There are two fundamental approaches to life, taking and giving. The path of giving leads a life of expansiveness and joy. The path of taking leads to a life of self-absorption and misery. In Judaism, giving is being G-d-like which is why it is such an empowering way to live. Nonetheless, many people struggle with giving to their spouses, friends, and sometimes, even to their own children. Although it is true that it is possible to strengthen ones capacity to give through practice and doing acts of kindness, I believe there is a deeper reason why some people struggle with giving.
Janet has had it with her husband, Dan. She feels she can’t ask him to do anything without some negative response and resistance. He complains she demands too much of him and that she doesn’t understand how stressful his life is. She counters by telling him that her life is equally stressful, yet she manages to build her business, take care of the house, and raise the children. Hearing this, Dan can only withdraw, feel guilt-ridden, and hate himself. “What’s wrong with me, he asks? Why am I so self-absorbed and weak?” A superficial evaluation of Dan is that he is selfish and needs to “man-up.” A more accurate understanding may be that Dan is not selfish but is an emotionally wounded person who lives with chronic pain. It is this chronic pain that limits his capacity to give.
Imagine you have a splitting headache and your neighbor knocks on the door to ask if you can watch her three kids while she goes to the store for an hour. Most likely you would feel conflicted between your natural desire to help and your need to take care of yourself. It’s hard to take care of three children when you have a splitting headache. Would we judge this woman as being selfish if she told her friend she can’t handle it? One might argue that it is possible to transcend one’s pain but this isn’t always possible. Pain limits our capacity to give because when we are in pain, we naturally turn inward and put our energy into taking care of ourselves. Pain forces us to become “self-absorbed.”
There are many people who live with chronic emotional pain which is often the result of developmental wounds. Emotional wounds such as chronic sadness, loneliness, anxiety, fear, shame, guilt are no less painful than physical wounds. And just like someone struggling with physical pain, emotional pain also causes one to become self-absorbed and limits ones capacity to give.
Dan was wounded by growing-up with a tough, critical, and demanding father whom he could never please and thus suffers from depression, loneliness, and shame. Until Dan becomes aware of the real reason why he feels limited in his capacity to give, he will continue to wonder what’s wrong with him, why he can’t be like others, and hate himself.
What’s more, emotionally wounded people are very needy people. Unconsciously, they are always looking for someone to see their pain, nurture them, and comfort them. This neediness means that they mostly tend to see others as potential sources of relief (and are often disappointed when others fail to meet their needs) rather than as opportunities for giving and nurturing.
What’s the solution? Unfortunately, many people with this condition are not aware of their emotional wounds and how they came about. For such people, behavioral changes are like taking an antacid to treat a stomach ulcer. The wound will continue to fester and hurt until it is properly “diagnosed and treated.” Educating such people about the merits of giving or trying to inspire them with stories about people who do great acts of kindness only reinforce their shame and low self-worth. This is because the problem is not a moral one but a psychological one. The solution is not better education but bringing their unconscious pain into consciousness so that it can be treated. As long as the pain remains pushed out of ones conscious awareness it will continue to limit ones capacity to give. The keys to a “cure” are awareness, understanding, acceptance, and integration of the core pain. In most cases, such a curative process requires the guidance of a trained professional.