How to be a giver, not a sacrificer

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Being someone who makes sacrifices is often held up as a virtue. But whether we’re trying to form creative, autonomy-respecting relationships with your children or relating to adults in different areas of life, ‘giving in’ is not a solution. Giving and ‘giving in’ are not the same thing.

This year in my journalling, each week I’ve been focussing on a different quality that I’d like to encourage in myself. I’ve got thirteen to think about over the year, so each quality will get four weeks of attention.

But the quality I return to most often and which seems to me to be the most fundamental is generosity. I’m not talking about having pots of money to give away, though that might be a factor for some, but something deeper. We can be generous whether we are wealthy or in financial poverty. The point is that the giving, whether it’s of time, skills or resources is a key virtue.

But if we’re always giving, doesn’t this lead to always self-sacrificing?

Self-sacrifice isn’t about caring

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What we give to demonstrates what we care about.

What we ‘give in’ to shows a lack of self-respect and creativity.

Sometimes we fail to find a solution with another person, whether it’s a child or a colleague. Sometimes life gets in the way and we compromise or simply put the other person’s needs first. It happens. But when we end up self-sacrificing on a regular basis it’s a negative signal for many reasons.

1. Self-sacrificing cuts creativity dead

If you’ve spent hours trying to find a solution to no avail and you’re too exhausted to go on, giving in might seem like the only way to cut your losses. But if you give up early in a negotiation process, then you abort all the problem solving skills you and other person might have employed.

2. Self-sacrificing is a path to bad feeling

Regular self-sacrificing builds resentment. A person who always gives in might seem ‘fine’ about it, but over time this kind of self-negation eats away at us. It poisons the atmosphere of being solution-oriented.

Chronic self-sacrificers often become passive aggressive manipulators . They might say they ‘don’t mind’ what the other person decides. Such people claim to be happy to go along with anything. But at the same time, they often put others in the position of having to guess at their needs rather than being open and honest about them.

3. Self-sacrificing is a sign of fear

Fear paralyses us. Living out of fear keeps us living small, timid lives that are so much less than their potential. People who always self-sacrifice are likely to be people-pleasers who live in terror that not doing what someone else wants will result in the other person not liking them or getting angry.

But not everyone in your life will like you. You are not responsible for controlling other people’s tempers. Moreover, sometimes anger, expressed clearly and without threat, needs expressing.

A life completely devoid of conflict is likely to be one in which issues are being repressed. And that way all kinds of suffering lies.

4. Self-sacrificing puts others in your debt

When you renege on your self-care and needs and make it obvious that you are doing so, the other person owes you. The other person has to be ‘nice’ to you because you gave them what they wanted. The other person has to like you, never be angry with you and feel grateful, because it’s only ‘fair’ when you’ve done so much for them…

Self-sacrificing in this way is neither rational or realistic. If you give so much of yourself that there is no room for others to give in return they are likely to feel less comfortable around you. They are likely to feel undervalued because there is nothing left for them to contribute. And far from never feeling angry with you, people can feel they are being dumped with a lot of emotional baggage by self-sacrificers.

Collaboration trumps sacrifice

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Unschooling my children taught me that at all stages of life self-sacrificing is a route to bad feeling. It sabotages creativity. We have to take ourselves seriously if we are going to do the same for others.

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?

Hillel the Elder

When we collaborate with others, everyone can give and take. We can offer our creativity to whatever problem or issue we are sharing and act without fear and without feeling indebted.

Collaboration benefits your

  • creative thinking
  • sense of self-worth and usefulness
  • optimism
  • learning

Collaboration always trumps giving in, but there are occasions when the other person needs something:

  • physical resources
  • attention
  • information
  • time

The joy of giving

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Giving isn’t about negating ourselves out of fear of conflict or because we’re too lazy to spend the time finding a solution.

Generosity is deeper and more joyful. It’s a commitment to living from abundance rather than scarcity.

Benjamin P Hardy:

You become successful by developing skills and abilities — and by using those skills to serve … others.
You need to find joy — genuine pleasure and excitement — watching other people succeed as a result of your help.

Whilst self-sacrificing stunts creativity, generosity enlivens it.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl says:

Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.

The surrender that Frankl talks about is not out of fear or manipulation, but out of love. It’s not unhealthy self-denial, but leads to happiness and ‘success’ for the giver as much as for the one given to.

Unlike self-sacrifice, this type of ‘surrender’ is not about exploitation or using your apparent giving to manipulate others. Rather, it’s about a shared bond that we want to honour.

It might be a remote bond, as when we give to a cause that is far away from our own lives, but resonates with our common humanity. Or it might be a direct bond with someone important to us.

Generosity is a quality that goes much deeper than dropping loose change into a charity collection box. At its best it is about empathy, compassion and a delight in the value of others. And, like all good qualities, generosity creates win-win situations.

1. Generosity is good for your health

Psychologist Liz Dunn believes that whilst greed makes us miserable and stressed, generosity increases satisfaction and health.

Stephanie Brown supports the same conclusion. She notes that the social and health benefits of altruism are more than we imagined. Giving is a factor in longevity. And giving includes emotional support. People who listen and pay real attention to others are doing both parties a favour.

Brown also found that giving promotes psychological well-being. For example it protects widows who are coping with grief from spiralling into depression.

As Stephen Post puts it in the Journal of Behavioural Medicine:

It’s good to be good

Provided we’re not overwhelmed with demands and expectations (AKA: self-sacrifice) then there is:

a strong correlation exists between the well-being, happiness, health, and longevity of people who are emotionally and behaviorally compassionate…

2. Generosity is a positive mindset

If self-sacrifice comes from a fearful mindset, generosity is the opposite. I recently observed someone who finds it hard to give. She pales at the thought of letting go of small amounts of money — it’s visible — a look of distress, hunched shoulders, tension. She’s afraid of ‘not having’ and it makes her stressed and unhappy.

Generosity acknowledges that resources are fluid. In the words of Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet:

My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep. The more I give to thee,
The more I have, for both are infinite.

Instead of having a mindset in which everything is scarce:

  • there isn’t enough time to give any away
  • I can’t afford to help, I’m not rich
  • I don’t want to listen, I’ve got my own problems

generosity reassures us that

  • time is about how you decide to spend it — we experience it as qualitatively ‘more’ when we make deep connections.
  • there is always something we can give
  • giving attention builds bonds and is more likely to make other people listen to you in turn

3. Generosity is crucial to a culture of creativity

Being closed to others or self-sacrificing are both ways to kill creativity. Generosity does the opposite. As P Carl, director of HowlRound — a think tank that encourages community among theatre-makers, says:

Sharing, abundance, and generosity are at the core of creating a successful infrastructure for creative practice.

This is vital for writers or other artists. A great deal of time we create alone. But we rely on others to edit our work, review our novels or articles, read what we’ve put into the world. We need communities of positive critics and engaged readers. We need to value the creative work of others as much as we want our own to be valued.

I’m fortunate to belong to the extended community around Cinnamon Press in which so many authors are givers. There are authors who copy edit manuscripts or who mentor emerging writers. There are authors who organise groups for writers to network together, learn new skills and share readings. There are even those who will spend an afternoon taping up boxes to post when new stock arrives or addressing envelopes.

Such generosity is humbling and salutary.

In short

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Generosity is a largeness in the way we think, live and create.

  • It assumes that life is good and plentiful.
  • It is a refusal to live by fear.
  • Generosity is good for your emotional and physical well-being.
  • It’s an act of hope and optimism.
  • It’s collaborative.
  • And it’s creative.

We don’t need to be self-sacrificers, but we can all be givers.

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