Giving What You Need to Get

I’m a giver. Those who know me know that I’ll give you the shirt off my back and ask you if you need my pants and shoes too. Some might call it being unselfish, but I don’t agree with that. I do it for selfish reasons. I do it because it brings me joy to help out others. I do it because I’ve been in the circumstances more than once in my life when I’ve needed help and it was given to me (paying it back). I do it because there may come a time in my future that I will need help and hope to receive it (paying it forward). And when someone offers me a few dollars for helping them, I simply say “You can thank me best by paying it forward to someone else.”

But I’ve come to recently accept what might be the biggest reason I give even more freely to people I know and care about (as opposed to strangers). I’ve come to realize that I often give what I would very much like to receive. No, it’s not like tit for tat or keeping score or holding something out-of-the-ordinary over someone’s head as a way to pressure them that they owe me something in the future. In a (now) semi-subconscious way, I hope the recipients will recognize the good feeling they get from my gift and think about returning a good feeling of some kind to me. And that, my friends, is purely selfish!

Before Christmas, when asked for ideas for gifts, my brother mentioned that he’d like more coffee mugs because he only has 2, which means he’s washing them every other day. He got 5 more as gifts (one from me, 4 from our friends) and he’d made a comment about how now he wouldn’t need to wash mugs until he also had to wash the spoons he uses to stir his sugar and cream in his cup of coffee. When I visited him in April, I teased him about the build-up of dirty spoons in his sink and he said something about how he should get coffee stirrers so that wouldn’t be a problem. When I came home, I got on Amazon and had a box of 1000 coffee stirrers sent directly to him for a very inexpensive amount. Recently, someone else mentioned needing to get out and find athletic glasses holders for his reader glasses because he kept putting them down somewhere and had to search for them. Again, I went to Amazon and found what he wanted for an inexpensive price and presented them to him. Neither of these gifts were expensive and, at least in these two particular examples, it was just about the good feeling I got from making someone else’s life a little easier.

In this age of texts, social media and maybe an occasional email is a way to connect with someone; my friends will even sporadically receive a good, old-fashioned “thinking of you” card via the postal service. It can be funny or not (I usually gravitate towards funny), but it’s something unexpected and tactile that lets them know they are in my thoughts. And I’ll be honest… getting that kind of little, inexpensive surprise in my mail (full of catalogs, circulars, political flyers and bills) would definitely make me feel awesome!

What did I GET out of doing these things? Well, I still get the joy of giving – the unselfish part. Those small acts – at least I hope – give the receiver some recognition that they are important in my life. Also – at least I hope – it shows that I pay attention to them and what they say. Another piece of this puzzle, however, is that I hope to receive some signal from them that I am important in their lives and that they pay attention to me and what I say… and that cries out of selfish and needy behavior! Not an attractive trait, to be sure.

As I ruminated and processed this full disclosure of myself, I realized that I’ve been doing this since I was in high school. My best friend in high school was a drop-dead gorgeous blonde, extremely musically talented and known and liked by everyone. She was an amazing friend to me, and chose me as her best friend when I believed that she could have chosen so many other people – better than mere me – to have as her sidekick. And I remember, looking back, how I was always putting little surprise trinkets in her locker. It might have been a fresh flower from my mom’s garden, or a 4-leaf clover I’d found. But now I wonder if those trinkets were, in some subconscious way, my way to pay her back for choosing ME as her best friend???!!!

In all of this processing, I’ve tried to step back from some of this gifting, especially when I begin to sense that I am never going to get back the feelings I’m seeking. It’s not easy, but there are some relationships I’ve had to step back from because it was always me doing the giving, and the gift wasn’t even acknowledged. My brother opens my car door and holds other doors for me whenever we’re together. He does that simply because that’s who it is, but each and every time he does, I say thank you. And he’s the same way with me. I got a thank-you email for the coffee stirrers, and he always thanks me for the things I do for him. That’s a solid give and take relationship, and it won’t change. But when I have friends over (more than once) for dinner and am never asked if they can bring anything, I’m learning that I have to meet that friendship on that level and step back from offering whenever I’m invited to dinner hosted by them. If I pick up a lunch check and then we enjoy lunch together seven or eight times as Dutch-treat, then I need to stop picking up the check again, since it’s apparently not appreciated.

This will be an ongoing learning process for me. Giving is so ingrained in my behavior that I do it without thinking first. But now that I understand that sometimes, some part of my giving is to get something back – acknowledgement, appreciation, perhaps the return of a similar “gift” – then I need to find other ways to get what I need from other people.

If that makes me selfish, I’m going to have to deal with that feeling. I don’t feel it’s wrong to want my generosity to be acknowledged, and if it is, then I’ll just have to learn to live with being wrong.

(P.S. Brad, don’t worry – you’ll still get plenty of home-cooked meals! You always say thank you and you make certain I know how much you enjoy them! Plus, we both know it makes me happy to cook, and so I get that out of it, too!)