Seeking Peace of Mind? Stop Keeping Score

“Kindness is an inner desire that makes us want to do good things even if we do not get anything in return. It is the joy of our life to do them. When we do good things from this inner desire, there is kindness in everything we think, say, want and do.” (Emanuel Swedenborg)

I overheard a conversation at Starbucks a few days ago. Two young women who looked to be in their early 20’s were talking about Christmas shopping for their boyfriends. One said she wished she know what he was getting her, so she’d know how much to spend on him. The other agreed and said she’s always given her boyfriends better gifts than they gave her. She sounded a bit annoyed by that fact.

The exchange reminded me of an “aha” I had a few years ago. With the holidays coming, perhaps it bears repeating.

At a luncheon meeting, a woman I knew only slightly described to those of us around the table an Excel program she had created to track Christmas cards: “Everyone on my Christmas card list is on my spreadsheet, and when I get cards, I note having received them. I even indicate whether they merely signed the card, whether it was a holiday letter, or whether they included a hand-written personal note. After the holidays, I review the list and remove anyone who didn’t send me a card, so next year I won’t send one to them.”

I thought at the time—and still think—that it was a rather obsessive behavior, but more than that, I was disturbed by the notion of keeping score so blatantly in our relationships.

How stressful it must be to need equity in every interaction. And how frequently one must be disappointed! Whether it’s Christmas cards, gifts, time, or attention, relationships are not always going to be equal. If every exchange becomes a quid pro quo, joy will vanish quickly, replaced by measurement and resentment.

While keeping score is fitting for football, tennis, Scrabble and the like, it’s not healthy for relationships. In relationships, there shouldn’t be winners and losers; nobody wins unless everybody wins. At the heart of kindness is the idea that we give not for any expectation of reward but for the joy of giving. No strings attached. When every gift is reckoned on some master scorecard, giving becomes a contest, an obligation, a transaction.

If we withhold our kindness until someone proves worthy, or until they meet our arbitrary rules (rules, by the way, that only we know), something inside us that was ready to blossom shrivels instead.

I’m not saying it’s okay for one person to be doing all the giving and one all the taking. But whether it’s a marriage or a friendship, we need to accommodate our differences, our strengths, and our circumstances. If our eyes are always on the ledger (“We had them for dinner last; it’s their turn to invite us” … “I gave him an expensive watch; he gave me bubble bath”), we’ve lost the delight of connecting with people. Besides, we can never know what’s going on in another person’s life that may make it difficult for them to reciprocate: illness, business setbacks, family stresses, financial challenges, and even different life experiences which create different expectations…. As with so many things, a kind interpretation invites us to give the benefit of the doubt.

If a relationship is so one-sided that one party does all the giving and the other does all the taking, then it’s not much of a relationship and we can, without guilt, choose to let it fall away. Sometimes that’s what’s best for everyone. Being kind doesn’t mean ignoring what’s right in front of us or being a pushover.

Has keeping score ever really made anyone feel better? In my own life, I can’t think of an instance, while I can think of many where keeping score was less than constructive.

Whether it’s the detritus that clutters my surroundings or the superfluous thoughts that crowd my brain, I feel increasingly drawn to lightening my load. I want to let go of the dust-catchers, the tallies and ledgers, and concerns about whose turn it is. Doing so, I’m finding, also magically frees me from resentment, grudges, and disappointment.

While I love a good Excel spreadsheet as much as the next guy, I’m not going to use one to tally my relationships. I want to keep my eyes on the real prize: peace of mind and the blessings that are so abundant in my life.

Keeping score is fine for the upcoming Bowl Games, the MLS Cup Match, and the Westminster Dog Show. It’s okay for Jeopardy. But not our relationships. With the holidays upon us, one great way to increase enjoyment and reduce stress is to let go of expectations, judgments, and obligations and, instead, practice appreciation.

Step away from the spreadsheet….

“Love without motives. Give without expectations. Forgive without conditions.” (Buky Ojelabi)

31 thoughts on “Seeking Peace of Mind? Stop Keeping Score

  1. I always think of gifts and cards like I think about loaning money to family. It must always be given freely without expectation of ever getting paid back. There is an innate joy in giving without strings and if you give with expectations, you don’t experience the full joy of the act. It’s sort of like donating to NPR and getting a tote bag. The initial gift is literally diminished by what you receive in return (fortunately you can opt out). I have tally keepers among my friends and family and I feel less interested in giving to them than I do to those who treat everything as a lovely surprise.

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    • Totally agree, Michelle. That sense of obligation diminishes the joy of giving. I wonder where so many people learn that giving is a competitive sport? I suspect it comes from an inner sense of scarcity—that one can never have enough or be enough….


  2. I also have tally keepers among family members. Recently the Mister and I were at a relative’s house when she suddenly announced that she was having a Christmas card receiving contest with another relative. Both the Mister and I visibly cringed but the relative we were visiting didn’t notice. She went on to explain that they’ve been having this contest for years. How sad.

    Your comments were beautifully written–and very much appreciated. We need to keep our focus on the important aspects of life.

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  3. Your example of the two young women comparing Christmas gifts from their boyfriends (versus what they received) reminded me of similar score-keeping when I was younger. It was all about “proof” that they cared. I gave them a watch: I cared a lot! They gave me bubble bath: They didn’t care as much for me!. When we were young, these comparisons are so much easier than actually talking with our friend or partner about our feelings. And, wishing they cared more, or deluding ourselves that they did, was so much easier than asserting ourselves and leaving a one-sided relationship.

    Now that we are older, hopefully we have also gotten wiser. Unfortunately, there are those who have continued to rate their relationships by keeping score. I much prefer to spend my time with those who value me as much as I value them but who do not keep a spreadsheet.

    I really appreciated this post and hope that we can all let go of destructive resentments, grudges, and disappointments.

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    • Thanks, Janis. Somewhere I heard the holidays referred to as the “season of disappointment.” I suppose if we use gifts to measure caring (and ultimately our own worth), we’re bound to be disappointed. Hopefully, most who feel that way when they are young will grow out of it, but how lovely it would be if we could bypass that insecurity entirely! Thanks for your wise words. May we all be surrounded this season by people who don’t keep score!

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  4. Donna, I so enjoyed this article. And you reminded me of a couple of lines in an old poem of mine: “He gave me a yacht. / I gave him a chocolate peanut.”

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  5. It’s not, as you point out, healthy. It’s definitely a little obsessive, and also rather cold. We all drop people from Christmas card lists from time to time, but that’s usually when we notice they haven’t sent us a card for several years, or somesuch.

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  6. Having moved to a new and much smaller community with a long history of “Hatfield and McCoy” type feuds, I’m finding that score-keeping is an issue within these relationships as well. “What’s in it for me” seems to be the prevailing mentality, rather than, “How can I help?”

    Step away from the spreadsheet! Love that sentiment!

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  7. Love your sentiments here Donna. The beauty of giving is simply in the giving and not expecting. Besides, I’ve never been much good at Excel anyway … Have a lovely Christmas. 🎄

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