April 10, 2020 - The Stoic Gym Blog
Tag(s): Stoic Self-help

How To Deal With Ungrateful People

by Dr. Chuck Chakrapani

We have all benefitted people, in the form of gifts and help when they need it, who seldom reciprocate. When we need help, even if is it very simple, they are nowhere in sight. When seen, they feel no need to return a favor. It’s as if we are strangers to them. It’s not just their failure to return favors that annoys us; what roils us is their indifference. We feel cheated and exploited.

How do we deal with them? Do we remind them what we did for them? Do we become angry and upset? Do we ignore those in need? Do we stop doing favors? Do we indirectly hint at their ungrateful behavior? The Stoic answer is none of the above.

We don’t control other people’s behavior

Remember that we control only our thinking and our actions, not other people’s thinking or actions. So, don’t expect them to behave a certain way or do a certain thing. Don’t expect anything from them. It’s their job to be grateful. It’s futile to complain about how others are. They are what they are and do what they do.

What is good for others is also good for us

We try to be helpful and we do favors because we realize we are a part of a larger system. When we hurt others, we indirectly hurt ourselves. When we do things that benefit others, we benefit as well. When we stop benefitting others, we stop benefitting ourselves. Marcus Aurelius had this to say:

"What is not good for the beehive is not good for the bee."

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.54 (Chuck Chakrapani, Stoic Meditations, 6.54)

As Hierocles explained it, we are in the middle of a set of concentric circles (see figure below).

Hierocles Circles

If we do something good for others — such as helping others or benefiting them in some way — we benefit. Period. Whether we get anything in return or not is none of our concern.

Here is Marcus Aurelius again:

"You have done a good action, and someone benefited from it. Why are you, like an idiot, holding out for more — such as applause for your kindness, or some favor in return?"

Marcus Aurelius Meditations, 7.73 (Chuck Chakrapani, Stoic Meditations, Bk. 7.73)
When we withdraw, our world shrinks

Even if you believe people should be grateful, it’s unrealistic to expect everyone to be grateful. It’s worth dealing with many ungrateful people to find one grateful person. Because of your frustration with ungrateful people you may be tempted to become too cautious and to stop helping others and giving them gifts. This would be a mistake. As Seneca points out, it’s like a farmer refusing to sow again after a poor harvest; or a sailor refusing to try the sea ever again after a shipwreck; or a banker refusing to lend again because of his experience with swindlers.

"If one were compelled to drop everything that caused trouble, life would soon grow dull amid sluggish idleness."

Seneca, Epistulae Morales, Letter 81 (On Benefits)

Besides if you feel that more people are ungrateful than grateful, then it makes sense to help as many people as possible — it would be a pleasure to find people who are grateful.

Our good comes from us, not from others

Most important of all, our good comes from us and not from others. We are not being helpful or giving gifts to get something back from others. Because our good comes from us and only from us, we are concerned with how we act, not with how others may respond. When we do things for the benefit of others, it’s because it’s an attribute of ours we value. It’s not a business transaction. There is no balance sheet.

Yes, it would be nice if people were grateful. That may be our “preferred indifferent.” But it’s not necessary for people to be grateful. An ungrateful person cannot control us — they can’t make us withdraw, can’t make us less charitable, and can’t hurt us. The only person they can hurt is themselves.