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How to Be a Giver Without Being a Sucker

A few expert tips on not becoming a festive doormat

Gratitude is among the greatest virtues a person can possess. Being thankful keeps you humble, makes others feel good and is one of those things psychologists always cite as a key to happiness. Among the most obvious ways to reach this state of being is to be a giver. In fact, some people even make it their goal in life to make sure the people around them are happy and treated with respect.

Of course, not everyone works that way…

So you can see the problem here.

“There are givers and there are takers in this world, and somehow the takers always find the givers,” says therapist Ryan Howes. In other words, the nicest people usually get taken advantage of.

But how do you avoid this while still being the giver you want to be?

Howes says to think of the airplane spiel about the cabin’s oxygen masks: Take care of yourself before helping others. “If you don’t have your needs met, you won’t be able to meet the needs of those around you,” he explains. Ideally, this works by giving from your surplus time and energy, not the time and energy you need for yourself. If you try to give from your own resources, you’ll surely burn out — and maybe even burn a bridge or two on the way with all the inevitable resentment you’ll feel.

Attending to your own needs, of course, occasionally means saying no to others. Maybe your friend wants to unload their problems on you over drinks after work, but all you want to do is chill out following a long, difficult day. Saying no can be hard for certain people, but setting your own boundaries is extremely important. Would you rather be tired and irritated at your friend the next day, or tell them, “Sorry, but I’ll be there for you tomorrow”? While you might leave someone disappointed in the short term — a fact you’ll have to recognize and accept — it’ll pay off in the long term, both for you and for your friendships.

It’s important, too, to understand when you’re giving too much of yourself. Howes likes to ask his clients to step outside themselves and view their situation as that of a close friend. What would they tell them: Keep giving, or stop and take care of themselves? He says that many times, they see that they would never allow a friend to be treated the way they allow themselves to be treated, and this helps them set boundaries.

Is it ironic that the best way to help others is to help yourself first?

Maybe.

But selflessly working for others is a path to burnout, and eventually, to being taken advantage of. And that’s definitely not a situation to be grateful for.