Giving seems like a relatively simple concept. It’s usually defined in our formative years, by family, friends, teachers, and even religion. However, the ratio of how and how much we give to others with how and how much we take reveals complex nuances of our character. Incredibly, studies reveal that our personal levels of reciprocity—how much we give and take—affect our stress levels and therefore, our overall health. With so much at stake, isn’t it worth taking a little time to investigate our relationships and how they correlate to give and take?
Growing up, I was taught that giving, in its most pure form, is supporting and helping others without any expectations of reciprocation. A giver, in my mind’s eye, is one who continuously and always gives in this pure form. Conversely, my idea of a taker is one who strives to get as much as possible from both personal and professional relationships. Somewhere between the giver and the taker is what I define as the negotiator; one who gives with the expectation of getting something in return. It would be wrong to place value on these different styles of interaction. Givers, takers, and negotiators balance our professional and social worlds; the takers benefit from the givers and the negotiators insist the takers pay it forward to the givers, while the negotiators benefit from the takers. But don’t get me wrong—seldom does somebody fit exclusively in just one of these molds.
While some may stick to the same style of interaction in every relationship, I suspect that most of us embody the characteristics of a giver, taker, or negotiator, depending on the relationship, and sometimes depending on the day. A parent may be our rock and source of guidance, but as they age, we may find ourselves more often guiding and assisting them. A significant other may need support navigating a tough stretch, then turn around and support us in our victories and defeats. In a nutshell, the best relationships are those that do not define our role solely as a giver, taker, or a negotiator. The foundation of a quality relationship is an artful balance of all three styles of interaction. Finding this balance of give, take, and negotiation in our relationships strengthens the bond between two people—and impacts our own health and wellness!
Studies show that the quality of our social relationships affects our mental and physical health by either increasing or decreasing the sources of stress in our life. Why is it so important to mitigate stress? To understand the effects of stress requires an understanding of the stress response. The stress response is a three-phase response to both real (think a tiger chasing after you) and perceived (think a horror movie) danger. The first phase, the flight-or-flight response, activates the sympathetic nervous system, floods our blood with the stress hormone cortisol, and consequently increases heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure. In the second phase, the body adapts to that stressor and lives with the increased cortisol. The third phase, the most damaging of all, is exhaustion. It is during this final stage that the elevated levels of cortisol break down muscle, immune, heart, and brain tissues, and disrupt hormonal balance, ultimately leading to disease.
Healthy relationships help ward off feelings of disconnectedness, loneliness, isolation and depression, and therefore eliminate potential sources of stress. A clearer understanding of our relationships to others as they pertain to giving, taking, and negotiating, and making the necessary adjustments to find a peaceful balance in our relationships, is key to maintaining healthy relationships, and enhancing our health and overall lives.
- Define your relationships. Take time to name the people in your life—personal or professional—who take the prize for bringing you the most happiness, sadness, anxiety, or stress. Now, consider each relationship separately and define your role in the relationship as a giver, taker, negotiator, or some combination of the three.
- Identify your stress level in these relationships. Consider each relationship and identify what you feel when you interact with this person. Do you feel happy, frustrated, high energy, lethargic, elated, or anxious? If you cannot define your feelings in words, notice how your body reacts. Do your shoulder rise up to your ears, do you squint your eyes, do your smile or reach out to touch their hand or shoulder while they are speaking? Correlate your feelings and/or physical reaction to your relationship. If you feel frustrated, lethargic, or anxious, or your shoulders tighten or your eyes squint, your stress level is too high.
- Notice trends and adjust accordingly. Focus on the relationships that heighten your stress levels, and ask yourself, is there a correlation between my role as a giver, taker, or negotiator in the relationship? What are my stress levels? If you are a taker in the relationship, ask yourself how you can or how you want to give to the relationship. Conversely, if you are a giver, ask how you want to receive. And, finally, if you are a negotiator, challenge yourself to find ways to give without expectation of anything in return. Articulating your role and making adjustments to your style of interaction is the most direct way to find balance in your relationships and ultimately, better stress management.