Our motivations for why we do what we do aren’t always as straightforward as we’d like to think. When we do something to make someone else happy, we might be genuinely motivated by generosity. There may, however, be other factors at play.
We might be hoping to win approval, secure a sense of belonging, or increase our chances that the favor will be returned later. We may want to feel good about being a generous person or have a desire to appear generous to others.
Being generous is a good thing, right? So why is it important to look at where our motivations for our actions might be more complicated than we’d like to think?
Yes, generosity is beautiful and connecting. It can also be a disguise people-pleasing hides behind. When we just write it off as something good, we miss what’s really going on inside us. We might remain unaware of the places where we’re making choices out of fear. We might not notice where we’re reinforcing the message that we are less than or that we have to earn our right to be in relationship.
When our generosity comes with expectations—whether we’re aware of them or not—it makes our relationships transactional. We will give someone else what they want, but in return we expect a certain response or type of relationship. Generosity is a good thing, but when we use it as a way to shape relationships or prove our worth, we’re not really being fully generous toward ourselves or others.
It seems like it should be easy to know our own motivations, but this isn’t always the case. Try asking yourself these three questions to examine whether what you’re doing is purely generous.
Remember, you don’t need to be hard on yourself if you realize your motivations are more complicated than they originally seemed. It’s totally normal to want all the things listed above. We can both be generous and want things for ourselves.
The point of this exercise isn’t to label you as good or bad, but to deepen your understanding of why you do what you do. The more aware you are of the factors affecting your actions, the better equipped you are to make authentic choices.
What are you expecting in return?
Many of us will immediately answer this question with, nothing. We’re being generous so, of course, we don’t expect anything in return. Before you move on to the next question, take a moment to ask yourself whether that’s really, really true.
What if the other person doesn’t seem to acknowledge or appreciate your gesture? What if they give credit to someone else? What if they seem to expect you to continue to do things to make them happy without ever considering what you would prefer?
If any of these possibilities prompt a reaction from you, consider what you might be hoping for in exchange for what you’re giving.
How does it feel?
Our emotional experience can tell us a lot about what’s really going on for us. If giving feels joyful and increases your sense of connection with the other person—no matter how they respond—chances are pretty good that you were truly motivated by generosity.
Sometimes, however, our actions come with a sense of resentment or obligation. We may also feel nervous or fearful as we watch to see how our generosity is received. Notice what emotions are coming up for you and consider what they might be trying to tell you.
What would it cost you to not be generous?
We think of generosity as costing us something, but what about the cost of choosing not to do the thing that seems generous? Maybe the only thing it would cost you is the joy of doing something for someone else.
There are sometimes, however, costs that we’re less inclined to notice. Is there any concern that it might cost you someone’s approval or even a relationship? Will it cost you tranquility and peace if someone is unhappy about not getting their way? Do you have an image or self-concept of being a generous person that you fear to lose?
What might the consequences be if you say no to doing this generous thing?
Generosity can feel especially complicated during the holiday season. As you examine the motivations behind your acts of generosity, remember to treat yourself gently. None of us navigate this perfectly. Getting clearer on your motivations can help you determine whether your generous acts are building your relationship in the direction you want it to go.