2015-06-25 / Sandy Days, Salty Nights

Confessions of an overgiver

The day after I flew home from my most recent stay overseas, I made a trip to the grocery store to buy brownie mix for my neighbor’s birthday. My eyes were bleary with fatigue and my muscles were still stiff from the plane ride, but I went anyway. Compulsively, you might say. When I got back to my house, jet lagged and miserable, I baked the brownies and wrapped a present when all I wanted to do was go back to bed. Then I walked next door, plate in hand, to wish my neighbor a happy birthday. I presented the brownies with a flourish and handed her the tissue-wrapped gift. She set the plate and the package on a side table with a mumbled thanks. No ceremony. No hugging. No tears of gratitude. All my effort, for what?

“You know what your problem is?” a friend told me recently. He’s a big man, gruff, the kind who likes to set you straight. “You’re a giver.”

I scratched my head, considering. “I like to be generous.”

“No,” he said. “You give too much. And takers? They sniff you out.”

He’s right about the takers. They always see me coming. But an overgiver? Surely, that’s not who I am.

Yet when I think about it, a lot of people — women especially, but men too — fall into this category. We constantly give too much, past the point that makes us comfortable, moving beyond generosity and into martyrdom. Some people enjoy this feeling, the idea that we’re always giving of ourselves, like a saint. And some of us have a desperate need to be liked, but we fear people will never love us for ourselves — only for what we can do for them. How to resolve this?

“You need to stop giving,” my gruff friend told me. “These people? They’re never satisfied.”

It’s true. My neighbor told me later that the brownies were underdone and the perfume I’d given her too matronly.

“Stop trying to make everybody happy,” my friend said.

I raised my hands helplessly. “But it’s my personality.”

He leaned forward. “Stop. Giving.”

And so I did. At first, just as an experiment and only in small ways. When a man at the gas pump asked if I liked my Fiat, I just smiled and said, “I sure do.” I didn’t ask him if he liked his truck, when he bought it, or what kind of milage it gets — all the inane questions I’d usually throw his way. When a friend sent a lovely and effusive message for my birthday, I accepted it with a simple thanks. I didn’t turn around and ask all about his life or tell him how important he is to me. On my birthday, I reasoned, I’m allowed to receive.

Which, in essence, is the heart of every overgiver’s problem: We don’t believe we’re entitled to be on the getting end. We think we have to make everyone around us feel good, but we’re uncomfortable when others try to please us.

So now my goal is twofold: to stop giving so much and instead simply to receive. It’s harder than it looks, especially for an overgiver like me. ¦

— Artis Henderson is the author of “Unremarried Widow” published by Simon and Schuster.

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