Human Giver Syndrome (Episode 31)

Human Giver Syndrome is the belief that some people (the givers) are supposed to exist to put all of their energy into creating comfort and success for other people, and to be attractive and available, physically and emotionally, at all times while doing it. In this episode, Kay Coughlin talks about how this syndrome can afflict anybody (especially family caregivers and parents), whether or not you think of yourself as a people-pleaser. “From One Caregiver to Another” can be heard on all major podcasting services.

Learn more about all of this work at Other links mentioned in the episode: our podcast producer is Chris Martin of “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle,” by Emily and Amelia Nagoski. “Down Girl, The Logic of Mysogyny” by Kate Manne.

Transcript of episode is below.


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Transcript: Human Giver Syndrome (Episode 31)

Hi there. I’m your host, Kay Coughlin, and you’re listening to: From One Caregiver to Another. This is episode 31.

Let’s just dive right in here, okay? What is human giver syndrome? Before I give you my definition, I’ll tell you that when I first mentioned this term to someone who identifies with it, the way I do, they just get it on some fundamental level, even without hearing a definition from me. That’s how it was for me, so if you can relate, I am with you on this.

Now here’s my definition. Human giver syndrome is the belief that some people are expected to put all of their energy into supporting success and providing comfort for other people, and to be attractive and available physically and emotionally at all times while you’re doing it. So I’m guessing now that you can see how this could apply to family caregivers, just as easily as I saw it. In fact, this idea hit me like a sledge hammer when I first read about it, but I’ll come back to that in a minute.

I want to take just a moment here to say that if you aren’t familiar already with the term human giver syndrome, there’s nothing wrong with you and it’s not like you’ve been living under a rock or you’ve been out of touch. So it’s not a new issue. I think the issue has probably been around for as long as humans have been forming social groups, but it is a new term. It’s not widely in use yet, although I do hope to be a part of that group of people who are working to change that. I think the term is excellent.

And it was coined only in 2017 by Kate Manne. And she’s a philosopher who wrote the book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, and that’s the book where the term was first used. The book is a very academic work. I want to warn you about that, but it’s short and it is surprisingly easy to read.

I’m not going to get into Dr. Manne’s discussion of misogyny, even though I do agree with her and the way she explains it. And that’s because human giver syndrome can apply regardless of your gender identity. And I want to say that she does acknowledge that very clearly in her book many times. And she suggests that there’s still a lot of work we need to do in that area.

And family caregivers, we can be any size or skin color or gender, just to name a few ways we are all wonderfully made and unique. And so human giver’s syndrome can apply to any of us, regardless of what we look like on the outside.

Dr. Manne says that there are two categories of humans. There are the human beings. Those are the ones who are expected to well, do things in the world. And then there are the human givers. Those are the people who provide that support to the human beings. And that’s where the idea of human giver syndrome comes from.

Today, I’m not going to go too much, further down the wonderful rabbit holes that Dr. Manne’s brilliant concept opens up. I do want to get back to my definition of human giver syndrome, and it’s based on the definition that Dr. Manne gave us. And here’s again, what I said at the beginning of this episode. Human giver syndrome is the belief that some people are expected to put all of their energy into supporting success and creating comfort for other people, for the human beings, I guess that would be. And to be attractive and available both physically and emotionally at all times, while tending to the needs of other people.

Going a little further with this then, I’d say this accurately names this impossible standard that makes life difficult and painful for those of us who are expected to be givers, because we are also to blame for failing to live up to this standard, this impossible standard.

In other words, “Hey, you’re not making enough time to be pretty and to be thin, get on that caregiver. You’re not emotionally upbeat enough to support and comfort the people around you in the ways they prefer. And the ways they think are attractive. Wow, you are letting everybody down. It’s time for you to find a shrink so you can fix yourself. So that once again, you will have that emotional energy that you need to also fix the people around you.”

Wow. So if you, the person who’s listening to this podcast episode right now, possibly you are someone who identifies as a human giver now that you know the term. If you feel invisible until something goes wrong, if you think the people you care for and support want you to keep doing exactly what you’re doing right now, if you’ve always wondered why it seems like everybody else is getting ahead and getting more rest and living lives that are more fulfilling than yours, you know what? You’re probably right about all of it and it’s by design. It’s human giver syndrome showing up in your everyday life. It shaped you and it shaped me, even though we didn’t know its name or that it was there in any way, at least in any way more specific than a vague feeling.

I first encountered this term actually in a book called Burnout. And it’s by the brilliant, oh, very brilliant twin sisters, doctors Emily and Amelia Nagoski. I recommend this book a lot to my clients, by the way. As I said before, this idea hit me like a sledge hammer and it hit me right in my feelings. And it was weird. As far as I could tell, I was so relieved that someone had put a name to this something that I had been feeling my whole life, but I couldn’t find the words to name it for myself.

Suddenly, I felt so seen and understood, but also I felt angry and I was shocked. And honestly, I just started to sob. I was so surprised by how strongly I reacted to this. And if that’s happening to you right now, if you’re having a strong reaction in any way, I just want you to know it’s totally okay. But what the heck was going on with me there anyway? Why did I react that way?

Well, I’ve had some time now to analyze what was going on with me. And I can see now that I just didn’t want this to be true about me; not even if it explained so much about my life and my choices. The implications to me about what this meant for me were just too much to face right then. I mean, I am a modern woman. I am proactive in creating my own life. Heck, I’m a feminist and everybody knows I’m a feminist. Everybody knows that I don’t stand for any bull about how somethings are a man’s work and other things are a woman’s work. So how could this possibly be true about me?

I was truly ashamed right then, because what this term, human giver syndrome and my understanding of it, what it revealed to me was that, no, I wasn’t actually nearly as advanced as I like to think about myself. Maybe I’m not nearly as much of a feminist or a modern woman as I thought I was. Because when it comes to caregiving, I built all of my behaviors along the lines of what someone who is a human giver would do. And I’m talking about being a caregiver, both in terms of caring for my mom, but also honestly, in terms of caring for my kids.

I know this sounds like I’m being really hard on myself, but I think it’s just incredibly important to be honest about the awakenings that we have like this when we have them and when we can see them and learn from them. I’m not embarrassed that I had this reaction, but it sure surprised me. And it did reveal a lot about what’s actually going on in my head.

I’ve been doing intense self-awareness work for many years. And my greatest hope is that I will always be growing and evolving. So for me, as I guess, devastating as it was to me, and to my psyche to see myself so clearly in terms of a human giver syndrome, I still see it as an opportunity for me to grow from it.

But why did it hit me so hard? It’s because the last year I have been living through what everybody else on this planet has been living through, and that’s COVID. The responsibilities that have fallen on my shoulders during this pandemic have made everything so much heavier for me. Because the consequences of failing, if I were to fail, the consequences would be so much worse.

All of a sudden, when the pandemic hit, if I somehow failed to protect my family, my two teenage boys, my husband and my mom, the result could be actual death. That’s not something I had faced a whole lot in the past, but it was very real to me. So my role as a mom and a wife and a caregiver, meant that I felt I had to become a literal human giver, in order to ensure the survival of the people I love.

I fell into this cycle of fight or flight or freeze. I became for all intents and purposes, an over protective sheep dog. And I was hurting my people and I was snapping at their heels if they tried to get out of my protective circle.

For months, I was just a hot mess from the chemical soup that my brain was pumping out on a daily basis. In order for me to respond adequately to each new stimulus that kept coming up to scare me in a new way. Man, and I found myself doing things for other people that I would never do under other circumstances. I found myself being a people pleaser in a way that wasn’t really me.

So I have to take just a quick minute here and say that my core issue isn’t, people-pleasing, it’s perfectionism. That is what has plagued me my whole life and I have to come to terms with it every day. And yet, even though I’m not a people pleaser, and that’s not how I see myself most of the time, I still found myself micromanaging my family’s behavior and activities. I was putting this exhausting amount of energy into every decision, whether it was big or small.

It was, who exactly is allowed to go to the grocery store and for how long. It was, is this particular food item nutritious enough to protect us against a virus. And I don’t care if we have enough data to tell us if that’s true or not, let’s figure it out anyway. And it was, oh gosh, even little things like, which song is the best one to sing in your head to make sure you wash your hands for the requisite 20 seconds.

I feel like we just need to take a collective side right here, because this has been our lives. And especially for those of us who do care for other people, it’s been a pretty wild ride.

Okay. When I was then writing this episode, I struggled so much with how important this topic is going to be for caregivers and I didn’t want to get it wrong. That’s my perfectionist showing through, of course. I shared my fears about getting this wrong with my amazing podcast producer, Chris. There’s a link to his website down in the show notes; he’s amazing. And he said to me, “Maybe that, itself, is part of human giver syndrome; that feeling like you have to show up perfectly.” And you know what? Chris was right about that. There are so many layers of this human giver syndrome that we can keep pulling back.

And one aspect of it that I hit on for myself as a perfectionist, is this expectation, not just that we will always be there and always be on, and I mean 24-7, but that we will always get it right. And we will take the blame and feel shame when somebody else who should be living in our protective bubble, gets hurt or does things wrong.

Think of the shame some parents feel when their kid gets a bad grade. Is that human giver syndrome? It’s complicated, but I think maybe it is. Or think about the extreme guilt caregivers feel when their care receiver falls and breaks a bone or gets a concussion. And this happens a lot to people who are frail or elderly; they fall. So is that guilt? Is that coming from human giver syndrome? I think in large part that it is.

And for me, it turns out that I had just fallen more deeply into what the system that created human giver syndrome had already trained me to do, whether or not I knew I had been in training for it. I had been resisting it for most of my life. And I for sure thought that I was intelligent enough to never let it happen to me personally. And I think that’s why I was so rocked when I learned about human giver syndrome for the first time, and why it threw me for such a big loop emotionally.

I had been living through such a difficult time. I’m recording this during the pandemic. Who am I kidding? It’s still difficult, but this has allowed me to find a new awareness within myself that I don’t think I could have seen before. Maybe I had to go through it before I could have seen it.

Okay. Obviously a little time has passed since I first learned about human giver syndrome. And in that time, I have really started to process what I was thinking and feeling when I first learned about it and what it is that I’ve actually learned since then, and here’s what I’ve come to. I think it’s actually incredibly important and outstanding knowledge to have, because if we can use this term, that means we have a name for it now. And it means we have a chance to figure out what we want to do about it.

For me personally, it means I have a chance to look at the system that’s behind it. And one of my gifts is seeing a system and unraveling it to see what’s really going on and how to change the way I show up in that system, so that I just don’t have to buy into the whole thing anymore if I don’t want to.

Don’t mistake me here. I definitely want the system to change in the long run. But for today, it’s enough for me to change how I interact with that system. And more importantly, it’s enough for me to change how I interact with the people in my family.

I can now notice how I’m behaving in terms of human giver syndrome, and I can see when it’s taking up real estate in my own head. I can, if I want to, be patient and compassionate and curious with myself. Over time, then, I will be able to make more intentional choices about what I personally think and believe, and I can feel all of the feelings that come up about it. But for today, it’s enough to just raise awareness for family caregivers around this critical concept. In fact, I think it’s really amazing to raise the awareness for all of us. It just explains so much about why it’s so easy to get stuck in the stereotypes about caregiving. And I mean, so stuck that we can’t begin to figure a way out unless we get some help along the way.

So since it basically blew up my mind, the first time I learned about human giver syndrome, I’m going to stop right here for today. And whether you can’t wait to know more, or you’re feeling big emotions around this, or like me, maybe both of those things are happening to you at the same time, I’m going to do more about this in the future. There will be more to come from me. I’m going to keep digging deeper.

If you are feeling like you want to go deeper into understanding how this is affecting your life, and if you want to figure out some next steps to help you, I’m going to be hosting a webinar on Tuesday, May 4th at one o’clock Eastern time. There’s a link to register in the show notes. The webinar is going to be free, but the registration is limited to 100 participants. So if you’re interested, please register as soon as you can.

And if right now you are feeling high emotions about this, and you really want to get to work on making your life more fulfilling for yourself right now, you can of course work with me one-on-one and that always starts with just talking to me on the phone to find out if I can even give you the help you need, or you can read my book. There are links to all of that in the show notes.

For now, for today, if you are identifying on any level in any way with this idea of human giver syndrome, whether you’ve always known it about yourself or like me, if maybe you denied it and resisted it, but it’s true anyway, please know that I see you. I stand with you. You are in my heart. If I could, I would meet with every one of you and share a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, while we just sit together and process this revelation.

I want you to know before I end this today, that this knowledge about human giver syndrome, it doesn’t have to hold us down or hold us back. I know personally that it’s possible to take this information and to use it to create a life you want that’s going to be more fulfilling to you. I know because that’s what I’m doing for myself and I’m a caregiver too. So while this might seem like a lot of work, I will be here to help you, and I’m here to tell you that it’s worth it. And you can do it too if you want, even if, or maybe especially if, you are a caregiver.

Thank you so much for listening. You can learn more about me and about all this work at, that’s And there, you can also sign up for my newsletter, which is also called, From One Caregiver to Another. Please follow me on Instagram. There’s a link in the show notes, if you want almost daily doses of straight talk for family caregivers who are tired of feeling trapped by the traditional definition of being a so-called good caregiver.

If you liked this episode, please consider leaving a review, which will help other caregivers find their way here too. And definitely, tell a caregiver friend who also needs a boost in their confidence to design and live their own best life, which like you and me, just happens to include their caregiving responsibilities, but doesn’t have to be centered solely on those duties.

I can’t wait to be here with you again in the next episode, From One Caregiver to Another. 

your guide

Kay Coughlin, CEO of Facilitator On Fire, is a business coach for the non-profit sector and social justice businesses. She is also well-known for being an advocate for family caregivers.

In every forum she can find, she shouts that it's OK for every human to earn a living, set and enforce boundaries around their bodies, thoughts, feelings and actions. You can join Kay's free, private online community to talk about boundaries here.

Kay also teaches about emotional labor, how to rest, and Human Giver Syndrome, and is the host of the "From One Caregiver to Another" podcast and author of "From One Caregiver to Another - Overcoming Your Emotional Grind."

Kay is well-known for her public speaking on boundaries and self-care. 

Facilitator on Fire is a subsidiary of Donor Relations Mindset LLC, which Kay founded in 2015. She lives with her husband and children in central Ohio, and is the primary caregiver for her own mother, who lives right next door. Kay can be found on LinkedIn and Instagram.

Copyright 2024. All rights reserved, Julia Kay Coughlin and Facilitator On Fire.

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