What can make sincere, heartfelt giving "too much?" And what is the hidden cost of "over giving" to the giver and to the receiver? I have had to reflect on this question very deeply and very personally recently. And it has been painful, sobering, humbling and absolutely essential for my growth and learning.
Let me tell you a story. As a child, I was born into a family of well-meaning, but deeply traumatized parents. Both of my parents had their own stories. My mother was a "motherless daughter." She lost her mom to mental illness when she was only 12, upon the birth of her younger sister. With her own mother gone, my mother had no choice but to step up and pick up the slack. She was a loving, nurturing presence to her younger sister. But the void within her own heart and soul remained, and was passed on to me when she became a mother to her own daughter.
My mother, a kind and gentle woman, suffered from depression, and likely undiagnosed bipolar disorder. When she was depressed, there was a huge void. And I became the one who had to pick up the slack, because if I did not, bad things would happen or the void would remain and become unbearable. As a young child, I would go into my mother's room at night because she had fallen asleep with the light on and a cigarette burning by the bed. I would turn off the light and put out the cigarette so that my mother could sleep peacefully and so that we all would be safe. My mother did not want to cook when she was depressed. So, I picked up the slack and became an accomplished cook by the time I was 12. I even wrote my own cookbook. What I could not possibly have realized was that a young girl like me should not have been having to pick up the slack, and that I was not being given the experience of receiving some basic experiences one deserves to receive as a child.
There was a second level to the dynamic. I was always a generous, loving, kind, well-behaved girl, who pitched in, did what needed to be done and rarely complained. When my mom was ailing, I would help, pitch in, step up. This included offering compassion and emotional support as well as doing practical tasks. And there were many times when I felt more like her mother than her daughter. And at times she really needed these things from me. However, there were also moments, when she got angry that she needed these things from me and that I so ably provided them, and she would turn on me. I would be hurt, devastated and confused. I was just trying to be a good person, a loving daughter. Why would my mother push me away, reject me and be angry with me after I gave her the best that I had?
As a child, I was in a double bind: my mother's struggles created a very dark hole, and I was damned if I did and damned if I didn't. Do nothing, and I would watch my mother suffer, risk the house burning down, and live with the never ending tension of a person struggling who could not find their way to the light. Do something and I might ease her pain in the moment, prevent a cigarette-induced fire and forge a kind of loving connection, but I would risk having my head chopped off when she realized I was providing things a child should not have to provide...and perhaps she felt guilt or shame that she could not provide these things to me.
While there is an axiom that it is better to give than to receive that axiom betrays us. While giving does open the heart, and giving helps us for love for those we give to, when there is not a balance of giving and receiving, relationships get profoundly out of balance. Someone who chronically receives can take the giver for granted, and can even resent their rock solid presence because it casts a shadow on their own conduct. Though frozen and at times paralyzed, my mother was a good person and it hurt her NOT to be able to give, even though at times she just could not.
Sadly, what became ingrained in me was an instinctive pattern to fill voids before me and pick up the slack in relationships when the other person was struggling, challenged or asking me to help out since they could not do so. I wanted to be kind. I felt badly for the person and their struggle. I wanted to be helpful. But when the relationship dynamic became founded on my picking up the slack, the give and take needed for a mutually fulfilling relationship ceased to be. And without meaning to or even realizing it, I was denying the other person the opportunity to step up, to take up space, and to want to make themselves a better person because they cared about me. Coming to realize this truth has been heartbreaking. And essential.
By over giving, I was not allowing myself the space to receive love--from myself as well as others. I was not even aware that I SHOULD be receiving love in return, because it was such a foreign experience for me as a child. I remember in my early 20's, a healer I saw invited me to shower myself with the same abundant generosity I showered others with. I became more and more skilled at loving myself. But this one particular blindspot, the over giving part, remained elusive to me up until present day.
The lesson? If another person is struggling, if someone is NOT living up to their part of an important relationship, there is a time to pick up the slack and there is a time to just sit in the void. Maybe a plan does not get made. Maybe a bumpy moment stays bumpy. But the person who is struggling or confused or taking things for granted has the space to struggling, unravel their own pieces and step up to the plate...or not. I have learned that I must step back, rather than step forward, and just let, rather than do. And only then can someone I care about who cares about me have the space to CHOOSE to be a better person. And only then can a person have the space to do their work and struggle and learn and come forward in their own way and time.
I realize how important it is for a child to be held and loved and protected in a healthy give and take, so the child learns when to give and when it is truly their turn and birthright to receive. Then the child learns how to give space, let, be, and dance with the flow of the universe, which ultimately wants to bring us love.