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How being the "good guy" gets us in trouble.

If you've read or watched the news this week, you've most likely witnessed a fresh round of America-bashing. It's not new. And, as a person who cherishes my American citizenship, I'd like to see it stop.

Yet there is a small problem. It seems to me, as a student of stress and internal conflict resolution, that we may be unintentionally causing it. Oops!



We're too nice.

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Among the conversations on this topic I've been party to over the last several days, one response has overwhelmed any others: "But we're good people. We give so much!"

"Don't bash Americans — we're generous!" Our rationale for how "good" we are is based on the amount of aid we give.

Perhaps it's too much (but I really don't think so). Or perhaps we're simply giving the wrong thing in the wrong way. Not just to citizens of other countries, but to certain groups on our very own shores.

Here's why.

As individuals, it's commonly accepted that certain behaviors, which we may undertake for good and honorable reasons, occasionally turn around to "bite us back" by creating illness. It happens innocently enough. The challenge is simply that we lack awareness.

For example, a person who gives, gives, gives and gives will eventually deplete her energy and personal power. The "giving compulsion" becomes almost obsessive, as though she's trying to prove her "goodness" by giving too much. Such a person is ripe for the disease cancer.

  • ... because she's worn out
  • ... because he lacks awareness of the consequences of his actions
  • ... because she can't discern when outside circumstances have changed, and so should her behavior
  • ... because he doesn't have the objectivity to distinguish when he's given enough
  • ... and because she is unable to give the same consideration to herself as she showers on others.

Who do you know that gives too much?

Let's make this personal for a moment. Who do you know that gives, gives, gives, and gives — and won't take anything back? Come on, you know someone. Picture them in your mind.

I'm not talking about Mother Teresa. The selfless giving she espoused is really quite rare. But rather someone who gives with an agenda, no matter how subtle. (And it often is quite subtle. We're good!) Here are some common hidden agendas:

  • Giving to control (now you owe me, but you can't pay me back — so you have to do what I say)
  • Giving for love or acceptance (now that you've accepted my gift, don't you think I'm a really good person?)
  • Giving to assuage guilt (because I have so much more than you do and I feel really bad about it)
  • Giving to assert superiority (observed on a sign in a restaurant: "The Alpha male buys the first round")
  • Giving to secure future protection (you'll watch my back, won't you?)

So now picture that person in your life — who gives and gives and gives. How do you feel about them? Really?

If you were in a real pinch, of course, you'd appreciate their help. No question there. But once the crisis has passed, what now?

You want to pay them back, don't you? And if you're able, then everything's good.

But what if you can't? Either because they won't accept it, or because you don't have the means or the know-how. What then? How do you feel about them then?

Resenfulness. And the reasons behind it.

Resentful. No other word for it. And here's how your mind will go:

  • "He thinks he's so much better than everyone else. Well, we'll see about that!"
  • "Look at that goody-two-shoes prancing around like she owns the world."
  • "If he wants to be king of the Universe, then let him cough up a little more. I want a two-car garage, just like he has!"

Don't try and tell me that "you" wouldn't think like this. You would. You do. It's human nature.

Now let's stop for a quick moment and think back on the comments you've heard levied against America and its leaders in the past week. About the same, aren't they?

Yep. Just about the same.

Let's look at what happens next. Again, there are choices.

checkSometimes, people in this situation will protect their wounded pride by attempting to convince themselves that they're entitled to receive the gifts. They've been victimized, and this gift is the payback. They'll come up with as reasonable a cause as they can, then proclaim it loudly to anyone who will listen in an attempt to regain their self-worth.

[Except that it obviously won't work, because in order to accept the entitlement defense, you've got to be a victim. Which is, of course, a disempowered position.]

checkOther times, they'll be offended. And their inside conversation will go like this: "It isn't bad enough that he's broken the cardinal rule of giving (disempowering the recipient by failing to enable a return in equal measure). On top of that, he insults my intelligence. Because he somehow thinks I'm too stupid to see what he's doing!"

Sometimes, people are more perceptive than you think.

Personal commitments

So here's my take on what went wrong.

My premise is that each of us, by virtue of being human, has certain personal commitments to uphold in order to live powerfully on this earth. Personal power and integrity are our birthrights, yet we have to uphold our end of the bargain. In my book, Stress In The Background: How To Thrive In A High-Stress World, I refer to them as existential commitments. We own them because we exist.

One of these personal commitments is "the commitment to do your share to provide for yourself so you do not become a burden to others — people, organizations, or your government."

Until you learn to uphold your personal commitments, you live in a constant state of stress and conflict. Your self-worth suffers. You don't sleep well. You're cranky. You're a sitting duck for illness.

It's frustrating. You know something's off. Yet often, you can't identify where the stress is coming from. Most of these personal commitments occur "in the background," so to speak, of your life.

In the book, we begin the exploration of a person's existential commitments and how to manage them. Awareness helps! For the sake of our current example, I'd like to propose one simple solution.

Empowered giving.

My suggestion, for each of us as individuals as well as for large groups like our country, is this. That when we offer a gift, in doing so, we create a secondary responsibility for ourselves. As an empowered giver, it becomes our responsibility to allow, cause, or teach the recipient to either return the gift or to "pay it forward."

It is not enough to give aid to to a neighbor who's down on his luck. Sure, you may choose to. His wife's medical bills got the best of them and they're in danger of losing the house — so you pay the mortgage. That's generous. It's kind. And it endebts your neighbor to you.

Part of your gift, then, is enabling him to erase the debt.

"But I don't need the money!" you exclaim. "He's a good neighbor. I'm happy to do it for him."

And it truly may be ok for you. But it's not ok for him. He needs to feel that he's maintained his integrity by normalizing the power differential between you.

In this case, it might be as simple as letting his kid cut your grass next summer. That would be neighborly, wouldn't it? Sure. And easy enough to accept.

But what if you're a country? What if the country you give aid to is economically disadvantaged and truly doesn't have the means to return your favor? Then, it would seem to me, that the empowered giver should find a way to support that country in improving their economy. Or, perhaps, to support them in contributing something of real value to the global marketplace.

Bottom line is this. Empowered giving means enabling the recipient to return or pay forward the gift in equal measure. To do anything less creates conflict with the recipient's commitment to pull his own weight in life. It disempowers him.

That conflict, and the resulting loss of power when it continues unresolved, is very similar to the set-up for a personal illness. And just like an illness, it could ultimately come to "bite us back" in ways we don't like.

Elizabeth Eckert can help you explore how simple everyday choices create health — or undermine even the best of intentions. With a background that ranges from energy medicine to structural bodywork to developmental psychology, this "Stick-To-It Coach" has the experience to support you in creating the healthiest possible expression of — you!

Explore other ways that stress finds its ways in through the cracks of your life — often when you're not looking! Read or listen to Stress In The Background: How to Thrive in a High-Stress World. Available for immediate download.

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