How to give without being taken advantage of
This post is part of my series on PBH for Grown-ups — you can see all of the posts here.
The point of PBH is to teach kids how to direct and manage their own learning — and by extension, their own lives.
It’s to learn from the outset that learning is for you to do things that matter to you. It’s to learn what you can do with your interests and talents and how you can make a contribution to the wider world.
To focus on what’s meaningful, we move from randomness to deliberate action.
Giving your child a lot of isolated, one-off experiences (say, with weekly themes or random field trips) is like giving her one plastic brick, one wooden block, one gear, etc. She has a handful of things to construct with, but what can she make? The pieces don’t fit together. Your child can’t combine them to make something meaningful. — Project-Based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-Directed Learners
To be successful, we move from intention to habits, routines, and strategies.
As adults who want to replace randomness with deliberate action, we have talked about
- remaking our surroundings so they reflect what we want to be and do,
- exploring to find our deepest passion and our purpose,
and more. So today we’re going to talk about reclaiming some of the time that we give away to others, not because we don’t want to give, but because we want to give thoughtfully and purposefully.
Because a big part of PBH is sharing what you know and making a contribution, community is essential. That includes our friends and family, our colleagues and collaborators, our teachers and mentors, and our larger community where we do field work and look for ways to share our work.
What we want to do is make room for purposeful sharing and contributing by eliminating some of the random giving we do now. We want to reclaim some of our time that others may be using for things that don't matter as much to us and use it for things that do.
Our aim is to be kind and generous without being taken advantage of or taken for granted.
Do you have some time you need or want to reclaim? Do you
- have trouble saying no to people?
- always put other people first?
- put off activities with intangible or long-term benefits in favor of ones where the reward is immediate and obvious?
- need to be liked (by everyone)? (or feel very uncomfortable when people are unhappy with you?)
- feel selfish if you say no when you could say yes?
- rationalize that you have more time, more money, more freedom than other people — and like Spiderman, your greater gifts require greater responsibility?
Remember: we're not talking about not giving — we’re talking about giving in a purposeful, deliberate way. We’re talking about sharing your specific talents and abilities in a way that is meaningful and fulfilling to you.
Some people react to the idea of self-directed learning like this:
“What?! Kids doing stuff they want to do? That sounds like fun to me. Kids who are just having fun will never learn to work hard! They’ll just goof off all day!”
Actually, kids who connect learning with their authentic interests are more likely to work hard. This attitude that “it ain’t really learning if kids are having fun” transfers to the area of giving. Is it really giving if you’re not suffering? Yes. It is. Giving deliberately doesn’t mean everything you do is full of carnival fun. It means that everything you do is steeped in meaning. You can man the cake-walk table at the PTA carnival for the seventh year in a row and walk away feeling nothing. You can spend a day hauling garbage out of a river and feel like a superhero. Or vice-versa. Meaning makes the difference.
If you’re stuck in a pattern of saying yes to things you’d secretly like to say no to, it’s time to lay in some new strategies for more purposeful, meaningful giving.
Be purposeful. Build in a pause before saying yes. Prepare what you're going to say every time someone asks you for something:
“I have a lot of commitments right now. I would love to say yes but I need to look at my schedule and get back to you.”
There are people and situations you already know are going to be extra-challenging. There’s the person to whom you have never managed to say no (whether it’s a relative, a friend, or someone at church). There’s the situation where you always end up buckling under pressure.
If you know this is an issue for you, then you know you’ll be facing it again sooner or later. Be prepared. Script your responses. The French have a phrase, “l’esprit de l’escalier,” meaning “stairway wit” — that situation when you think of the perfect thing to say when it’s too late. “So, when you do the cake walk this year…” “Actually, I won’t be able to do it this year.” “What?! But you always do it! We just assumed you would do it again. Now it’s too late to get someone else.” L’esprit de l’escalier answer: “Well, since I’ve done it four years in a row, I just *assumed* someone else would do it this year.” Real-life response: awkward stammering. Scripted response: “I’m sorry, but I’ve already committed to something else.”
When you decide to help someone out, contribute time to a cause, or say yes to a commitment, take time to think it over first (even if you’re sure you’re going to say yes). Say to yourself, “I am deciding to do this. It is my choice.” If you really want to say no, then say no. It’s hard — but it’s not as hard as living a life where you’re constantly at the disposal of whoever needs you to do something no one else will agree to do.
Help when you really want to help even when it’s difficult. The odd thing is, even while we’re reluctantly saying yes to people we wish we could say no to, we sometimes are saying no to things we’d really like to do. Often, it’s because a strong personality is shoving their problem in our face while the giving we’d like to do is more long-term and no one is rallying behind it. If someone is pressuring you to help out with an event, it’s an easy thing to say yes (even if you don’t want to do it, even if you’ve done it the last ten times and there are plenty of people who could step up) because it will make this person happy and you know exactly what you need to do. Whereas there might be a need elsewhere that you really feel pulled to, but it’s more complex; there are more steps involved, and there’s a less clear-cut path toward success. You might not be quite sure what you need to do to make it happen. So you push that off (over and over again) and agree to man the cake-walk table at the PTA carnival again.
Don’t feel bad when you say no. If you are the go-to guy for solving everyone’s problems (because you always say yes), then you’re going to be very, very busy working on other people’s priorities. We’re not talking about converting from being an awesome giver to being the most selfish person in town. We’re talking about converting from being an awesome giver of random services to whoever asks first to deliberately and purposefully giving where you think it counts the most.
Don’t feel ashamed when you’re taken advantage of. Sometimes you get taken. Sometimes you say yes and then you realize you got taken advantage of. Someone asks you for a favor and seems desperate and even though it’s difficult, you say yes, then later you find out there was no emergency and you wrecked your day (or your week) just because they didn’t want to inconvenience themselves. This happens to most of us at some point, and it happens to most of us more than once.
Making the wrong call and being taken advantage of is upsetting — but the shame storm you experience afterward can linger for a long time. And it doesn’t help you avoid being taken advantage of the next time — in fact, feeling shame can lead to saying yes again because you desperately want to feel good about yourself.
When someone takes advantage of you, shake it off, put the blame where it belongs, learn from it, and tell yourself that next time you’ll use the pause. There are a lot of takers out there, and they are expert at getting what they want from the people around them. They are like pickpockets who’ve been practicing every day for years; they’ll have your wallet and be strolling away eating an ice-cream cone before you know what happened. Instead of blaming yourself and sinking into a morass of self-loathing, put your money in your shoe. Meaning: no more automatic yeses. Make them work hard enough for it and they’ll move on to an easier target.
Redraw the lines with people who’ve been taking you for granted. Whether it’s a family member, a friend, a neighbor, or someone you work or volunteer with, you CAN change the ground rules. Maybe you shoveled your elderly neighbor’s driveway because you wanted to be nice but now she expects you to do it every time it snows — and meanwhile you found out she has plenty of money and hires people to do her gardening … and her adult son lives with her and watches you shovel her snow. Maybe your friend asked you to take her kids on a teacher inservice day and now she just assumes you’ll always take them — and you’d really rather not. Maybe your siblings assume that since you’re home with the kids, you should be the one to shuttle your elderly parents to their doctors’ appointments — but they don’t step up in any other way, leaving you to shoulder most of the burden. There are a million little ways you can accidentally fall into a pattern where over time you realize you’ve committed to something that you really don’t want to do. The main reason it continues is because to break the pattern you have to have a difficult conversation. In general, we all hate those and would go to great lengths to avoid them. But remember: That time you’re giving away is time you could be using to do things that really matter to you.
Define yourself, your motives, and your values. Don’t let other people define these things for you. Don’t fall for the compliment (“You’re so awesome — I don’t know what we’d do without you”) that really means “We knew you’d do it — you always say yes even when you don’t want to.” That’s not really a compliment. Don’t fall for the insult (“We really thought you’d care more about the children/church/neighborhood/earth”) that really means “I’m annoyed that I have to go find someone else; I heard you were a soft touch.”
Know who you are. Know what you care about. Know what you want to do with your time, your money, and your energy. Be thoughtful about where you invest yourself. What other people think about your decisions is not something you need to spend time worrying about. Worry about whether you’re living your values.
It’s okay to keep something back for yourself. We ladies seem to have a special problem with stopping giving until our pockets are turned inside-out — and we’re the pocket. We give to our spouses, our children, our family, our friends, our church, our job, our community, and we don’t stop until we’re a shreddy little shred. It’s trendy right now to talk about “self-care” — taking care of ourselves, giving ourselves the oxygen first, etc. But we’re not talking about taking a yoga class or getting a mani-pedi. We’re talking about believing that our lives are supposed to have purpose and meaning.
In order to figure out who you are and what you have to give, you need to make room to learn about yourself, acquire knowledge, and build skills. In order to live a life of passion and purpose, you need to clear out the random things that fill your day, your week, and your year. You need to replace that randomness with deliberate, thoughtful action.
It can be a little addictive to say yes. You can form an identity around being the go-to guy, the one who always helps out. Saying no sometimes and making room to figure out what you really want to do — that’s the harder work. And that’s what we’re here to do.