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Keep Your Shirt On


Every time someone says, “Oh, they’re so nice, they’d give you the shirt off their back,” I think if this is our standard for niceness, no wonder so many people are dysfunctional. My reaction is always the same: It’s not a great thing for someone to go shirtless. Better for them to keep theirs on and help others get their own shirts.

Being selfless, noble or altruistic are admirable, appropriate qualities—but only in some situations. When someone stops to drag a driver out of a burning car, that’s an amazing act of self-sacrifice. When a well-fed person encounters a hungry person on the street and gives them half their sandwich, that’s kindness and compassion in action. When you take the money your parents give you for your birthday to upgrade your cell phone and instead give it to your friend who lost theirs in a fire, that’s living with an open heart.

But (you knew there had to be one, didn’t you?) when someone is down and out shivering in the cold and out of habit gives up their shirt to another, their sacrifice may stem from unhealthy reasons. In my practice, I’ve seen this kind of compulsion to give to others rather than take care of self happen for several reasons.

Sometimes people are raised to believe it’s selfish to take care of yourself if someone else is in need. No matter that you work two jobs and they’ve blown their savings on fluff, you feel wrong or bad if you don’t help them meet the rent. Or you have low self-esteem and don’t believe you deserve anything good in life, so why not give whatever is needed to someone else? Sadly, maybe you believe that everyone is more deserving of positive things in life than you are and you only feel good about yourself in giving mode.

I have clients on a tight budget who don’t think twice about lending strangers or “friends” money. Shelling out to others continues even when financial requests are ongoing and loans aren’t paid back. This isn’t altruism; it’s poor judgment. When I ask clients why they behave this way, they inevitably tell me they “feel sorry” for someone. Decisions aren’t made with cognitive discernment but out of fear of feeling guilty if they stop being a human ATM or of not receiving help they might need from others down the road. 

If you want to live a healthy, functional life, doing for others at grave expense to yourself won’t lead you there. You don’t have to feel guilty saying no and saying it doesn’t make you selfish. It’s time to think long and hard about recognizing your healthy and unhealthy motivations in giving and care-taking decisions and answering with more refusals. This is especially true if you’ve been functioning in victim mode for most of your life, metaphorically running around shirtless and then complaining about it.