Just before the holiday break, I put up a post which I took down several hours later after some long-time readers contacted me “off-line” and took issue with what I’d written. W., one of them, has several times pointed out to me that readers often give back on the site and I can benefit from their experience as well as vice versa. This is one of those occasions.
G. was upset about the “demand for gratitude” in that post — gratitude that would translate into a purchase of my book. Demand may be overstating it but there was certainly an expectation that gratitude would be the result of the work I’ve done on this website; hurt and disappointment when it didn’t materialize to the degree I’d expected. G.’s message immediately pulled me up and got me to thinking again about generosity and altruism. Almost two years ago, I discussed this subject in this early post. If you haven’t read it before, take a look: it will help you understand what I’m writing today. The conclusion I drew is that truly selfless generosity doesn’t exist; the person who gives always derives some reward.
G.’s remark made me see more clearly that I’d been giving generously of my time and experience on this website, not because I’m an altruistic person but because I enjoy all sorts of benefits as a result. I feel good about myself as a writer and a clinician, first of all. I’m proud I have something to say and can say it in ways that resonate with many people. This makes me feel good about myself. But I’d also been giving with the not-entirely-unconscious goal of building up a store of goodwill and gratitude that would come back to me in the form of book sales once Why Do I Do That? was released. In other words, I was giving to get.
Consciously (the part I acknowledged in this recent post), I knew I was trying to build an audience in the hope that one day those readers would buy the books I’d publish. That seems like a fairly straight-forward transaction: if a reader recognizes the quality of my writing, he or she may believe that my book will also hold value and decide to buy it. The thornier part — the unconscious bit that got me into trouble — had to do with being “overly generous,” as it were. These last two years, I’ve tried to answer almost every comment, given free advice to people who sent me emails, spent hours on the phone, without charge, trying to help people understand their treatment options — with the unconscious expectation (I now realize) that I would get something important back for it: gratitude. I generously gave to others, hoping to meet my own needs in the process — my longing to have a successful book launch.
Another reader with a background in economics reminded me that site visitors no doubt visit different blogs where other books are on offer or support requests are made; in light of limited disposable income, those visitors have to weigh the desire to buy competing products or support different websites: purchasing Why Do I Do That? is but one of many ways they might spend their money or show support. In other words, it has nothing to do with gratitude. It’s a rational, economic choice and there’s nothing disrespectful or hurtful intended when someone decides he’d like to spend his money for something other than my book. As an avid proponent of free market principles, I found this reader’s comment particularly clarifying. It helped me get some emotional distance from my disappointment and think more clearly.
Apart from the fact that “giving to get” strikes me as an unhealthy way to operate, this experience has made me realize that I need to give less of myself when I’m doing it for the wrong reasons. I hope this doesn’t come across as vengeful, as in: Fine! If you won’t buy my book then I’m not going to give you anything! Over this long holiday weekend, I realized how tired I am. The amount of time involved in maintaining the website keeps growing; because traffic has increased so much, it’s no longer possible for me to keep up in the same way I’ve been doing these last two years. More important, for my own good, I need to focus directly on getting what I need, rather than giving to others in the hope that it will come back to me in the way I want. As a result, I’ve made several small changes to the site.
I’ve kept the “sticky” post that asks visitors to show their support by purchasing my book, but otherwise, I’ve eliminated the pointed reminders about how to demonstrate gratitude. Rather than nudging you toward a book purchase if you ask for my advice or guidance, I’ve simply decided that I can no longer answer specific requests. On my contact page, rather than inviting readers to send me an email asking for free advice — I was receiving and answering such emails almost every day — I will now charge for the service like my colleague Bennett Pologe, whose website has been around much longer than mine.
In my practice, I never expect or feel entitled to gratitude for what I give, for one simple reason: my needs are being taken care of up front in the form of my fee; as a result, I’m able to devote myself to understanding and giving to my clients. I don’t feel resentful or hurt if they attack me. I don’t expect them to thank me or worry about what I want in return. It strikes me that I need to operate my website in a similar fashion. Professional Joe (as Reader W. calls him) — the one who renders opinions and answers questions as an authority — he needs to be paid when someone asks for specific advice. Egalitarian Joe, who uses his personal experience to illustrate something important and engages his readers more as peers — he gets fed by writing and interacting in just that way.
In other words, from here on out, I’ll focus less on dispensing advice and giving of myself via comment replies or emails and more on what feeds me directly. I love writing posts that involve readers in a reciprocal dialog; this interaction contains its own reward.. Answering questions as an authority and continuing to give as I do in my practice feels increasingly like a chore. I’ve been rendering that service with the unconscious expectation that it would generate gratitude in the form of book purchases — what I really wanted. That now seems like an unhealthy transaction.
Many thanks to W., G. and S. for taking the time to help me work through one of my own issues.