can make a huge difference in your mental and emotional well-being. A trip to the beauty parlor may seem like an outrageously self-centered expenditure of time and money, but if you can possibly manage it, it can be well-worth it! (Just think about that head massage you get while your hair is being washed!)

3. Eat well. When you're busy giving, it's not a good idea to start a diet, since you will very likely end up feeling deprived and unhappy - and most likely will end up bingeing on all of the things you've been avoiding! On the other hand over-indulging in alcohol and sweets can wreck your mental health as well as your body! Go easy on both, but don't deprive yourself totally. Try to make wise choices. A few of the small candies that your company's receptionist keeps on her desk won't hurt you! But if you don't like them, they won't give you any pleasure. So try to find some other treat that will please you - bring your favorite cookies with you to work, or slip out and buy one delicious candy from your local deli or drugstore and eat it instead!

4. If money is tight and you still need to give someone a present -- for a wedding, a birthday, a holiday or something else -- remember that your time and energy are also valuable. See if you can find some ways to combine gifts or make them more personally energy-efficient! And remember that the thought really does count - sometimes an inexpensive but thoughtful gift can be more meaningful even than something you make!

5. Exercise! This doesn't mean start training for a marathon! I love mysteries (see #6), and I get many of my most useful ideas from them. I have always loved the way Goldie, the heroine of a very light series by Diana Mott Davidson, exercises. She does three or four - six if she's feeling particularly energetic - sun salutations and calls it a day! That's it. Even if you just bend over towards your toes (it doesn't matter if you can't touch them) and roll slowly back up to a standing position, you're getting some exercise. And on the other hand, don't overdo it. If you're a big exerciser already, maybe you can cut back a little here and there. But don't stop altogether! Exercise keeps you breathing, and breathing is good!

6. Do something pleasurable for yourself. It doesn't have to cost money. Take a bubble bath. Watch a silly program on tv or something dumb on YouTube. Go to a movie (or for a walk or a drive to see the holiday decorations) with your partner!! Or drop out and read something un-improving  and totally entertaining! I am not much of a movie or television buff, but I escape by reading dumb mysteries, which I get from the library (I read too many to buy them).

7. And finally, remember that you have to make choices. You simply cannot do everything! You may have to give up one thing that you love in order to do have the energy to do something else that you love as well!

As always, please let me know about any solutions you've found that work!

*names and identifying information changed

More Posts