Last spring, I learned that a colleague was struggling with grief after losing a parent. I wanted to help, so I offered to introduce her to an excellent bereavement therapist.
This morning, I received a beautiful note from her about how much she appreciated the connection. I was thrilled to hear that the therapist had been helpful—and touched that she took the time to follow up six months later. But there was one sentence at the end of the note that didn’t sit right with me.
Her closing line was “I owe you one.”
It’s a message I see regularly when I try to help someone. From a quick search of my recent emails:
A student after I submitted a recommendation letter: “I owe you!!”
A colleague after I gave some feedback: “I’m in your debt!”
An author after I wrote a book endorsement: “I owe you a favor”
Although I appreciate the gesture, I’m not The Godfather! My help doesn’t come with strings attached. If I take the time to do something for you, it’s not because I’m a matcher looking for something in return. It’s because I aspire to be a giver—I enjoy being helpful. My effort to support you means that I think highly of you and might even care about you. When you say you owe me, it reduces my investment in you to an accounting transaction.
So why is this phrase so common?
Some people are probably just following the norm of reciprocity—a tendency to match favors evenly that exists in most cultures around the globe. But some of the people saying “I owe you” are among the most generous givers I know.
If you’re one of those givers, it makes you uncomfortable to accept generosity from someone else. They don’t want to be a burden. They prefer to be on the giving end of every exchange, and they’re afraid of being takers. But I think they’re failing to recognize the difference between taking and receiving. Taking is using someone for personal gain. Receiving is accepting help with the understanding that benefits you more than it costs the other person (or even benefits them too).
Instead of feeling guilty, when someone helps you, your only obligation is to be grateful. I’ve found in my research that expressing appreciation doesn’t just make givers feel good—it also motivates them to keep doing good. It allows them to feel valued and shows them their time was well spent.
Generosity is not a loan to repay or a debt to settle. It's a gift to appreciate. Yes, you can reciprocate a favor by paying it back. But the best way to honor an act of kindness is by paying it forward.