This situation has inevitably happened to all of us: You receive a call or a text from a friend, asking you for a monumental favor for the umpteenth time, and you think to yourself, “Does this person even like me, or are they just taking advantage of me?”
Sometimes, there can be a fine line between someone routinely taking advantage of you – and helping out a family member, friend, or co-worker. So how do we make the distinction? When do we know we are being taken advantage of – and when do we give the benefit of the doubt?
4 Ways to Give the Benefit of the Doubt
1) Make Your Own Decisions
I’ve taken a substantial amount of time examining my own life and what makes me happy. And that has led to ONE key insight into my own self-knowledge: I love helping people and making them happy.
For me, this is what gives me the greatest amount of joy in life. I love making others happy, seeing them smile, and giving everything I can to those I love, which includes my fiancé, family, and friends.
However, when you are a people-pleaser like me, one of the biggest threats to your happiness are individuals who look to take advantage of those tendencies. They are simply in a relationship for their own benefit, without ever looking to reciprocate goodwill back.
This is where you must make your decision on how you want to view the world. Will you become judgmental, or simply give the benefit of the doubt?
If I were to constantly keep watch for those who might want to take advantage of me, chances are, I’d start to see a lot of people in that way. That’s how I’m priming my mind to view the world. That’s just how the mind works. It is known as confirmation bias.
According to The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making by Plous, Scott, confirmation bias is: “the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities.”
Quite simply, you make the choice on what your beliefs are. If you change your beliefs, you can quite literally change the way you see the world.
2) Assume Positive Intent
Rather than assuming everyone in your life is trying to take advantage of you (and eke out every single favor they can without every reciprocating), you can practice something Chip and Dan Heath wrote about in their book Decisive, called assuming positive intent.
Assuming positive intent re-frames our perception from looking for only behaviors that could be considered as advantage-taking into speculating that behind every behavior is a good intention. With this new mode of thinking, you switch from a default though of “I can’t believe John is asking me to pick him up again, he must think I’m a sucker” into asking yourself “what’s another possibility that John is behaving like this?”
Maybe John really likes spending time with you. Maybe John thinks so much of you because you’re the type of person who he feels he can count on when he’s embarrassed to ask other people for help. Or, maybe he’s just taking advantage of you.
But, the key here is to explore all of the possibilities. Give the benefit of the doubt. Then, if there is NO other plausible explanation, then maybe they are taking advantage of you. So, if someone did something that made me feel slighted or upset, I would gently let them know, and still assume their intentions were positive or at least benign.
For instance: say you are out with a friend to eat. You decide to split the check, but you notice that the person didn’t pay their whole share. In this instance, I’d say something like “Cindy, I’m sure this was totally unintentional, but I just wanted to let you know the bill was $100 for our dinner and you gave me $20. It’s no big deal, but if you could, I was hoping we could split dinner evenly.”
3) Keep a Gratitude Journal
As I mentioned, our brain’s biased to find things that confirm how we believe the world to be. If you think people are generally good people, then your brain will be poised to look for and remember situations where you were proved right. These could be smiles from strangers, acts of compassion, or good news.
Here is a classic example of how our beliefs change the way we see the world. Do you think people are generally honest OR liars?
There are actually academic studies that have found that an estimated 40 percent of people lie at least ONCE per day. Chances are, each day, you are lied to without even knowing about it.
Why? Because we assume that others are being truthful to us. This means that we look to confirm that fact. Think about it. Life would be pretty unpleasant if you walked around all day, trusting no one, expecting to be lied to at any time.
The same goes for gratitude. If we walk around all day thinking that life is especially hard for us, then we end up finding various examples of this being true. Long line at Starbucks? Ugh, just your luck. Stuck in traffic? Yup, someone up there wants you to suffer for no reason. I could go on and on.
However, if we insist on finding the little things to be grateful for, we can gradually change how we see the world. We develop a habit of seeing the good in life. By keeping a gratitude journal, we learn to default to “thankful” mode, rather than a mode that thinks that the world is a never ending trial of our patience.
Keeping a gratitude journal is simple. In the morning, write down one to three things that you’re thankful for. Try NOT to repeat these things. There are a TON of things to be thankful for.
I’ll start you off. If you’re reading this, you probably have access to the internet in your home or at your local library. Just 30 years ago, virtually none of this would be possible. Your library didn’t provide internet access, and there was no Every Day Power or BuildTheFire. There are so many things to be thankful for, so just start listing them!
4) Draw Your Own Boundaries
Still, there are those times when others ask too much, or a relationship is so one-sided, that you need to draw boundaries.
That’s OK. In fact, people respect those who clearly communicate their boundaries, and both parties end up being happier in the long run. If you never set boundaries, those who are crossing them never know you’ve become upset. It’s a lose-lose situation.
On the other hand, if you clearly make your boundaries and values known, it gives others a clear indication of how you would like them to behave around you.
Undoubtedly, there will be those who are upset or who attack you for this because they liked it the old way. They don’t like change. They may also NOT share your values. This could be problematic, because they don’t see themselves as violating any boundaries.
Remember, that’s OK too. People are entitled to have their opinion. Give the benefit of the doubt. However, you are NOT obligated to spend time around those who don’t respect the personal boundaries that you’ve laid down. Sometimes, you may just have to let people go.
The fact of the matter is, if you walk around looking for ways people are taking advantage of you, you will probably find them. Whether it’s the family member who never paid you that $20 back, or the friend you’ve had to move seven times in exchange for pizza and beer, you’ll find examples.
However, life is way more pleasing if you look for the goodness in people and assume positive intent. You’ll also find yourself recognizing the times a person did you a favor in a time of need, even strangers who offered you a passing smile on the street.
However, it is a reality that there are some people who construct one-way relationships. The option to give the benefit of the doubt is up to you, NOT them. If you set healthy boundaries and they are not respected, it may be time to re-consider that relationship – and walk away.