Are You an Over-Giver? When Generosity Is Bad for Your Friendships

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too generousWhen my younger sister was in college, she needed help with the down payment for a new car.

I wrote her a check—coincidentally, her birthday was just around the corner—and sent it in a card, with the understanding that when she was solvent, she’d pay me back.

Almost a decade later, that portion of my coffer remains empty; in fact, it’s permanently closed, since the one time I suggested she might pay me back, it caused a battle so ugly that my father had to step in to break up a fight between his adult daughters.

There’s no place where financial generosity shines through more than with the people we love. While giving can feel good, it can also create discomfort if we’re repeatedly on the giving end of the stick—or, conversely, if the gifts bestowed upon us by friends are the kinds that we can’t match.

Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of the international best-seller “Eat Pray Love,” has written about her own tendency to be not just generous but overly generous. She calls the phenomenon being an “over-giver.” In other words, she’s inclined to give everything she’s capable of giving, regardless of what the recipients feel comfortable receiving. In fact, after her book rendered her very wealthy, Gilbert writes: “I was a dream facilitator, an obstacle-banisher, a life-transformer.”

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Psychotherapist and executive coach Jonathan Alpert says that over-givers and people pleasers go hand in hand. “Over-givers use gifts as a way to gain and keep friends, because they think they need to be overly generous to be liked,” he says. It becomes problematic, he continues, when the giver is constantly putting others ahead of herself, like the woman profiled in his book who skipped a family funeral to work, for fear of letting down her boss. “People pleasers are afraid of disappointing others, to the point where they neglect their own needs.”

Sound familiar? If you’re an over-giver … or know someone who is, read on to learn how to extricate yourself from an awkward situation—or stop creating one.

If You’re an Over-Giver:

Saturday night cocktails here, Sunday brunch there; sure, you’re happy to cover it. But when history repeats itself and you wind up footing the bill every time you meet up with a particular friend, or worse, loaning friends and relatives bigger chunks of money, things can go downhill, fast—even if your intentions started off good.

Who Overgives … and Why?

Most commonly, people who give too much are suffering from low self-esteem, explains Alpert. “They think they have to rely on giving to be seen in a positive light,” he explains, and fit the classic people-pleasing profile. “It’s usually people who feel that they don’t have anything to offer a friend beyond their wallet.”

How It Can Hurt

Unpaid debts or inequalities (like picking up the tab for dinner five times in a row) can cast a pallor over your friendships. A study profiled in The Economist found that, surprisingly, people don’t really like people who are too generous. In fact, they dislike extreme selflessness as much as they dislike selfishness. Why? Simply put, your unabated giving makes them look—or just feel—bad. So, even as over-givers try to connect with others by giving gifts, they’re likely to create feelings of guilt instead of gratitude.

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Plus, as Alpert points out, there’s a difference between giving because you want to and giving because you feel you need to. The first may give you satisfaction, but the second could easily lead to resentment—that feeling you have when you covered brunch because your friend “couldn’t afford it,” only to see his vacation photos fill up your Facebook newsfeed days later. How could he afford that, but not this?

What You Can Do

It comes down to examining your motives: Why are you giving so much? What do you hope to gain? Or, Alpert puts it another way: Are you giving to preserve your friendships? If so, you might want to re-evaluate. Odds are, the people in your life will love you just as much without the lavish gifts.

Then again, maybe you have a dynamic with a certain friend who tends to goad you into picking up the check: ”If someone’s taking too much, stop,” says Ryan Morgan, a loan officer with Mortgage Corp East. “It’s not their fault—it’s yours for giving.”

In other words, if you’re constantly swooping in to rescue a pal in need and realize the arrangement is no longer sustainable, be kind but be honest: Explain that you appreciate their friendship, but that you simply can’t provide for them anymore. “You don’t need to give them a list of reasons, either,” advises Thomas P. Farley (aka “Mister Manners”), a New York City-based manners expert and author. “Just keep it simple.”

  • Amelia J

    Over-givers don’t just use financial gifts; I see this also where a someone will constantly offer up small things that they have to please others around them. I think while we all want to be helpful and for those around us to appreciate us, this article explains how it can negatively impact finances and the relationship.

  • Christina

    When you put money in a birthday card it’s considered a gift; one that doesn’t have to be repayed. That sounds like a pretty sneaky way to cover two bases.

  • Shannon

    This is why I don’t loan money to my friends or family members. Or if I do I take some kind of collateral. If they don’t pay you back it turns into this huge thing that damages your relationship. But if someone I love is truly in need of money for something, like my brother’s summer school tuition or when my mom’s water pump at her house broke, I just give it to them if I can afford it. No repayment needed. That’s called loving your family and looking out for them and there’s nothing wrong with it. Friends, well yeah, that’s a little different. If it’s their birthday I get them a present or take them out, but otherwise no gifts unless it’s something like a keychain or whatever from when I went on vacation.

  • A. S. Mathew

    Love and friendship must be a two way road. When our relatives or friends are smiling at us and hugging us to bleed our wallet or purse, that is simply feeding the tricky and self-centered people through our gullibility. I have been fooled by many due to my extreme generous giving nature.