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)

 

The Surest Way to Have a Disappointing Holiday Season

snowflakeIf we want to experience joy this season, we need to stop keeping score in our relationships. I wrote and posted a message last January that seems especially relevant now, with the holidays upon us. Keeping score is the fastest way to assure disappointment and resentment. Click here to travel back in time and read the original post.

 

Kindness and 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)

Attribution: Donna Cameron

Snohomish Shoe Tree

A few years ago, seated around a luncheon table at a business meeting, I tuned into a conversation among my table-mates. A woman whom I knew only barely was describing with unconcealed pride the electronic filing system she had created some years before to track Christmas cards.

She described an elaborate program which maintained both a database of names and addresses, and a spreadsheet: “Everyone on my Christmas card list is in there, and when I get cards, I note in my spreadsheet having received them. I can even indicate whether they merely signed the card, whether it was a holiday letter, or whether they included a personal note. After the holidays, I review the list and remove anyone who didn’t send a card, so next year they won’t get one from me.”

I remember thinking at the time that this puts my own obsessive-compulsive tendencies into manageable perspective. I also remember thinking I was glad I was nothing more than a nodding acquaintance with this woman—I didn’t like the notion of being tracked on her spreadsheet. Actually, since I don’t send Christmas cards, I wouldn’t ever have made the cut to begin with.

I’ve thought about that conversation occasionally and realized what I am most uncomfortable with is the notion of keeping score.

Anyone who follows sports knows keeping score is essential. Guys don’t get paid many millions of dollars for romping aimlessly around on the field with other millionaires. They get paid for competing fiercely, and they get paid more for winning.

Likewise, Scrabble, cribbage and dominoes probably aren’t as enjoyable if we agree before playing that we’re not going to keep score. It’s good to have a goal, and healthy competition can make a game more fun.

But relationships are not competitions—nobody wins unless everybody wins.

At the heart of kindness is the idea that we act kindly not for any reward but for the joy it gives us, and out of the knowledge that it is the expression of our highest and best self. If we withhold our kindness until someone proves worthy, or until they meet some standard we have arbitrarily set, aren’t we being pretty small?

I suppose we all keep score to some degree. In a couple, one partner may wash the dishes while the other does the laundry. In a friendship, we each do what we are best able to do and hope it all balances out. The danger comes when one or both of the parties sets up that spreadsheet in their head (or worse, on their computer!).

Nobody wants to be taken advantage of and friendship is supposed to be a two-way street, but relationships are complex things. They can’t be broken down into “I called him last; it’s his turn to call me,” or “We entertained at our house last time; it’s their turn to have us over.” We never know what’s going on in other people’s lives that may make it difficult for them to reciprocate. 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, it’s absolutely reasonable to ask if this really is a relationship, and if it brings joy or satisfaction. And it’s absolutely okay to decide this is no longer working and sever the connection. We’ve talked about it before: being kind doesn’t mean one is a pushover or an easy target. Kindness is a strength, not a weakness.

Has keeping score ever really made anyone feel better? As soon as we start keeping score in our relationships, joy vanishes. Friendships become obligations, we’re always checking to see who’s ahead or whose turn it is to pick up the tab.

When we do something for someone that should be enough. We give without expectation of receiving something in return. No strings attached. We need to let go of the internal ledger on which we record “that’s one for me, zero for her.”

I’m finding as I get older, I’m drawn to lightening my load—getting rid of the stuff that crowds my life (this is difficult, as I believe members of my family carry a hoarder gene). I want to lighten the load I carry in my head, too: let go of thoughts that don’t bring joy, let go of tallies and ledgers, and concerns about whose turn it is. Magically, that also frees my head of resentment, grudges, and disappointment.

If we’re accustomed to keeping score in our relationships—whether it’s with our spouse, close friends, work colleagues, or those marginal people on our Christmas card list, how do we alter that habit of mentally reckoning every interaction we have? Like any habit, it’s probably hard to break, but I’m guessing that if we keep our eyes on the real prize—peace of mind, happiness, and the joy that comes with kindness—we’ll gradually do less scorekeeping and find that we’re spending more time counting our blessings.

“We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindnesses there is at last one which makes the heart run over.” (Ray Bradbury)