Throughout my 30-odd years hanging around the psychotherapy business I was determined to set myself apart from those colleagues who chose to mask the complexity and uniqueness of other people’s lives with pretentious diagnostic labels that explain absolutely nothing. I remained convinced that no classification system, however intricate or sophisticated, could possibly account for the immense diversity of the human condition.
Now, having had the time to meander through the backwash of my professional and personal experience, I am considering the possibility that I was wrong. The trouble is that what I discovered is neither intricate nor sophisticated. In fact, it all dissolves into a simple dichotomy even more crass than the suggestion that men come from Mars and women come from Venus. But, casting aside all that I have held firm and sacred, I am ready to propose that there are two kinds of people roaming this planet “the “takers” and the “givers.” If your mind already refuses to suspend its disbelief and your stomach turns in disgust, I understand completely.
ln a tenacious effort to rid myself of the same revulsion, I systematically reviewed my experience with clients past and present, hoping to find compelling contradictory evidence. But, to my dismay, they all seemed to slip easily into one of these two categories. On one side were those whose distress arose from their need to carve out a place for themselves through the accumulation of material resources, the acquisition of power, the rewards of competition, and the glory of achievement. Relinquishing these things would serve only to weaken their niche in the world, unless, of course, such sacrifices were seen as investments for future considerations. Beneath the symptomatic pain and confusion, these people generally considered themselves to be “losers,” questioned their competence in life, and felt hopeless about their ability to beat the odds. As clients they tended to be strategic, hard to reach, emotionally cut-off, and fearful of being discovered. Existentially speaking, their perceived inability to acquire the resources necessary for survival left them tottering helplessly on the brink of their own annihilation in a potentially hostile world.
On the other side were the “givers” “those who firmly believed that their place in the world depended upon their ability to please and serve others. On the surface they could be “nice” people, humble, kind, and entertaining but, in return, they harbored insatiable demands for acceptance, approval, and loyalty. Fearful of being alone, they dedicated themselves to meeting the perceived expectations of others, often to the point of physical and emotional exhaustion. As clients, they tended to be fragmented and emotionally labile, telling tragic stories of betrayal, abuse, and abandonment. On the inside, they were angry and resentful, since all of their giving had failed to provide them with the assurances they so desperately needed. Existentially, they were empty vessels drifting in a cold and rejecting world.
Still unsure about the validity of my findings, I went on to examine other lives at random before taking the risk of placing myself under the same microscope. Although the problems were less pronounced than those presented by my clients, the two divergent patterns were just as clear and undeniable. In meeting new people, I needed only a few minutes of personal conversation to flesh them out.
The distinction between these two groups at the symptomatic level can easily be overlooked, but once my treacherous little dichotomy is understood, it becomes as clear as a bell curve. Requiring no trained clinical eye, and without the gobbledygook of the standard psychological diagnostic manuals, it is readily available to anyone who cares to use it. For practicing psychotherapists struggling to alleviate the recurring symptoms of distress, it invites some investigation of the underlying “pathology.” But, since its application is universal, it can just as easily be used by those who want further self-understanding or are seeking relationships. To test this hypothesis, I devised a simple scale and invited a group of five friends, none of them therapists, to independently “diagnose” ten individuals known to every member of the group. I then asked them to rate themselves and each other according to the same criteria. The results were incredibly consistent, with a level of agreement vastly superior to anything you might find in the psychological and psychiatric diagnostic literature. Bingo.
Of course, my simple dichotomy falls far short of being a theory. To attain this lofty goal, I would have to account for why a person would chose one of these two pathways in the first place. Going back to my data I found some hopeful leads in the early childhood experiences of my clients, but there was sufficient confounding evidence to keep the question open. I could have jumped on the popular bandwagon of biological determinism and genetic predisposition, but there were more interesting and accessible possibilities to be explored elsewhere.
In recent years, pre- and perinatal psychology researchers such as Thomas Verny and David Chamberlain have been generating stunning accounts of how much infants actually learn in utero. Much of their work reveals the complex communication that takes place between mother and child prior to birth. Of particular significance to my quest is the assertion that at some point in the pregnancy, or shortly thereafter, the infant experiences a loss of contact with the mother and suddenly faces the terror of being completely alone in a lifeless void. The British novelist John Fowles has referred to this void as the “nemo,” and many psychologists and philosophers have suggested that the fear it arouses haunts us throughout our lives. It is in this state of sudden and unexpected terror that the infant becomes totally preoccupied with the matter of his or her survival.
According to my emergent theory, the infant has two choices. One is to take assertive action, using whatever means are available to reclaim the warmth and security of the mother. The other is to give whatever the mother might need to entice her back into the life-affirming contact. In both cases, it is a life or death issue and whatever is learned under these conditions is bound to have profound and long-term implications. If it seems far-fetched to suggest that infants have both the information and the faculties to make such decisions and act upon them, I can only suggest that you familiarize yourself with the current research literature “you might be amazed. At very least, you might be prepared to acknowledge that here is a theory worthy of your serious consideration.
Some of my friends and associates, who have already idled away a few thoughtful hours sorting out the “givers” from the “takers” among their clients, colleagues, friends, and spouses, have wondered if it’s possible for a “giver” to become a “taker” or vice versa. Because the pattern is so deeply rooted, my simple response has always been “No, although one may try to masquerade as the other.” On the other hand it’s quite possible for people to recognize their own adaptive style and thereby take charge of its expressions and implications. One is no better than the other. An aware and self- responsible “taker” is just as good to be, and to be around, as an aware and self-responsible “giver.” In both cases the primary quest is to create a secure place in a caring and loving world, and who could ask for more than that?
This feature: Fewster, G. ( 2001). For giving is for getting. Journal of Child and Youth care, 15, 4. pp. 129-131.