How to Stop the Cycle of Over-Providing

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Jen’s Photo: Darrah Parker Photography

I define over-providing as giving more than is personally sustainable for you and often giving for the wrong reasons. Accurate but kind of bland.  A better definition is from my friend Jeanie, “Over-providing? That’s when you are pouring everything into growing everybody else while withering yourself.”

Withering yourself.  Yes that’s what you do when, instead of bringing the requested two sides to the family holiday dinner, you show up with five sides, a salad, two pies, gravy and a ham. Withering yourself is hosting a fund-raiser for your favorite cause, spending weeks hand-crafting the food, the decorations and all the details (even though there are other volunteers), and ending up in bed for two weeks with pneumonia. Withering yourself is inviting your elderly mom to move in with you, even though she has a support system and enough money for good care, and find yourself gaining weight, neglecting your creative passions, and cultivating a big ole’ grudge.

Obviously, over-providing is not in your best interests and yet we all do it, at least some of the time. Why oh why? Here are a few of our compelling reasons:

  • You were raised in a culture that still proclaims good women give endlessly and good men provide.
  • Your biology –humans are hard-wired to belong. Over-providing keeps you in the tribe.
  • You’re empathetic. You care. You want to help. How to determine how much is enough?
  • You may believe what you want to give isn’t worthwhile enough (whether that’s your ideas or your presence or your love) so you gush like a broken fire hydrant lots of other things – money, meals, advice, time – to make up for what you lack.
  • You might forget you’re a human with human limits of time and energy, easy to do in these uber speedy times.
  • Perhaps, in the past, over-providing kept you safe from harm.
  • You haven’t learned (yet) to trust your self, to trust your body and heart when it says, “Enough.” 

Also, over-providing can be very difficult to recognize. Your family of origin, your religious background, even where you work, can give you strong messages about how much to give. Most of us believe, at least a little, that we are worthwhile for what we do, not who we are. Because it’s tricky to know when you are over-providing, it’s good to know some of the signs to help you wake up to when it might be happening.  Signs like:

  •  A hollow feeling of never getting enough done
  • Overly focused on what others think of you
  • A jittery compulsion to fix people’s pain, to do something to make it better
  • Feeling lonely even when you have friends and family around
  • Doubting other’s intentions – “They only love me because I do so much for them”
  • Resentment – everybody else gets what they want but you
  • Frustrated and paralyzed, feeling like you go around and around in a circle on your own dreams and desires
  • Hearing yourself say things like “When I finish ____ then I will” and “I just had to do ____ for _____ who else would?” and “If I don’t do ______ I will be a big failure, get fired and end up homeless and…”

Now before we move onto the antidotes to over-providing, I’ll address the idea that over-providing at work is the only way to succeed. But what research actually shows is the people who have the highest impact link authentic regard for others’ interests –co-workers, customers, colleagues – while also taking care of their own interests. In other words, they don’t abandon their own desires, they tend both. Wharton professor Adam Grant, author Give & Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, calls this “otherish giving.” Yes, this applies to clients, customers, and especially, children.

Okay, hopefully I’ve convinced you, at least a little, that over-providing is not the best choice for your health, your career, or your sanity. Now what to do?

Sample one or two (no more!) of these simple balancing antidotes:

  •  Write down everything you do for others in a 24 hour period.   This is far harder than it seems. If you have a lot of resistance, you may be deeply identified with over-providing as in “This is what makes me me!” or you may be so exhausted by over-doing that you need a nap. Either way, notice why you refuse to do this.
  • Start the day with five minutes of extravagant self-praise.    Read emails extolling your amazing virtues, recall compliments in vivid detail, shower gratitude on yourself for specifics things you did or didn’t do (I tell myself “Hey, good on you for not having any gluten at the party!”). Imagine this praise in the form of hummingbirds streaming into the back of your heart.
  • Navigate by desire   Make a practice of asking, “What do I want?” or “What would I really love to do here?” before say yes to something. Learning to know what you want, even if you can’t have it, is a life changing practice and one I teach in more depth in my book The Life Organizer. 
  • Deputize a few beloveds to check in with before you say yes to something else. My husband Bob and my Brain Trust (my mastermind group) must hear from me before I commit to a project or a teaching gig. I might still say yes even if they counsel no but at least I stopped long enough to make my case. Hearing your self try to talk yourself into something can be pretty enlightening.
  • Test reality.   Is it true if you say no to your sister when she asks you to work for free in her store she’ll never speak to you again? Is it true that if you stop trading your coaching services for inferior admin help you will be overwhelmed and die? Take one fear of the disaster and do something different – say no, ask for what you want, etc. Note in writing – what was the actual result?
  • Get used to saying, “Let me get back to you.”   Make a list of all the reasons you must do this. Then go down the list asking, “Is that true?”
  • Deepen your practice of self-trust.   When faced with a decision or choice, ask yourself before you ask anyone else, “What do I think? What do I want?” We develop self-trust by checking in with ourselves (a key part of the Life Organizing practice from my book and app), taking action on our best guess, and then asking, “What do I know now?” We do not develop self-trust by saying, “Obviously, I can’t trust myself because I thought X was the right choice and it.” That’s not self-trust, that’s being a psychic.
  • Learn your over-providing triggers.  Exhaustion? Criticism? Being shamed? When you know your triggers, you may still over-provide but you’ll know why, and in time, that makes it easier to stop.
  • Forget hard and fast rules.  Some situations call for over-giving for a period of time. When my dad was dying, it was important to over-provide for him. When I moved my mom into assisted living because of her Alzheimer’s, it was good to fuss over her for a couple of weeks. The guideline? Are you checking in with yourself? Are you choosing mindfully? If you want to give more, are you capable of doing so without hurting yourself?
  • Yes, avoiding over-providing is a privileged problem.  The woman in sub-Saharan Africa who spends two hours walking one-way to gather muddy water doesn’t get to choose how much she gives. And that isn’t an argument for you to be a martyr. Instead, become a force of love and balance in the world in hopes that one day all people can choose an emotionally and physically sustainable life. 

It’s tempting to get your kicks from being everything to everybody. It can be hard to believe there is another way and, once you see your pattern, you also see how over-providing is a less than truthful existence. It keeps you from giving birth to your truest life. Seeing that, painful as it can be, will motivate you to listen and choose the middle way – a little me, a little them – more often.

  • Kandice N Cole

    Thank you for sharing this! I too see so much of myself in this and this reminded me that I do have a choice when it comes to providing. Thank you for the gentle ways to begin to balance.