“I GIVE TOO MUCH”
Giving is often seen as this noble act of benevolence. It’s helped us survive and connected through the centuries. The reciprocity of giving helped us depend and trust each other. We give each other our time, mental resources, support, and material possessions to help and be present for each other. While there is a feeling of altruism associated with giving, the romanticism of self-sacrifice associated with giving is idealized among us. There’s a general sense of positivity we feel towards ourselves for being the giver in relationships. The act of putting someone’s needs in front of our own is viewed as selfless and considerate.
Image Description: Painted in watercolors, Two hands holding an overflowing collection of red and yellow flowers. in front of a blue and yellow background.
Artist Credit : Rujuta Deshmukh who says "The colors are bleeding into each other to symbolize lack of boundaries when we give too much."
We rarely talk or discuss the downside of giving too much. People share feeling depleted and exhausted after giving too much; They consistently see themselves as a “giver” in every domain of their life. Occasionally, we give from a place of abundance, leaving us feeling rejuvenated, but more often, individuals give from a place of insecurity and scarcity, setting them up for disappointment and pain. One may not consciously recognize this disappointment, since the act of giving can be very emotionally rewarding.
Nevertheless, persistently giving without reciprocation may lead to a feeling of loss as over-giving involves emotional labor, that one may often ignore due to its normalization. We may consistently give in relationships, even when we face disappointment, regardless of its consequences.
WHY DOES ONE GIVE BEYOND THEIR CAPACITY?
When giving transforms to offering beyond our capacity, we feel depleted instead of feeling uplifted.
Assuming the role of a “giver” may seem unending. Consistently giving may set up an expectation and responsibility to always be the provider and helper when someone asks for help, and sometimes, even when they don’t. We walk over our boundaries and limits to fulfill people’s expectations. This may happen when we feel that being the “giver” is the only role we occupy. The only distinctive and noteworthy characteristic about us. The idea of seeing ourselves as anything else may seem daunting.
What lies underneath may be statements that could be too daunting to reconcile with.
“I am not good enough”
We try to give a substantially large part of ourselves, in romantic or familial relationships, friendships and work to distance ourselves from feeling inadequate. Seeking validation through giving becomes a medium of feeling worthy- feeling important.
Giving puts us in a position of power, as receiving requires vulnerability. If one’s unable to truly and wholeheartedly receive from others, giving becomes destructive, as it becomes the only way one engages within a relationship.
ROMANTIC RELATIONSHIPS AND SELF-SACRIFICE
Our ideas of romance and relationships are taken from the world and media around us, which borrows its influences from the dominant culture. The glorification of over-giving and sacrifice of one’s self-interest for their partner or relationships becomes the testament of love.
If one is happy to give early in the relationship and their partner isn’t reciprocating, they may find themselves in a situation where they’re always expected to give consistently. Over time, this creates a skewed pattern of over-giving and sacrifice that may lead to an imbalance of power in one’s relationship.
When a person over-gives without reciprocity, they might bear the burden of irrecoverable costs, which leaves them feeling depleted of their time, affection, and energy. Realizing that one’s actions are neither valued nor recognized, along with the pain of witnessing one’s love and care being washed away, can be detrimental to one’s being.
On reflection, it’s shocking how much we end up giving or giving up to appease our partners; From movie selections to meals, desires to despairs, we compromise integral little aspects of our existence, to only see it become invisible.
Various motivations can influence people's decisions to give up their self‐interest for their partner or relationship. One might be afraid to lose their partner or the nature of their relationship, to avoid a conflict, or to simply make their partner happy (Righetti & Impett, 2017). The desire to be the “good partner” who goes above and beyond, to fulfill their partner’s needs may come with a cost.
David Bakan described two attributes, communion and agency, that described how people interact with each other and the way they view the world (Bakan, 1966). People high in Communion are very ‘other’ focused, with qualities of being agreeable, caring, and warm. In contrast, individuals high on agency are characterized to focus on ‘themselves’, with high levels of dominance and emphasis on independence (Gubser, 2019). When individuals' communion traits (being high) are not reconciled by their agency traits ( being low), they develop a new trait called unmitigated communion (Ghaed & Gallo, 2006). Here, the need to give and maintain relationships is important to the individual’s self-concept.
This attribute can position an over-involvement in one’s relationships, where the need to provide help may be an attempt to enhance their worth in the eyes of others and subsequently their self-image (Amanatullah et al., 2008). An unmitigated communion can not only affect one’s self-esteem but take a toll on one’s mental health over the long run.
Individuals with an unmitigated communion have a desire to be deeply giving toward their partners, where they feel distressed at the thought of them receiving help from someone else. One might feel that being unable to give makes them dispensable. This instills a fear of abandonment, forcing one to compromise beyond their capacity, to avoid any conflict.
Moral Masochism, a concept analyzed by theorists such as Eric Fromm (Fromm, 1941), and Theodor Reik (Reik, 1941), explored how self-sacrificing became "a pathological way of loving", where over-giving became an escape from unbearable aloneness one experiences. Reik explained how people who are generally masochistic, attach their self-esteem to compulsively sacrificing their own needs towards others; often as a response to the inferiority, powerlessness, and insignificance experienced by them in their life.
It is important to reflect that attachment and relationships are beyond transactions of giving and taking. Due to various past experiences, we may feel insecure about parts of ourselves- Giving becomes a strategy to compensate for the shortcomings and imperfections we feel shameful for, where our sense of worth becomes attached to the ability to give.
GIVING WITHIN THE FAMILIAL, SOCIAL, AND CULTURAL CONTEXT
The people we’re related to by blood and marriage can be our greatest source of love and support. However, due to the cultural influence of familial obligations, the act of over-giving can be an expectation set up for individuals from their childhood. The expectation and emphasis of over-giving around parent-child relationships have two sides.
There's a cultural expectation that parents are expected to oblige when it comes to fulfilling their child’s wishes. Many parents try to discharge their unfilled dreams, by giving their children the luxuries and opportunities they lacked as children. They are expected to provide and focus on giving their emotional, financial, and physical resources to their child, even if it includes sacrifices.
Women, especially, experience the burden of blame, when they decide to assert or draw boundaries in relationships. In the hetronormative patriarchal society we live in, the moment a female-bodied individual is born, the expectation of sacrifice is bestowed upon them. They’re expected to sacrifice their desire, expression, and opinions, to adopt the role of a “caregiver”. It begins with serving fulfilling duties, obligations, and dreams set by their parents, to later giving and serving their in-laws to their fullest capacity. The duty and responsibility of being the giver become a tool of oppression, that’s sustained by expectations of one’s gender.
The socially and culturally created dichotomy of gender has also categorized the way one’s expected to give. In this society, men adopt the role of a “giver” by being the “provider”. The expectation of “the man” to run the household, provide for his family, and exhaust himself while doing it, is an expectation that’s tied to one’s concept of masculinity in our society. There is a lot of value associated with the role of being the provider, and the burden of this role forces individuals to suppress their emotional responses when they’re exhausted.
Family obligation and loyalty, as well as self-sacrifice and obedience toward elders, are honored in South Asia. Within South Asian culture, especially in India, children are expected to give in to parental demands whenever a conflict with a parent arises. Here, a child’s self-concept exists amidst other members of the family, where pursuing one’s personal goals and desires may be perceived to be selfish if it conflicts with the family goal set up by the elders. (Segal, 1991). Hence, the individuation or agency of the child is perceived as a loss of control, where the parent may use guilt, shame, and moral obligation to regulate their child’s behavior.
Growing up queer in this “compulsory hetronormative world” often creates feelings of guilt, blame, disappointment and self-hatred. The familial and social expectations of one’s gender and sexual identity, may either force one to suppress their identity or push one to overcompensate for the anticipated disappointment that one’s family may experience if they were to visiblize their identity. Over-giving and self-sacrifice is an invisible struggle among a lot of lived experiences of queer lives, where giving becomes a tool to compensate for one’s existence. We may sacrifice or over-give in relationships, as romantic relationships may be perceived as a rare gift one’s lucky to have. The loneliness and scarcity of receiving love and acceptance drive queer individuals to give beyond their capacity.
Religion, for many, guides our moral compass. It helps us differentiate between right or wrong and provides a path to navigate through this world. We often shape our beliefs about humanity and relationships through religion. Throughout the years, religious believers have given and devoted their time, innermost desires and on some occasions, sacrificed lives, in accord with the perceived expectation of the divine.
Sacrifice through the lens of religion is viewed as a religious rite where one offers a material object or engages in an act to please the divinity to establish, maintain, strengthen, or restore a relationship with divine power. It’s perceived as a medium to prove one’s faith, love, and devotion. Hence, the perception of individualism in therapy threatens the popular discourse of sacrifice within religion.
Self-care and drawing boundaries by saying “NO” almost seems impossible, as asserting one’s autonomy is perceived as being self-absorbed and inconsiderate. The consideration one is expected to have towards themselves and their mental well-being is met with scrutiny and hate.
Carrying the shame, guilt, and pain for prioritizing our needs is relentless but drawing boundaries and choosing ourselves is important. Noticing the exhaustion and deprivation we feel is key to resist the urge of over-giving. It's not easy, as healing from the wounds that shape our emotions, thoughts, and attitudes may take time but bringing our needs to awareness is where we begin to heal. Authenticity, honesty, and self-acceptance make space to explore our self-worth, where we can truly experience reciprocity in relationships.
Amanatullah, E. T., Morris, M. W., & Curhan, J. R. (2008). Negotiators who give too much: unmitigated communion, relational anxieties, and economic costs in distributive and integrative bargaining. Journal of personality and social psychology, 95(3), 723.
Bakan, D. (1966). The duality of human existence: An essay on psychology and religion. Rand McNally.
Ghaed, S. G., & Gallo, L. C. (2006). Distinctions among agency, communion, and unmitigated agency and communion according to the interpersonal circumplex, five-factor model, and social-emotional correlates. Journal of Personality Assessment, 86(1), 77-88.
Gubser, P. (2019). Distinguishing Mitigated and Unmitigated Agency and Communion and the Implications for Dating Relationships.
Righetti, F., & Impett, E. (2017). Sacrifice in close relationships: Motives, emotions, and relationship outcomes. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 11(8). https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12342
Segal, U. A. (1991). Cultural variables in Asian Indian families. Families in Society, 11, 233–241.