Are You Suffering From Generosity Burnout?


Helping others is a good thing – right?

What if I told you it wasn’t?

If you’re a woman, then it’s likely you’ve been raised to be a ‘good girl’ and to ‘be nice’ and ‘helpful’.

The message we often receive growing up is that it’s good to help others, That it’s not only a noble thing to do, but it will also lead to a happy and meaningful life.  And it can do, but not always.   The road to burnout is paved with good intentions – believe me I know from personal experience!

Research shows time and again that women tend to shoulder the responsibility for helping with the things that are most valuable but least visible.  All too often as women, and particularly as mothers, our desire to help and give can become out of balance.

Four types of helpers

In January 2017 Adam Grant and Reb Rebelle wrote a Harvard Business Review article on Generosity Burnout.  In the article they explored the different types of ways in which we help and give.  

  1. Takers; who see every interaction as an opportunity to advance their own interests. They will run you ragged if you don’t protect yourself. They act as if they deserve your help, and they don’t hesitate to impose on your time.
  2. Matchers; who trade favours evenly. They can give as good as
    they get, but they expect reciprocity. Grant and Rebelle describe matching as a transactional, defensive stance — it adds less value for both you and others, but it can be helpful when you’re dealing with a taker.
  3. Self protective givers; who are generous, but they know their limits. Instead of saying yes to every help request, they look for high-impact, low-cost ways of giving so that they can sustain their generosity — and enjoy it along the way.
  4. Selfless givers; who have high concern for others but low concern for themselves.  They set few or no boundaries which makes them especially vulnerable to takers.  By ignoring their own needs they exhaust themselves and, paradoxically, end up helping others less.

In their research they discovered that reactive helping (selfless giving) is exhausting. But proactive giving (self-protecting giving) can be energising.  Using your strengths, skills and interests to focus on giving where you choose to make an impact, is not only likely to be less stressful but can support you in feeling like you’re making a difference.

“As giving aligns with your interests and skills, it becomes less stressful for you and more valuable to others. Rather than feeling pressured to help, you’re choosing to help, which is good for your motivation, your creativity, and your well-being. “

Adam Grant and Reb Rebelle

Seven habits of healthy and productive giving

So how do you keep your helping in a healthy zone to avoid burnout? Well Grant and Rebelle share seven habits of healthy and productive giving:

  1. Prioritize the requests that come your way — say yes when it matters most and no when you need to.
  2. Give in ways that play to your interests and strengths to preserve your energy and provide greater value.
  3. Distribute the giving load more evenly — refer requests to others when you don’t have the time or skills, and be careful not to reinforce gender biases about who helps and how.
  4. Secure your oxygen mask first — you’ll help others more effectively if you don’t neglect your own needs.
  5. Amplify your impact by looking for ways to help multiple people with a single act of generosity (one-to-many rather than one-to-one).
  6. Chunk your giving into dedicated days or blocks of time rather than sprinkling it throughout the week. You’ll be more effective — and more focused.
  7. Learn to spot takers, and steer clear of them. They’re a drain on your energy and your wellbeing.

If like me, you’ve been conditioned to believe that being kind and helpful means being available to others 24/7 then perhaps you fall into the ‘Selfless Givers’ end of the spectrum.   It’s important to know that this has an impact, and often it’s not helpful for anyone. 

Grant and Rebelle argue that it’s better to be a ‘giver’ than a ‘helper’.  Effective givers make sure that the benefit of helping others outweighs the cost to you.  It’s about finding ways to give without depleting your time and energy.  It’s about being generous but not selfless.

Effective givers are comfortable to say no, as they recognise that it frees them up to say yes when it matters most.  They know that they can’t support others when they’re so overwhelmed that it damages their health and wellbeing.  They know when their good intentions might go wrong.

If you’re naturally a ‘selfless giver’ you can move to become an ‘effective giver’ by thinking about helping in three ways:

  1. being mindful about how you help
  2. being mindful about when you help
  3. being mindful about whom you help

As with any change, awareness is important.  If we can start to develop a deeper understanding of when our inner ‘helper’ might get triggered and resourcing ourselves to lean back and respond from a more useful place, this can be transformational.  

I know it has been for me in my life.  It has allowed me to set boundaries that support me and the people who matter most in my life.  Far from making me feel less kind and helpful, it’s enabled me to feel more compassionate.  Because it’s too easy to go from being the ‘helper’ to the ‘martyr’ to then becoming resentful.

As always I love to hear your thoughts.

What type of helper are you?

What triggers you into over helping?

What could you do to help keep your helping in a healthy zone?


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