gift being received

Have you ever struggled with indebtedness? Maybe someone surprised you with a thoughtful gift or gesture, but instead of feeling grateful, you are overwhelmed with a nagging sense of indebtedness. As much as you appreciate the kindness, you can’t shake the feeling that you need to do something equally or even more special in return.

Indebtedness (I Owe You)

In my journey of continuous improvement and sharing my experiences, I must confess: I struggle with feeling indebted. This isn’t just a minor inconvenience—it’s a part of who I am.

When someone does something nice for me, I often feel guilt and an urgency to reciprocate (possibly even outdo their kindness). If someone pays me a compliment, I tend to deflect or downplay whatever the compliment was for. If I’m having lunch with someone and they offer to pick up the check, I might insist on getting it. (Even when my original plan was for us to split it.) This response robs both of us of the simple joy of gratitude, and it doesn’t feel good.

I’m working on it, and I won’t lie: this one’s gonna take some time because this is part of my personal character. And I don’t think I’m alone. As I share my struggle with indebtedness with others, many can relate. It seems that a good amount of us are more comfortable giving than receiving. 

Research indicates that a debt of gratitude is more of an internal emotion rather than an actual obligation. It suggests that this feeling is self-imposed and not akin to financial indebtedness.

Part of the art of gratitude lies in accepting kindness without the weight of debt.

—Lainie Rowell

What can we do?

Instead of turning into an awkward mess when I’m overwhelmed by someone’s kindness, here are some specific strategies that I’m working on to overcome the indebtedness:

  • Pause to savor and reflect: When someone does something kind for me or pays me a compliment, I take a moment to truly savor the experience. I reflect on the impact of their gesture or words on my life. By giving myself the time to appreciate it, I allow myself to accept the kindness with sincerity.
  • Authentically express gratitude: After pausing and reflecting, I express my gratitude authentically and specifically. Rather than feeling the need to one-up the gesture, I simply offer a heartfelt “thank you.” I acknowledge the kindness in a way that shows I genuinely appreciate it, without feeling obligated to repay in equal measure.
  • Pay it forward: Instead of feeling indebted, I redirect that energy into something positive. I engage in prosocial behaviors like performing an act of kindness for a stranger, mentoring a peer, or supporting a charitable cause. By paying it forward, I spread the cycle of goodwill and create a ripple effect of positivity in the world.
  • Share the compliment: There are times when we, as individuals, receive praise for work that others have contributed to. I embrace the recognition gracefully and accept the compliment. At the same time, I acknowledge the efforts of my collaborators and assure the person complimenting me that I will pass on the recognition to them as well.
  • Find a gratitude partner: Find a friend or family member who also wants to work on overcoming feelings of indebtedness. We become each other’s gratitude partner, checking in regularly to share experiences, support each other’s progress, and celebrate moments of growth.

By adopting these strategies, I’m shifting my mindset and embracing the beauty of receiving kindness without the shadow of debt. It’s about recognizing that giving and receiving are interconnected, and by accepting gratitude, we can continue the cycle of kindness in a meaningful way.

Entitlement (You Owe Me)

While working on my feelings of indebtedness, I’ve also encountered the challenge of entitlement, particularly present during Mother’s Day. Despite the heartfelt efforts of my children, I’ve sometimes found myself feeling subtly entitled to a perfect experience—well-cooked breakfast and well-timed affection—which led to unnecessary disappointment.

This has taught me that entitlement, much like indebtedness, can cloud our appreciation of genuine kindness. I remind myself of the importance of authentic gratitude, focusing on the intentions and efforts behind each gesture, rather than the outcome.

Acknowledging the real cost and value of these acts helps me appreciate them more deeply. This reinforces the cycle of gratitude and reduces that icky entitlement. With awareness of both indebtedness and entitlement, we can foster a more balanced and fulfilling approach to giving and receiving.

Act with kindness but do not expect gratitude.


A Call to Grateful Action

Thank you for taking the time to read this post. Our journey to greater well-being involves acknowledging and addressing our struggles, and finding ways to evolve and thrive. 

Let’s take the first microstep today towards embracing gratitude and overcoming feelings of indebtedness. Why not start by simply acknowledging a kind gesture from someone today? Together, we can create a world where gratitude flows freely, and the burden of indebtedness becomes a thing of the past. We can embrace the joy of giving and receiving with open hearts and open minds.

With gratitude,

Photo credit: Antoni Shkraba