Learning to Give

I have written before about my fallout with a partner a while back. What I learned from that relationship is that no matter how much we improve ourselves, it doesn’t guarantee the other person will change. By focusing on our own actions, we may inspire others to change, there’s no assurance they will follow suit (as was evident in my relationship).

There is only so much we can do before we need to think things through. When nothing we do is ever good enough for our loved ones, it’s time to step back and evaluate things. We can’t give to others at the cost of our well-being.

Bottom line is, I did my best and gave as much as I could in that relationship before I could give no more.

A giver is someone who asks what they can do for others, whereas a taker is one who asks what others can do for them.

I think of giving as adding value to peoples’ lives—to give to others without expecting anything in return, because that’s who we are. We give from a place of intention, abundance, and love. If others want to reciprocate, then that’s great, but we don’t give to get.

We are all givers by design, but somewhere along the way, we have slipped into becoming takers. Giving is akin to the muscle that exists under the fat; it’s all there, it’s just that the “fat” (i.e. taking) needs to be removed.

There have been times where I felt I was “overgiving” in my relationships. In addition to the example mentioned at the start of the draft, this has included some of my friendships. In these instances, I’ve felt like I was putting myself too much “out there” and was too forthcoming. And perhaps I needed to step back a bit.

When we try to help others without prioritizing ourselves first, that’s not giving. Giving isn’t about saying yes to everything, nor is it about being a doormat for others to walk over. On the contrary, we can’t give to others without helping ourselves first.

True giving also isn’t about keeping score. This isn’t a transaction we are talking about. We don’t give with the intention of receiving in return; that would defeat the point of giving. At the same time however, a relationship cannot sustain without give and take. That’s just the nature of it. When one person keeps on giving while the other keeps on taking, sooner or later this will likely create an imbalance in the relationship.

Although relationships aren’t transactional per se (or shouldn’t be), some value is constantly transferred between the parties involved, which keeps the ball rolling and feeds the relationship. The way I see it, that constant value transfer is, in the broadest sense, fodder for a relationship.

Here are some reasons to cultivate a giving mindset.

We give because we are wired to be useful to others—to add value to others’ lives. It’s what makes us human. When we give to others, we don’t have less, as there is plenty more where it came from.

As Buddha has said, when we light a lamp for someone else, it also brightens our path. You can also think of a tree that gives others shade without undermining itself. Or how a candle can light many other candles without diminishing its own light. There is always more to give.

Cultivating a mindset of giving creates gratitude. The more we give, the more grateful we feel. Besides, we are happiest and peaceful when we give. The more we give, the more we receive, but we don’t give to receive. We give because that’s who we are. When we do things for others, it makes us feel good and even releases oxytocin (the “happy” chemical) in our brain.

Besides that, when we do good for others, it inspires them to do the same for others, and so on. The more we do for others, the more oxytocin we release, the more generous we become, and the more we inspire others to be generous in their actions. The more we give, the happier we are. True fulfillment comes from helping others, not ourselves.

Here are some ways I’ve found to give:

Practice healthy selfishness. We can’t help others at the cost of our own well-being. We need to take care of ourselves before we can give to others. As an INFJ, it’s easy for me to burn out by over-giving to others and draining myself in the process. So I need to be particularly mindful of this.

We need to be wary of who we spend time with, how we spend that time, and how we feel afterwards (energized or spent). This should inform you about spending time with those people in the future.

Plato once said:

People are like dirt. They can either nourish you and help you grow as a person or they can stunt your growth and make you wilt and die.

As a corollary to the previous idea, we need to find a balance between the giving of ourselves and giving to others. Knowing when to give can make all the difference between doing our best work and leaving oneself drained.

For instance, I do creative work in the morning. That time is sacrosanct for me and has been booked into eternity. Unless I’ve a meeting scheduled with someone in the afternoon, all of the admin work—making phone calls, returning messages, writing emails, etc—happens in the final hour of my work day. This way, I batch all of the giving at one time rather than responding to requests arbitrarily throughout the day.

We should always give more than we receive. It’s only when we give that we can receive. It’s only when we make frequent deposits in our relationships that we can ride the turbulent times, which exist in every relationship (though ideally infrequently). This isn’t a question of if, but when. The question is whether we have the balance in our emotional accounts to sustain our relationship. So let’s keep making those deposits in our relationships.

It’s important to understand the intent behind giving to others, which can be the difference between leaving ourself energized or drained. We need to question our motives: Are we giving to others out of intention, or obligation? Are we giving to benefit ourselves, or for the greater good?

The English writer, Elizabeth Bibesco has fittingly said:

Blessed are those who can give without remembering and take without forgetting.

Avoid helping all the people all of the time. As much as we would like, we cannot give to everyone—only to those who are open to receiving. Stop offering unsolicited help and trust people’s judgement. When others do things for us, we should naturally reciprocate.

Find small ways to add large value to others. Entrepreneur Adam Rifkin is famous for doing 5-minute favors for people. For instance, this could mean introducing two people who might benefit from knowing each other, or it might mean sharing your (solicited) feedback with others.

Talk about others when you meet them. Be with them. Listen to what they have to say. This is one way of giving our precious attention to others by listening to them, which is the number one psychological need for a human next to survival. For instance, when I speak to someone to catch up with them, I want to know what they have been up to. I prefer not to talk about myself too much, unless the other person asks or the conversation naturally drifts that way.

Change the way you think about success. True success is about contributionwhat you are doing for others. Let’s measure our success by using “value added” as a metric.

As humans, we are natural givers by birth (just as we are peaceful souls by design), but somewhere along the way we have forgotten that. The important thing is to give without expecting anything in return, because that’s who we are. If and when others reciprocate, then that’s great. We must be open to receiving as well.

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