Givers, Takers, Emergency Masks and Open Windows

Airplane safety illustration of mother putting on an air mask

I’m taking a break from my grief ramblings to talk about a pet peeve of mine. Though I’ve come across this peeve several times in real life, it’s on Facebook where I see it in its most concentrated form. The peeve, at its core, can be expressed by the following statement:

“I am a really good and giving person and other people take advantage of that.”

There are many variations on the theme. Sometimes it’s purely work related: “I do so much more than everyone else and I am never shown appreciation.” Sometimes it’s a subtle, passive-aggressive test: “I want to see how many people actually read what I post on Facebook instead of just scrolling by. If you read this, please type a reply.” The words “taker” and “giver” are often used. But, always, this is about a person feeling as if they are mistreated, neglected, and taken advantage of.

Why does this bother me? Well, not for the reasons you think.

I used to be that person and I was miserable. For more years than I want to admit, I believed right down into my bones that I was the good guy, I was the selfless person who gave and gave and gave, and the world was populated by terrible takers who took and took and took. Bosses, boyfriends, co-workers, friends, roommates, you name it, I was their victim. Every time someone hurt me with their selfishness, I vowed to build a wall around my heart to protect my poor, selfless self.

Yes, I was that dramatic about it.

I wish I could recall the exact moment when I switched my paradigm but that’s not how things changed for me. The metamorphosis was slow, necessitated by the fall-out of too many bad decisions, and nurtured by the wise people I was fortunate and smart enough to allow into my life. There were painful moments of objective self-critique followed by long periods of conscious change. Recognizing harmful behaviour and thinking is only the first and easiest step, after that the real work begins.

The question I asked myself most frequently, while examining my thoughts and actions, was: Why am I doing this?

More specifically, what did I hope to achieve? If I give, why am I giving? Is it because I want recognition, praise, love, respect, kindness or some combination of all of those?

The next question I asked was: Is this behaviour getting the desired results?

More often than not, the answer was a resounding no.

Then it got tricky. Was there something else I could do to get what I needed? I didn’t know. All I knew was that I needed to stop looking outward to satisfy my needs. And so, slowly and with numerous failures and fumbles, I turned my gaze inward and worked on taking care of me.

Guess what? It worked.

Self care as a path to happiness seems counter-intuitive. Isn’t that selfish? Aren’t “good” people meant to put others first?

Short answer: No.

If you’ve ever flown anywhere, you’ll remember the section in the safety speech about what to do in the event of a loss of cabin pressure. The flight attendants make it clear that when the oxygen masks drop, you should always put yours on first before helping anyone else. The reason is simple—if you run out air before you finish helping the person next to you, then you both die. Self care is no different. Identify your needs and fulfill them before you try to help others or your efforts could hurt everyone.

What happens after you look after yourself is astonishing. When your own needs have been met, suddenly you can give without any expectation of receiving anything—even a simple thank you—in return. People sense this. They sense when kindness has strings attached and when it does not. They sense when your selflessness is neediness in disguise. They sense your motivation and respond accordingly.

And if it’s respect you want, you will get that far more often with a loving “no” than a resentful “yes”. Heavy emphasis on “loving”, by the way. There’s a difference between saying, “No, I’m not going to help you because I know you aren’t going to do anything for me in return” (or some passive-aggressive version thereof) and saying, “I’d love to help you but I have to say no because…I don’t have enough free time/I’m not comfortable doing that/I’m not the right person for that job/etc”.

I’ve written before about the power of “no” and I still firmly believe that you can change your life by learning when and how to say that one little word.

Best of all, when you can do this, when you learn to take care of yourself and set boundaries, suddenly giving does become truly selfless and you never feel taken advantage of. Because your bucket of joy is full, you can give joy freely to others without ever feeling deprived.

People don’t take from you and walk all over you because they are mean, they do it because you let them. As my friend Laura put it, (via Oprah but with some very necessary clarification), “You unconsciously teach people how to treat you.” We do not deliberately set out to teach people to walk all over us but if we don’t set clear boundaries then that’s precisely the lesson they learn.

And about that “wall around your heart”…

Back in the days when I thought I might be an actor, I attended weekly classes with a brilliant instructor named Shea. I was a decently talented stage performer but my foray into film was quickly proving to be an unmitigated failure. You see, on stage you can fake emotions. The audience isn’t close enough to read the minute details of your face and everything needs to be larger than life so that even the audience members at the very back of the theater can understand what’s happening. On camera, you don’t act, you “be”. In a scene for film, you need to really feel the emotions of your character. Something I struggled with mightily.

Shea sat down with me after one particularly dismal class, where I had once again failed to even come close to expressing genuine emotion. “You’re too controlled,” she said. “This is a safe space. You need to let the feelings inside you come out.”

I told her that I couldn’t be that vulnerable. I told her that I was terrified of being weak and getting hurt.

Shea said, “If you don’t want to get hurt, then you need to be an open window. Walls can be smashed, doors can be kicked in, but an open window? Well, everything just passes right through.”

It took me several more years before I understood the wisdom of that advice. Even today, I struggle with being that open window. But when I succeed I feel such a release, such comfort in knowing that the worst the world can throw at me will just pass through harmlessly. There’s more power in that open window than in all the doors and walls imaginable.

I have gone from being a person who constantly felt mistreated, to being a person who is overwhelmed by the love, kindness and respect she receives. From feeling that I must be constantly vigilant and wall off my heart, to knowing that if my intentions are genuine and I’m true to myself that nothing and no one can do any lasting damage. The rest of the world did not magically change, I did.

When I see “I give and everyone else takes” types of posts on Facebook, or hear the sentiment expressed in real life, I am peeved not because the poster or speaker annoys me but because it makes me sad to see a person short-changing themselves. In those words I see a person who has not yet learned to love and celebrate themselves and who is looking in the wrong direction (out, not in) to have their needs met.

I rarely respond to those posts, not because I don’t care but because I’ve learned that when people really want to change they will seek out the help they need. The best thing I can do is be present and ready if someone turns to me the way I once turned to others.

When that happens, I will say, “Stop, put on your own emergency mask, and open the window as wide as you can.”

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