“Who’s ahead?” “Who’s winning?”
These are good questions to ask if you’re watching a ballgame, tennis match, or even a friendly card game. But there are places in our lives where keeping score is destructive. In fact, it can be downright toxic.
If your aim is to drain all the joy from your interactions, then, by all means, keep score every chance you get. Keep track of who you give presents to and whether these people give to you in return. If they do, assess whose gift was of greater value. Keep track of whose turn it is to pick up the tab for coffee, host dinner, or initiate sex. Always be aware of who’s ahead and who’s behind in the giving game. There’s no better way to assure that agitation and resentment replace peace of mind.
Not long ago, at a business luncheon, I overheard a conversation among my tablemates. A woman whom I knew only slightly was describing with unconcealed pride the electronic filing system she had created to track Christmas cards.
She expounded upon 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 me a card, so next year I won’t send one to them.”
I remember thinking at the time that I was glad I was nothing more than a nodding acquaintance with this woman—I disliked the notion of being tracked on her spreadsheet. Even putting that aside, friendship with this woman would seem to be very transactional.
What I’m most uncomfortable with is the notion of keeping score. While I love a good Excel spreadsheet as much as the next guy, I’m not going to use one to tally my relationships. Anyone who follows sports knows keeping score is essential. Athletes don’t get paid many millions of dollars for romping aimlessly around on a field. They get paid for competing fiercely, and they get paid more for winning. Likewise, Scrabble probably wouldn’t be as enjoyable if we agree before playing that we’re not going to keep score. And chess is hardly appealing if no one ever gets to say, “Checkmate.” Healthy competition makes a game more fun.
But relationships are not competitions—nobody wins unless everybody wins.
At the core of kindness is the idea that we give not for any reward but for the joy it brings us. If we withhold our gifts until someone proves worthy, or if we measure and rank their gifts against our own arbitrary standards, we’re just asking for disappointment.
We all keep score to some degree. In a couple, one partner may mow the lawn while the other pulls weeds. One may pay the monthly bills, knowing that his or her partner handles auto maintenance. Likewise, 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 mental spreadsheet. 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. Giving the benefit of the doubt is one of the kindest gifts we can offer.
When we care about people, we don’t continually weigh who’s putting more effort into the relationship. We recognize that each of us does our best and there will undoubtedly be times when that’s unequal.
If a relationship is so one-sided that one person does all the giving and the other does all the taking, it’s reasonable to question the relationship. If it brings neither joy nor satisfaction, then it’s absolutely okay—healthy, in fact—to decide this is no longer working and sever the connection. That’s an expression of self-care and self-respect.
Has keeping score ever really made anyone feel better? As soon as we start keeping score in our relationships, joy vanishes. Friendships become obligations, resentments flare, and 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, it should be 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 a point for me, zero for her.”
As we get older, many of us are drawn to lightening our loads—getting rid of the stuff that crowds our lives. That includes thoughts that don’t bring joy. It means letting go of tallies and ledgers, and concerns about whose turn it is. Magically, that also frees our minds of resentment, grudges, and disappointment, and it makes more room to count our blessings. The year ahead offers us endless possibilities. If we stop keeping score, we’ll be open to seeing them.
About the Author: Donna Cameron is the author of “A Year of Living Kindly,” published by She Writes Press in September 2018. She has spent her career working with non-profits where she saw kindness in action on a daily basis. Donna lives in the Seattle area; find her website at https://ayearoflivingkindly.com.
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