As we enter the “giving season” of winter holidays, I find myself reflecting on those who are “Grinches“ and find it very difficult to give. I’m not just talking holiday gifts, but giving attention, acknowledgment, appreciation, encouragement, empathy, protection, or love to another.
In my therapy practice working with under-parented adults, I hear heartbreaking stories of parents who couldn’t give. I hear of the young girl sitting in a cold, dark car, while her parents drink at the local pub; the woman whose parents absolutely cannot acknowledge her success; the birthday gift of a glass bowl that is mailed in a shoe box without being internally wrapped so is sure to be broken, giving and taking back in one fell swoop.
I hear most about parents, but it could be anyone, even a partner who seems without empathy or a generous impulse. This is sad. Tragic. We’re certainly not born this way. What creates all this withholding?
Here are 10 reasons that can make it difficult to give. I’ve put them as statements that would never likely be said aloud, but reflect various inner positions.
“I have too much blame and resentment to give to you.” Examples include a partner who feels betrayed, a parent who blames a child who is the result of an unwanted pregnancy, someone abused by family members.
“I might be rejected.” To extend yourself is vulnerable. Giving on any personal or authentic level may be met with derision or rejection. Some cannot take this risk.
“If I open my heart, something bad may happen.” If you were innocently giving of yourself and someone took advantage of that (or coincidentally something highly traumatic happened), you may blame your own generous heart and unconsciously (if not consciously) decide to not risk that again.
“If I open my heart to you, it will expose things I don’t want to feel.” It could be I don’t want to feel my need for you, or I don’t want to feel how I’ve failed you, or some other reason that we close off to a particular person who we would otherwise be close to.
“I didn’t have it, and it hurts too much to see you have it.” Often mothers and fathers who grew up severely under-parented defend against their childhood grief by passing on the same lack of care.
“I can’t stand to feel deprived or one-down, so I can’t afford to give you a leg up.” Although very similar to the item above, this is less about defending against grief than defending against a feeling of deficiency or envy. These are the people who can’t stand it if you have something they don’t. If you have something nice, they want the same thing–even nicer if possible!
“I don’t know how to give. I feel too awkward, so I won’t try.” This is a different feeling of deficiency.
“I’m too busy trying to survive.” Those caught in survival fear are too occupied to even notice what someone outside of them might need.
“I’m the one who should be given to!” This might come from narcissistic entitlement or someone who feels “owed” because they feel so unfairly treated.
“I’m trapped inside myself.” If we don’t feel safe in the world, we will have such thick self-boundaries that we’re not really connected with others. We can also be trapped by mental illness or autistic tendencies.
On the other hand, there is also tremendous resiliency in the human heart, because many of those who were most deprived become such awesome parents, partners, or helpers in the world. Instead of turning cold, somehow their hearts are able to stay warm. If you know such a person, mirroring that would be a generous gift.
P.S. Thank you for reading. Please sign up for my newsletter if you’d like to receive more. If this piece sparks something in you, you can share your thoughts below. I am going to simplify my life and say thanks in advance for your comments and limit my replies.