gift wrapped

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

I’m committed to being transparent when I share my journey and my relationship with gratitude, so let me just say that I struggle with indebtedness. I mean, I struggle deeply.

I won’t bore you with the source of all that struggle, but I will share how it manifests. 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.) In doing this, I rob the other person of the joy of gratitude, and, knowing this, I don’t feel great either.

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 suggests that the debt of gratitude is an internally generated emotion and not equivalent to economic indebtedness. In other words, feeling that burden is self-imposed and is not the same as owing someone based on a transaction.

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 you or pays you a compliment, take a moment to truly savor the experience. Reflect on the impact of their gesture or words on your life. By giving yourself the time to appreciate it, you allow yourself to accept the kindness with sincerity.
  • Authentically express gratitude: After pausing and reflecting, express your gratitude authentically and specifically. Rather than feeling the need to one-up the gesture, simply offer a heartfelt “thank you.” Acknowledge the kindness in a way that shows you genuinely appreciate it, without feeling obligated to repay in equal measure.
  • Pay it forward: Instead of feeling indebted, redirect that energy into something positive. Engage in prosocial behaviors like performing an act of kindness for a stranger or supporting a charitable cause. By paying it forward, you 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. Embrace the recognition gracefully and accept the compliment. At the same time, acknowledge the efforts of your collaborators and assure the person complimenting you that you 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. 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 feeling indebted. 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.

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. Choose one of the strategies mentioned and put it into practice. 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: Ekaterina Shevchenko on Unsplash


  • Lainie Rowell

    Bestselling Author, Award-Winning Educator, TEDx Speaker

    Lainie Rowell is a bestselling author, award-winning educator, and TEDx speaker. She is dedicated to human flourishing focusing on community building, social emotional learning, and honoring what makes each of us unique and dynamic through learner-driven design.

    She earned her degree in psychology and went on to earn postgraduate degrees in education. An international keynote speaker, Lainie has presented in 41 states as well as in dozens of countries across 4 continents. As a consultant, Lainie’s client list ranges from Fortune 100 companies like Apple and Google to school districts and independent schools.

    Lainie is the author of Evolving with Gratitude, the lead author of Evolving Learner, and a contributing-author of Because of a TeacherHer latest, Bold Gratitude: The Journal Designed for You & By You, is an innovative and interactive gratitude journal that empowers individuals of all ages to embrace their unique preferences and express gratitude in their own way. Learn more at