Most of us want to be generous, but don't know how to balance it with self-protection. Partly this is because people often confuse two types of generosity, which in their confusion can lead to them feeling their has been generosity abused even when it hasn't. What's worse is the confusion makes them more vulnerable to genuine abuse of their generosity. And so it undermines them being the strong, generous person they want to be. In this reflection I disentangle these two types.
I will call these two types of generosity reciprocal and unconditional.
We practice reciprocal generosity as a way of creating a good shared life. According to this type, you are generous because you value generosity, but a part of what you value in that is that your generosity will be returned in kind - it will be reciprocated. Done properly, that is not merely calculative, as though motivated only by selfish reward. Rather, the person who practices a reciprocal form of generosity does so because they want to share a good communal life with others. This is the common form of generosity which you see in healthy relationships - couples, families, friendships, communities. It brings both joy and security to our lives, and leads to group flourishing.
Unconditional generosity on the other hand is performed with no expectation of return. In this case, a person believes in the value of generosity no matter what. It is not conditional on whether the other reciprocates, it is not dependent on whether another's behaviour warrants the generosity. According to this ethic, you are generous even when there is no possibility of reciprocation, and even when you may be mistreated by the other in response. People practise this kind of generosity because for them it is an absolute value for them, usually with a sense that this and associated values give life greater meaning and define what it is to be a decent human being. This is the social worker who makes the effort regardless of how she is viewed by those she helps or by those in authority. "This is who I am, this is how I choose to live, regardless of what others do."
Most people value and practice the first sort. A smaller but significant number preach the second kind, while a some of them live by it. Of course, many of us adhere to both kinds of generosity, depending on the situation. Not that many of us articulate these things to ourselves - we simply talk and act in ways which fit one of the descriptions. And that's where the problem comes in. Intellectually, emotionally, and in action, we will tend to conflate or confuse these two different types of generosity. For example we may act according to one motivation - reciprocal - while naming it to ourselves as the other - unconditional. Or we may do the opposite, and believe we are acting on an unconditional impulse when our emotion is very much conditional, reciprocal. At this point bad things can happen.
What do I mean? Well, people who believe they are motivated by unconditional generosity, when in fact their emotions are conditional and reciprocal, can feel used or abused when the other does not reciprocate. And so they may become irrationally resentful. If the confusion and mismatch persists, they may develop a habit of anger, they may become am angry or bitter person.
Alternatively, such a person might blame themselves instead - turn their anger inward. "I feel like an idiot, for I let people take advantage of me." And then comes the tangled thoughts and feelings. "I shouldn't feel this way, because when I give I am not seeking a return. I'm so stupid, bad - insert whatever self-criticism." If this keeps going it can turn into self-loathing and even depression.
What we need is to be clear with ourselves about the form of generosity we are practising. We also need to realise that if we have both motivations mixed together, and our kindness is not returned, then our reaction will reflect the fact that inside us is a thread woven out of both. We may need to untangle them. Or at least we will need to recognise the confusion and so that we can distance ourselves from our confused emotions. Either way we need clarity about the values we preach and/or live by, so that we can live a coherent life and know when we are being mistreated, and when we are inviting problems, and when we are simply confused and irrational. We need to straighten ourselves out, so to speak, if we are to create a happy life in a world filled with other people.