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Empower Yourself: Five Strategies to Overcome Human Giver Syndrome and Reduce Burnout

Updated: Apr 3

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Do you ever—or even frequently—find yourself exhausted from taking care of other people but feel compelled to keep going? Do your needs and feelings take a backseat to those of everyone else in your life? Do you struggle to set boundaries and prioritize self-care amidst these demands? You might just be experiencing what authors Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski call Human Giver Syndrome, which is discussed heavily in their book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle and their Podcast, The Feminist Survival Project.


What is Human Giver Syndrome?


We explore Human Giver Syndrome and its impact on women's mental health at length in our blog post titled The Hidden Culprit Behind Women's Mental Health Challenges – Human Giver Syndrome Explored, but here is a summary of what you need to know!


Human Giver Syndrome is a term inspired by the book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, in which author and moral philosopher Kate Mann, PhD describes a world divided into “human beings” and “human givers.”


The “human beings” are entitled, competitive, and inquisitive, and it is their duty to be that way as much as possible to “maximize their human potential.” On the other hand, there are “human givers,” whose moral obligation is to sacrifice themselves—their time, patience, love, rest, bodies, dreams, and even their lives—for others’ comfort and needs. While "human givers" can be any gender, women often find themselves in this role. 


Other marginalized groups such as people of color, immigrants, those with disabilities, trans people, gay and queer populations, and those living in poverty are forced into this role, too, by a majority that doesn’t want to feel uncomfortable. Individuals in marginalized groups are expected to behave, perform, and comply with a role of service to the people in power. In other words, your own needs should never be imposed on the entitled “human beings.”


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If a “human giver” fails in this role, takes care of themselves, or [gasp] says “no,” they often face punishment from the “human beings,” from other givers for not playing by the rules, or from themselves in the form of crippling guilt. Indeed, other givers offer some of the worst reactions because resistance to the rules makes them question themselves and their ways of seeking worth. 


The Nagoskis assert that women face a culture that expects them to be pretty, happy, calm, generous, and attentive to the needs of others. All the while, they are not allowed to express their stresses or difficult emotions to others. Needs for physical affection, rest, connection, or intellectual stimulation? Don’t even think about it. 


If you are not allowed to ask a “human being” or another giver for help, and you don’t feel like you can use your own resources for yourself, where does that leave you?


It Hurts to Give Until It Hurts 


To be clear, giving isn’t bad. Generous giving comes from a place of abundance; you have what you need and your heart is full so you have the energy and resources for others. It doesn’t weigh you down like over-giving.  


Over-giving comes from a different place. Karen Kleiman MSW, LCSW wrote on that over-giving “essentially comes from an inability to receive. That means you give, give, give because you think (or hope) it will be appreciated, or because it makes you feel good about yourself, or because you feel morally obligated to.”


With over-giving, the energy flows one way, so it’s no wonder it feels like a burden. 


Do any of the following sound familiar?


  1. The thought of asking for something feels uncomfortable so you try to avoid it.

  2. You put other people’s needs before your own.

  3. When someone gives to you, you feel guilty.

  4. You give to feel loved, liked, or admired.

  5. You are over-apologetic because you can’t give as much as you would like to.

  6. It’s important to you to be the giver in your relationships.


“The distorted thought can be something like, I will be a better person and you will love me more if I give this to you,” wrote Kleiman. “This is not the same as I love you and feel loved by you, and therefore, I will give this to you.


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“Human givers” face a relentless and unsustainable cycle of sacrifice and fatigue that can lead to resentment and depression. Instead of getting what you need from it, over-giving can cause damage to your self-esteem, relationships, and frequently your body. 


Also, you may find you attract people who exploit and take advantage of your kind heart and good nature. Those people will never respond to your giving the way you need. Instead, they feel entitled to take more.


Breaking Out of the Cycle


The Nagoski sisters are not suggesting that all “human givers” should cast aside giving to become "human beings,” looking out for number one at everyone else’s expense. What a nightmare that would be! Their suggested approach is just the opposite: a world filled with fellow givers.


With an abundance of givers, no one would feel entitled to anyone else’s humanity. There would be no burnout because the moral obligation to give would be completely reciprocal. The givers would look out for one another and encourage their friends to take a break before they run out of the energy they need to take care of themselves.


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 You don’t have to wait for this utopia to appear. There are several survival skills you can develop now to embrace your beautiful giving nature in healthy ways.


  1. Recognize that “the rules” around givers are a lie designed to control you. The rules don’t serve you, but they have certainly been serving someone. They are a social construct that was intended to keep some people—mostly marginalized groups—in service to those in power. Knowing this is an important first step toward a new perspective on giving.

  2. Pay attention to how it feels to give with fellow givers versus entitled people. How do each of those situations feel in your body? Do you feel lighter or more empty? Allow those feelings to inform who you choose to give with (notice it’s “give with” and not “give to”). This process may also help you begin to untangle yourself from one-way relationships.  

  3. Find out what happens when you say “no.” Not to everyone and everything all at once, but start with one person, one time. If that sounds scary, know that there are calm, diplomatic ways of saying “no.” If you’re not sure what to say, try practicing with a counselor. The Nagoskis call it “declining to perform,” and it can be a real boost to your self-esteem as well as your energy level. 

  4. Explore where your energy is going and how it could be spent most efficiently. This skill isn’t about cutting back on the things you do for “you time” so you have more time for others. The idea is to discover ways you have been stressing yourself for someone or some cause in a way that doesn’t actually help them. For example, you may be staying up-to-date on every detail of a problem, which takes emotional energy that could be used for something hands-on that actually makes a difference. Focus your energy on what will do the most good and let the rest go.

  5. Celebrate when other givers take care of themselves. As mentioned earlier, some of the worst judgments against givers come from other givers. It will help heal your heart and theirs to legitimately be happy for them when they experience rest and joy. You can begin to build a culture around you of givers supporting givers.


For more on Human Giver Syndrome, burnout, and stress, check out Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski, PhD and Amelia Nagoski, DMA.



Get Support

It takes time and practice to overwrite old patterns of thinking. The point here is to free

yourself from guilt, not add to it, so be patient with yourself as you face your fears around creating this new part of your identity. Seek support from other givers who are already on this path, or schedule a free consult call with a therapist at Her Time Therapy, PLLC to start talking about how to apply these giver survival skills to your own life.  

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Her Time Therapy, PLLC is an integrative group counseling practice based in Denver, Colorado comprised of highly trained mental health therapists who specialize in providing convenient and empowering online mental health counseling for women in Colorado.


Call/Text (720) 255-1667 | info@hertimetherapy.com | www.hertimetherapy.com 



Women's Mental Health Counselor in Colorado offering teletherapy

Amy Moulton (she/her), is a Clinical Mental Health Graduate Student Intern offering affordable counseling services to Her Time Therapy Clients under the supervision of Julie Noyes, MA LPC NCC and Adams State University professors. Amy is passionate about helping women navigate the stress, anxiety, and identity issues that can come with big life transitions like divorce, the search for a new career, or empty nest syndrome.


*Disclaimer: This blog does not provide medical advice and the information contained herein is for informational purposes only. This blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a licensed health provider before undertaking a new treatment or health care regimen. 


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