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How to Set Yourself Up for Success If You're a Giver

Here's how givers can protect their energy and time while still being generous.

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Being generous and giving is generally considered a virtue—both at home and at work. But in a world where there are givers and takers, how do givers who are trying to be "good" protect their generosity and energy? How do givers avoid becoming depleted, resentful, burnt out, or disappointed?

Givers are people who tend to be generous, offer to help others, share information or time, and act with others in mind without seeking something in return. Takers are those who try to get others to serve their goals and carefully protect their own energy and time. Matchers are those who look for a balance ("if you take from me, I will take from you."). Here are specific ways to help givers protect their energy while also maintaining a sense of core values and identity of generosity.

Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist and professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, describes how givers can succeed in a world where shrewd takers exist. The key is for givers to learn how to develop a nuanced understanding of generosity—and to distinguish generosity from three other traits: timidity, availability, and empathy.

1. Timidity is the opposite of assertiveness.

Solution: Identify a "beneficiary" or "proxy" of your time or energy. This is a third party who is tied with your own time, values, and interests.

Givers can have a difficult time standing up and asking for their own needs. In fact, their own needs may not even show up on their own radar. A giver's reaction is often to immediately fork over their own time or energy — or even offer help to people without being asked, by following a natural impulse and pattern to be "good" or "generous."

However, generosity does not have to mean always sacrificing your own time and energy. Saying "no" can actually be an act of generosity toward the people in your life who would be harmed if you are depleted, disappointed, resentful, frustrated, overwhelmed, or exhausted after giving up too much of your own energy or time.

If you are a giver, it would be hard to cold-turkey stop "giving" across the board. That strategy isn't helpful because it directly conflicts with a giver's core values of being "good" or "kind" — and it's not necessary for such a binary approach.

Start by separating out incidents in which your generosity goes "above and beyond" what is necessary or is self-sacrificing in ways that are harmful to you.

What if it is hard to advocate for yourself? As a first step, identify "beneficiaries" or "proxies" who share your interests and goals: Is there a third party (e.g., friend, partner, loved ones, team) who benefits when you are positive and have time and energy for yourself? A beneficiary or proxy is someone who does better when you have more time and energy for yourself and is negatively affected if you are burnt out or depleted.

When you advocate for your proxies, you advocate for yourself. Givers often will find it easier to defend and protect other people's interests than their own, at least at first.

For example, it might be hard to say no to an extra volunteer project that doesn't have much to do with your interests: You feel like you need to help out to be "generous" or "good" or you feel worried about what others will think of you if you say no — but part of you also knows this project will deplete your energy and leave you more frustrated than fulfilled. Or maybe the person asking for your help is a consistent taker from past experience.

Before offering to help, pause first and check in with yourself. Ask yourself:

  • How will your proxy be affected if you took on this project?
  • Would this mean your family or loved one would see less of you?
  • Would you be more irritable, frustrated or tired and less giving around them?
  • Would you have less time for your personal projects that you care more about?

Givers often have an easier time looking out for others than themselves and will be more fearless in protecting the time and energy of their beneficiaries or proxies.

2. Being always available to help is not the same thing as generosity.

Solution: Say "yes" more selectively. Practice saying "no" to more situations, especially from takers who do not reciprocate.

  • Know that when givers say no, givers are not perceived as selfish. Studies have shown that when takers say no, they appear selfish — but when givers say no and set boundaries, others do not judge them poorly for it — people's respect for givers stays the same. Being accommodating is not the same thing as being generous.
  • Set more boundaries around who, what, when, and how you help others. When you grant help to specific projects or people who deserve and appreciate your time and energy, you will be happier and less exhausted. The more specific and selective you are about helping, the less often random projects that don't have anything to do with your interests will come across your plate. You will become known for helping on specific things (that you actually care about!) rather than anything.
  • Screen for the takers. Takers can come in the camouflage of being your friend. But once you know that you're dealing with a taker, change your style of giving. Practice saying no to takers, and over time this will deter selfish takers from coming back. Or if you must deal with them, such as a coworker-taker, finds ways to ask for a match. Ask for something in return.
  • Give from a place of freedom, personal choice, and expertise. Studies have shown that when you give from a sense of personal choice and expertise, you are more energized than depleted. Giving from a sense of duty or obligation causes more burnout, resentment, and exhaustion.
  • Empower and ask yourself, what am I doing that contributes to situations where I give and then feel disappointed, resentful, or unhappy. Identify areas that you have the power to change or act differently to protect your time and energy. Are you offering help even when you aren't asked? Are you agreeing to help people who consistently are takers?

3. Beware of acting on empathy alone; this does not always lead to good or fair outcomes.

Solution: Try perspective-taking instead.

I have written about the dangers of "blind compassion" here. Givers often have more empathy for everyone around them. But acting on empathy alone without regard to a balanced situation can lead to poorer or mismatched outcomes. Givers can be left feeling used or that they gave too much of themselves unnecessarily.

  • It is helpful to realize that there are things that givers do unconsciously in a situation that set themselves up for disappointment or feeling unappreciated or taken advantage of. For example, notice if you are offering to give or help because of empathy but when you aren't even being asked. Or does your empathy lead you to keep helping a taker who has shown themselves to be selfish or unreliable in the past?
  • Instead of focusing on trying to make the other person feel "better," try to think about what the other person is thinking and what is in their best interests. Are there ways that you and this other person share the same goals? Is it in both your best interests to say no or walk away from the situation instead of trying to help? For example, if your friend has a gambling issue and asks you for money, instead of feeling sorry for them and "helping" by being generous and giving them money, think about what is in their best interest. Is it better to just walk away and refuse to help?

Generosity that is wise, honed, and comes from a place of agency and choice is far more rewarding. When givers learn how to exercise generosity in specific and selective ways, givers are empowered with a sense of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment. Givers who learn how to protect their reservoir will be able to continue to fill it — and can continue to help those who are deserving of their generosity.

Marlynn Wei, MD Copyright © 2021