Feeling pressured to give of your time, money, or talents is no fun, yet many times, we confuse generosity with a sense of obligation. Here’s how to tell the difference, so you can activate abundance by giving freely.
What’s the difference?
Generosity is a heartfelt, sometimes spontaneous desire to share with others. Obligation is present any time we feel we should, or we must. Consider this scenario:
You have lunch with a friend, and she spends most of the time complaining about her relationship. When the bill comes, the total amount is $27. You pay for lunch.
With the information provided, we cannot tell whether the impetus behind your decision to treat was spurred by obligation or generosity. Here are some of the reasons you might have chosen to pay for the entire lunch:
- You felt bad that she’s having such a hard time with her spouse
- She paid last time
- You make a lot more money than she does
- You know she has money problems
- Her spouse just lost a job
- She mentioned something about money
- You have an amazing relationship with your partner
- Nothing’s going right for her and you feel badly about your life going great
- Funds are a bit low, and you want to force some abundance by being generous
Any of the above reasons are likely due to some sense of obligation that you feel. In contrast, if you paid for lunch “just because” or out of sheer love, then it is likely that your motivation was pure generosity.
The tricky thing is knowing the difference – because often times, our obligation is borne out of guilt (especially if you feel you have a lot more money than she does, or in some other way life seems unfair or the scales seem remarkably unbalanced) and we don’t like to feel guilt, so we hide it and call it something else entirely.
Here’s another example:
An organization with which you are affiliated needs help with a project. A leader in this organization calls you and asks you to help. You agree, after which it turns out to be significantly more time and effort than you were led to believe. You decide to stay on and see it through to completion.
Generosity or Obligation? Depends entirely on why you decided to stay on and see it through. Perhaps:
- Because you said you would and you always keep your word
- Because it needed to be done
- Because nobody else is likely to do it
- Because charity begins at home
- Because this organization values helping people
- Because it would look bad if you backed out
- Because the person who asked is also your friend and you don’t want to let them down
- Because the end justifies the means
- Because now they’ll owe you, which can come in handy when you need a favor
- Because you are considering running for a leadership position and you need the brownie points
- Because someone thinks you’re stingy and this will prove you’re really generous
- Because you feel guilty because they all have full time jobs and you don’t work, so you have the time to spare
- Because you like to brag to your bridge group/moms circle/drum circle/mother/etc.
The easiest way to know whether it’s obligation or guilt is how you feel about it. Generosity feels light and free and easy, like handing someone a tissue when they sneeze. It feels wonderful and happy, like singing your favorite song at the top of your lungs in the shower. It lightens your heart and brings you joy and satisfaction.
Whereas, obligation feels heavy and is often followed by feelings of resentment. Generosity comes from yourself, whereas obligation is often put upon you by someone else (sometimes someone who isn’t even involved in the situation, like one of your parents or a preacher).
To be clear, I’m not suggesting you should never do anything out of obligation; sometimes this is necessary. Do I always cheerfully and joyfully drive my children all over the planet for their activities? Mostly, but not always. I am their mother and they rely on me and Daddy to get them where they need to be. That is our obligation. And they have made obligations to certain theater companies, dance studios, schools, and dojangs. By keeping our obligations we teach them to keep theirs as well.
I am simply inviting you to feel your way into choices you are making, so you can feel the difference between obligation and generosity, so that you can name these appropriately.
It is in this way that you can truly experience the glorious joy that comes with free and non-obligatory generosity. And then your heart can truly sing.
Go for it!