How to Bounce Back from Generosity Burnout

July 2017

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Venture capitalist Brad Feld was so shaped by the generosity he received in an earlier career as an entrepreneur that his mantra became “Give first.” Whether it was advice, introductions or staying after a speech to answer every audience member’s question, Feld gave in to his giving impulse.

And as a result, he suffered a major, six-month bout of depression. “You can have a very, very deep underlying philosophy around generosity, but even in the context of having that philosophy you should understand your own boundaries as a human,” Feld said in a Harvard Business Review podcast on generosity burnout. “If you don’t know what your own natural limits are, you know, like many natural forces, the generosity will expand to fill all available energy.”

Generosity burnout happens to those inclined to contribute far more than they should, perhaps because of their personality or because, like Feld, they are driven to “pay it forward.” Or, as may be the case, because they work for, live with or socialize among consistent takers. Look back at strained relationships or lousy jobs and there’s a good chance you were pushed (or the one pushing) to help too often, depleting your energy and breaking you emotionally.

How to combat generosity burnout

Before discussing tactics, let’s make a distinction between two common forms of generosity: reactive helping, which can drain you, and proactive giving, which often is energizing. Experts suggest to avoid the former, create well-known boundaries and exercise “no” more often without feeling guilty. Eric Barker of the science-based blog Barking Up the Wrong Tree, shares the following tips:

Notice the ‘no’s’: Note how often people around you decline and you’ll start to realize it’s more often than you think. Time to join the crowd.
Buy time: Rather than instinctively say yes to a request, ask for time to think about it. There may be a way to contribute or you may confirm now’s not the right time.
Develop a policy: Establish conditions for if and when you’ll help someone. Be even and practical in its application and people will respect you (even if initially they are disappointed).
Counter offer: As part of a refusal because you’re stretched too thin, offer other resources that might be of benefit.

Interestingly, studies have yet to show a correlation between extroverts and introverts or, as organizational Adam Grant revealed in a TED Talk, nice people and unfriendly folks. Similarly, being nice doesn’t always mean you’ll be helpful, and plenty of disagreeable people are quite generous.

Another interesting tidbit Grant revealed: Those who tend to tell people “I’m a giver” may actually be takers lacking self-awareness. Life, after all, is a series of give and take.

–Anne