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Giving Too Much

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

For some of us, giving is not the issue. We give too much. Here is an article by Angela Neal-Barnett, Ph.D., an Ohio psychologist. who says “Pleasing became the one way of escaping punishment and getting ahead.”

We hyperhelpers are described by a slew of titles—people pleasers, compulsive caregivers, codependents, giveaholics. But a pleaser by any name still feels exhausted. On her list of dirtiest words, no is at the top. She wouldn’t call herself a doormat. By contrast, she’s often the achiever, the healer, the leader—the woman more comfortable granting favors than receiving them.


Why We Do It:

Experts agree that the reasons we fall so easily into this behavior are varied and complex. Among the most common:

To gain acknowledgment. In her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston declared the Black woman “the mule of the world”—strong, yes, but also the most displaced figure in this country’s racial hierarchy. “Often the way Black women counter the sense of invisibility and prove their credibility is to do more than their fair share of the work,” write Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden, Ph.D., in Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America (Perennial). We save the company, save our families, save the community. And then we forget that even a savior needs a spa day.

To comfort our inner child. Neal-Barnett and Wade agree that upbringing is often what separates overgivers from receivers. “Pleasers often parent when they’re young—perhaps because their primary caregiver is ill, on drugs or otherwise unavailable,” says Wade. “Whatever the reason, caregiving gives the child a chance to be close to the parent, to feel necessary and important. She grows up thinking that in order for people to be available to her, she has to take care of them.” Such is the case with Tanya, who was raised by her alcoholic mother. “Our relationships are a dance we use to resolve our unmet childhood needs,” adds Wade.

Renaye, 33, is married to a man she bottle-feeds and burps. “I’m his secretary, I run his errands. I stop what I’m doing to look up things on the Internet for him,” she says.

“Our relationship has always been about his happiness.” Even at work, this office manager is responsible for—surprise—pooper-scooping other people’s messes.

A look back to Renaye’s early days growing up yields a clue as to why: Not only was her mom an overgiver, but also her father was incarcerated for most of Renaye’s childhood. Upon his release, the couple divorced. “Because my dad wasn’t there, I always longed for a man’s presence,” Renaye says. “I wanted the love that my father never gave me.” What she signed up for instead was a lifelong community-service project. She admits that she’s as harried as her own single mother was 25 years ago. “Mom didn’t know how to say no,” Renaye says. “She worked overtime, went to ball games, social activities. Most nights she was exhausted. I’ve grown up to be just like her.”

To counter feelings of worthlessness. Beverly, 44, has finally identified the feelings that led her into a marriage in which she feels overwhelmed and undersupported. She and her husband of six years maintain separate bank accounts, with most of the household expenses paid from hers. Beverly also does most of the caregiving for his 11-year-old twins—sons he had with another woman during a break in their 15-year relationship. “When I was a girl, grown family members would say, ‘How come you aren’t as pretty as your sisters?’ To this day, it bothers me. I wanted to be loved by everyone so much that I did whatever I could to please.”

Robin Norwood, author of Women Who Love Too Much (Pocket Books), believes that childhood incidents like Beverly’s can be the germ of self-abasement. “Very few women who love too much have a conviction, at the core of their being, that they deserve to love and be loved simply because they exist. We work very hard at trying to appear to be good because we don’t believe we are.”

For Beverly, the costs of overgiving have been enormous. As full-time caretaker of her 83-year-old mother (who has had four strokes) and the parent to three children in addition to her husband’s two, she says, “I wake up stressed.” She has been diagnosed with sleep apnea and awaits the results of a screening for breast cancer. “I’m terrified,” says Beverly, whose sister is a breast-cancer survivor. “I’m crying inside. I have no one to talk to. I have never experienced a relationship in which I have been on the receiving end. My kids tell me, ‘Mom, you give too much. You have to stop.’ But this is just who I am.”

Taking Care of You

After a lifetime with automatic pilot set on yes, how do we even warm up our vocal chords to utter the word no? How do we retrain the misusing men, the preying bosses, the mooching friends, the demanding mothers, the financially needy relatives who’ve labeled us Bank of America? “You have to sit with the uncomfortable feelings that will initially come when you leave a partner who has been treating you badly—or when you stop going to your mother’s house every Sunday for dinner,” says Wade, who advises those of us trying to reform to seek help from a professional counselor. “To change a lifestyle. You have to do it a little at a time. Then you have to stand firm in your new choices.”

Neal-Barnett concurs and offers a script. “When someone makes a request of you, ask yourself:

  1. Do I really and truly want to do this?
  2. What are the benefits to me if I say yes—and how will I feel if I do?”

“We have to deal with others with firmness and with love. You might tell someone, ‘I know this might be difficult for you to understand, but I can’t be the kind of mother–employee–wife–friend that I want to be if I continue giving too much.’ And don’t wait until you’re so fed up that you’re screaming.” Talk to your husband, for instance, when the house is clean. Say, “I know I usually clean up after you, but I need to start letting you do it.” To begin, identify one task he can take on—like putting dishes in the dishwasher, suggests Neal-Barnett.

Sherry, 32, had one such conversation with a friend intent on picking through every detail of a recent divorce. “I didn’t want to listen for hours to all the reasons she hates her husband, but I felt suckered into it,” says Sherry. “At times I’ve had to say, ‘I can’t talk to you this week.”

I also found relief in a candid talk — not with a man a continent away, but with myself, the woman who offered up her power to win his love. I don’t have to woo another brother, earn another promotion or bail out another friend to be convinced of what was determined long before I even showed up on the planet: I have value. Inherently. No such certainty can ever be found in the eyes of another.


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Carol D. O'Dell said...

Great post and blog. As a lifelong caregiver, I've recently laughed and said,
"I'd mother a dead cat."

It took caring for my mom who had Alzheikmer's and Parkinson's and writing about it every day--which made me observe my own actions and motives--to see that I had taken it too far.

I'm proud that I am a family woman, and I'm proud that I cared for my mother who truly had no one else (I was adopted), but I also know that I'm responsible for my own behavour and decisions and that you can take all this love, nurturing, caring, parenting, whatever you call it too far--and then it's dangerous and self-serving.

I observed it in myself and I continue to see it in myself and others, but I'm now able to ask myself why I'm doing this and is it good for me--if not, it's most likely not good for the other person either. I need to trust that their needs will be met.

~Carol D. O'Dell
Author of Mothering Mother: A Daughter's Humorous and Heartbreaking Memoir
available on Amazon

Shirley Twofeathers said...

Thank you Carol, I think you are so right in saying "if it's not good for me - it's likely not good for the other person either".

And even when we aren't giving money, or substance, we can at least give our full attention, and be fully present with the other person, which I think counts for a lot. Maybe even more than we realize.

Amanda said...

Where did you find the article by Neal-Barnett? Just wondering because I just had her last fall as a college professor and anything she writes or says is worth getting your hands on. She is the sweetest, most REAL, genuine woman you will ever meet. She's one of those people you'd dream of having weekly coffee chats with. The way she thinks, the way she teaches.... absolutely unreal.

Shirley Twofeathers said...

Hi Amanda, I do not remember where I found this article. I'm really sorry. Sometimes I get sloppy and forget to include the source when I find something good for this project.

Usually, I'll be thinking either that I did copy the source URL - or I'm sure I'll remember it. Then, when I post it... later on, I can't remember where I got it, and when I go looking - I can't find it.

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