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I’ve noticed this phenomenon over my 35 years of being a therapist: many clients who are great at giving care are crummy at receiving it. These are people who become uncomfortable when someone wants to do something for them—give them a gift or do them a favor. These are often the same people who rely on alcohol, food or other obsessive habits to deal with life rather than turn to people.
Take Astrid who is finally accepting now in her late 50s that there’s a cost to perpetual giving. Doing for all her neighbors, colleagues, and family members exhausts her but it also makes her insist, “It makes me feel good about myself, you know, worthwhile.” Of course, anyone can see that by saying this, she’s also saying that the opposite is true: if she isn’t giving or taking care of someone, she’s of no value. Worse, if she’s taking care of herself, her value decreases to next to nothing.
As I say oodles of times a week in sessions, “If you were born on this planet, you’re deserving.” You need not be special or do anything of note. You’re deserving of happiness, care, etc. just as everyone else is. Ideally we’d all get together and learn to take care of ourselves and others. That’s the goal.
Once you believe you’re deserving, it’s much easier to find the self/other balance. Ideally we fall into a rhythm with others of caring for each other. Sometimes I get care and sometimes you get it. There’s no struggle over who receives it because we both enjoy giving and getting it. This entails functioning at a higher level than tit for tat because there’s no score-keeping going on.
Two things to watch out for as you’re trying to achieve this balancing act. The first is unconsciously doing for others because you’d like it in return. You may not realize that you’re the go to person in your family because what you give others is exactly what you yearn for (but won’t get in that role). Another red flag is when someone only wants to do for you and fights reciprocity. That tells you that they’re uncomfortable giving and you’ll never be able to return acts of kindness appropriately. It may also indicate they’re insecure and are afraid you’ll leave the relationship if they ask something of you.
A place to start is to be aware of all the nuances laid out above regarding care-giving and receiving. In which role are you most comfortable? Why is that? Can you see the cost to you? Consider what beliefs you want to change about yourself to be comfortable in both positions—giver and receiver—then practice putting your life in greater balance.
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