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  • Writer's pictureDr. Lisabeth Medlock

Even if "No Good Deed Goes Unpunished", Do Them

You can engage in acts of kindness, selflessness and contribution and not only will some people not appreciate it, but you may also have anger, resentment and other negative reactions come back to you. But the benefits of doing good outweigh the costs, which can be minimized.

You have heard it, probably from a parent or grandparent, and we all have lived it; the feeling that No good deed goes unpunished. If you Google the term you will discover many explanations for the origin of the saying, who may have said it (Clare Booth Luce, Oscar Wilde or Walter Winchell) and myriad stories of how it manifests itself in real life.

So, what does no good deed goes unpunished mean? It’s up for debate, as there are multiple ways it can be interpreted. It can mean that a kind action might not be appreciated by the recipient. Like you did something nice and never got a thank you. It could mean that doing something kind will lead to expectations and demands for more help. Like when you lend someone money and they keep asking for more and then get angry when you won’t do it again. It often means that there are negative consequences, blowback as they say, for doing a kind act. Like when you set up a GoFundMe to help a family in need and someone accuses you of raising the money for yourself.

The idea is that, in the end, you can engage in acts of kindness, selflessness and contribution and not only will some people not appreciate it, but you may also have anger, resentment and other negative reactions come back to you. Give and you shall receive may be true, but sometimes what you receive is not a gift. Pointing out the truth of this is cynical and contrasts with the idea that good things happen to good people or good people are rewarded for being good. In real life, this is often not the case.

Why it happens is actually something that can be posited. Many people don’t like being helped. It makes them feel uncomfortable or like they have somehow lost control, and they withdraw. Sometimes those you are helping feel guilty or not worthy or like they owe you and that can lead to anger or even punishment. Not everyone reacts in these ways, and not always, but when it happens, it hurts.

Cynics look for negatives or may think that you have ulterior motives for your kind deeds. Often you will hear people say, “I wonder what is in it for them.” People in power may feel challenged if ii is not their good idea or good act. Sometimes people are jealous because you can give, and they cannot. Sometimes there’s a whole system in place designed to keep people from being extraordinary. And then there is the plain fact that by doing good and kind things you are just making the rest of us look bad.

Studies suggest that people often react negatively to large contributions, are suspicious of those who offer help, and want to expel particularly charitable individuals from cooperative endeavors. These seemingly counterintuitive behaviors are more common than you might think. Why people want to punish anyone who is particularly charitable has to do with social norms. When there is a defined “right way” to behave, people respond more strongly to behaviors that don’t fit the norm. And being overly charitable or helpful is actually non normative behavior. The Bible demonstrate this. John 10:32 Jesus answered them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?”

The benefits of doing good greatly outweigh the costs. They lead to happiness in others, feelings of competence, improved health and decreased stress. And there are ways to minimize the negative impact they may have. First, never expect people to say thank you or acknowledge your kindness. Operating in this way is like trying to keep score. Often when you provide help it is at a time when people are in great need or in chaos or crisis. Put yourself in their shoes. It means nothing if you are not thanked because the point of doing good is not to be acknowledged for doing good.

Second, sometimes what you can give is not exactly what others need. This happens both on an individual and organizational level. When you are excited or passionate about a cause or want to help in a specific way, it may not be their priority and not at the top of their agenda. So there is wisdom in asking what is needed most and when, before you make assumptions and act. It is assumptions or misinterpretations that can lead a person or organization to expect something more, or just different.

Kind and charitable acts are important. Remember that the sometimes unexpected consequences are usually not about you. Learn from any negative reactions if and what you can. And, most importantly, keep doing good things.

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