Learning to Give and Expect Nothing in Return
I am back in Canada. I have been delaying making this announcement publicly—partially because I’ve been in full-state emergency status and partially because I’ve been busy learning, very deeply, the lessons that I am about to share here now.
Jamie’s mom was hospitalized at the end of April. She lives in Ontario, and we were in Kuala Lumpur. That’s really far away. There’s nothing quite like the helpless feeling you get when you want to hug and help someone, but they’re a 26 hour journey away. It’s awful.
Still, our decision to return was not an easy one.
We had set off in mid-January to Thailand, then Malaysia. We spent a lot of time working in Thailand. In Malaysia, we worked even more.
Kuala Lumpur gave us the perfect work space. We found a condo on the 29th floor of a building with great amenities right next door to a supermarket with dirt cheap food prices. We actually extended our stay there from 3 weeks to 2 months so that we could get even more work done. We promised ourselves: after this, we will take a break. We bought tickets to Bali.
Jamie and I usually get into routines everywhere we go, but the routine in Kuala Lumpur was something else. We couldn’t sleep in. Because of the 12 hour time difference, I had to wake up at 7:30-8am to see my clients in the Eastern time zone. There was a gym was downstairs, so instead of working out every other day, I was going every day. It was like a work resort—the perfect place to get things done.
Best of all, I was actually writing my second book—The Art of Talking to Yourself. Not only was the book getting written, but I was falling in love with its flow, its beauty, its message. I remember thinking, “I am finally saying what I want to say the way I want to say it.” I remember thinking, “I can get the first draft done in a month, and then I’ll take a break.”
I thought I’d found the perfect rhythm of self-care. Little did I know that life had other plans for me. My rhythm of “work a few months, rest the next few” could only be effective if nothing happened. And something happened.
The phone call.
Our decision to return was difficult because we were both overworked. I was taking care of myself, sure. I had found a great structure, yes. But I am not a creature of pure structure. I need freedom too.
We were also confused because the emergency was not, necessarily, life-threatening. It was not a matter of unquestionable necessity, but choice. It was a matter of picking apart guilt and love, separating expectations and values. It wasn’t just about Jamie’s mom being in the hospital; it was also about the support that his family needed in her absence. It was about stepping into that role—because it’s right, not because we were forced.
To add to it all, taxes and unexpected failures left us both in a period of financial difficulty. Being self-employed, I know this more than most people do: financial difficulties come and go. There’s no need to stress about money. But suddenly, this attitude wasn’t so easy. A plane ticket back to Canada from Malaysia isn’t cheap, and the travel insurance we had spent so much money on refused to pay.
I remember sitting in front of my laptop with the browser open. In one tab was the contact information for Malindo Air—our airline to Bali—who regretted to inform us that our tickets were nonrefundable. In the next was the small print of our insurance policy coverage with a highlighted sentence that described exactly why we were on our own. And, in the tab right in front of me, was a payment screen for the several thousand it would take to fly to Toronto.
I hovered my finger over the button. Something arose within me like a sickness. I turned to Jamie and said, “We have to talk about what this means.”
I said, “I feel like I’m giving away my last piece of bread right now, and that’s a dangerous situation for me. It’s a dangerous situation for anyone. My tank is on empty. I can give when I’m on full, but when I’m running on empty, and all I have is a drop, and I feel like I have to give that drop to someone else, I know what happens. I get sensitive to their ingratitude. I start to pick apart their lack of appreciation. I start to feel like I do so much, and I don’t get it back. I do not want to feel like that, but I also don’t want to be delusional about the fact that, sometimes, I do feel like that. I don’t want to pretend like I’m not going to feel unappreciated because I might. Anyone would be in danger of it in a situation like this.”
He nodded slowly and said, “Yeah, I know. We might feel like that.”
We talked for a long time, the payment screen still hovering in the background, telling us that we had 15 minutes to complete the transaction, then 10, then “Please refresh your page and try again.”
We talked about all the dynamics that we’d be walking into. We were going to lose our routine, lose our structure, and lose a lot of money. We’d have to stop working on everything, and we would be spending all our time helping out. We would face people who might not acknowledge our contribution because of their hang-ups about accepting help. We would also face people who might not thank us for what we were doing because they wouldn’t realize what we were doing. Where we were going, no one, except him and I, would know the extent of our sacrifices.
We were both concerned about being unappreciated and a few hours’ conversation made us both realize: we would be. It was pretty much guaranteed.
Right then and there, I felt something shift inside of me. I said, “Well, what if we expect it? What if, as I give my last piece of bread, I smile, turn around, and go make some more, without even waiting for a ‘Thank you’?”
We both agreed—that sounded nice. We both felt better. We bought the tickets.
It sounded nice, but I don’t think either of us really thought that this would make the situation better. It seemed like a nice idea, but it also seemed like one of those syrupy platitudes offered by a dozen self-help books. Advice that sounds great, but in real life, turns out to be irrelevant.
But it wasn’t irrelevant. It was profound.
The moment our plane touched down in Toronto, I felt something powerful move through me—a calm, an ease, a rightness. Like the Universe was giving me a thumbs up.
From the moment we got back, until about three days ago, we’ve been going full speed. Driving back and forth to the hospital, making meals, cleaning the house, buying groceries, running errands, talking to nurses, making phone calls, walking the dog. And, somewhere in there, going to the gym, eating, sleeping.
And each step along the way, I’ve been connecting more and more deeply with that inner sense of rightness. And it felt good. It felt even better when I noticed just how thankless so much of our work was. Of course, there were thanks and kind words, but I tell you—if I had been depending on the approval of others to do what I did last month, I’d have run out of steam a long time ago.
I do not need (or want) to be told I am doing something right. I know I am doing something right, because I feel it.
Then, a funny thing happened.
In the middle of reflecting on this experience to Jamie, I suddenly remembered the chapter in The Love Mindset on giving unconditional love. I said, “This is, perhaps, the greatest challenge of our time—to love in the absence of any immediate external rewards for our love.”
In the book, I spoke about love as an awareness, not an action. What I meant by this quote and that whole chapter was that we can continue to maintain a loving awareness for someone who does not have the same awareness of us. But I realized, in that moment, that it was possible to take loving actions without expecting rewards as well. We can give without expectation also.
But how? What was it that liberated me from feeling unappreciated—a feeling I had dreaded and feared? What did I actually do that detached me from the expectations that I thought I’d have?
What I did was simple—I acknowledged that, after giving something generous to a person, my mind would begin to put its attention onto the other person’s reaction. So, instead, I purposefully routed this attention to my own inner sense of right and wrong—my own guidance.
After each kind thing I’ve done, I’ve asked myself for approval. And, most of the time, I’ve given it. I’ve paid as little attention as possible to the feedback given by others. And not only has this helped me avoid feeling unappreciated, it’s also helped me refill my tank. Every time I’ve given myself approval for my own actions, I’ve felt appreciated. Because of that, I haven’t been hungry for appreciation.
I’ve realized that, just like my self-care routine in Malaysia had to match my lifestyle, my relationship to my own expectations had to match to my generosity. If I was to go camping for 5 days and forget about everything, I wouldn’t have to be so stringent about being healthy. I could just relax. By the same token, if I were surrounded by people who always approved of me, I wouldn’t need such a deep relationship with my own sense of right and wrong.
And you know what that means? It means that other people’s approval is actually a hindrance, more than a helper, when it comes to self-discovery. (This blew my mind, it really did.)
I’m a recovering approval addict. Do I really need people to pat me on the back? Isn’t that why I ended up doing so many things I didn’t want to do throughout my life? From plucking my eyebrows to picking my courses in school—wasn’t I just trying to get a hit of my favourite drug?
The less approval I get, the more chances I have to develop a relationship with my inner sense of approval. Thankless environments are actually useful for this. They help me discover my own thankfulness and my own self-appreciation.
That all being said, everything’s calming down now. Although the medical situation isn’t as great as it could be, Jamie’s mom has been released from the hospital. Her health and future looks promising. We’re not running around quite so much anymore. I’m writing again.
I think my biggest takeaway from this experience is that stressful, thankless situations have their own teachings—teachings which are difficult to access in other ways. I used to tell myself that I was no longer a junkie for approval, but this experience has taught me that I had a lot to learn. And, although I’m sure this lesson will keep evolving through time, I feel I’m getting the hang of it.
And I definitely appreciate that.