Can’t say no? Always putting other people first? How we give, give and give but ultimately end up disappointed.

A style typical with caregivers and those in the helping professions, Heaven’s Reward Fallacy is common in those that put others needs before their own.

In this framework for viewing the world we always do the ‘right thing’ in hope of a reward or love. We sacrifice and slave, and all the while imagine that we are collecting brownie points that we can cash in some day either in Heaven or by getting loved or taken care of back.

The person who does this can do it in all areas of life or in just a few. For instance, a man who in all other areas of life can say no, might find himself unable to say no to his difficult mother.

A woman who has good control over saying no in other areas can’t say no in work and believes that’s what a good worker does.

In this system there is a never ending cycle of saying yes to others, but a constant saying of no to ourselves.


A housewife cooked elaborate meals for her family and did endless baking and sewing. She drove her children to all their afterschool activities but never did anything nice for herself.

The house was immaculate. She carried on for years, all the while waiting for some kind of special reward or appreciation. It never came, and the kids left home and her husband she suspected had affairs. She became increasingly hostile and bitter.

The problem was that while she was doing the ‘right thing’ she was physically and emotionally bankrupting herself. She had become bitter and no one wanted to be around her.

John started at a new company and in the first few months it was great as he learned the ropes. He always wanted to help and always took on other people’s responsibilities.

Soon managers and colleagues relied on him for everything. He couldn’t say no, but thought that people really depended on him and he would get all the favours back.

He worked every Christmas for fifteen years, never said no because: “what goes around comes around.” When he had worked twenty years and it came time for his daughter’s wedding the boss thought it would be ok to send him to a conference that day instead, without asking him.

When his boss insisted, he go because he hadn’t used the right annual leave form, he got so angry that he exploded with rage and lost his job. The interns in the office joked and laughed that it was always the quiet nice ones that were secretly crazy.

Caught in a trap:

How do we lay this trap for ourselves or is laid for us? The answers can be complex but typically because of the circumstances in our families we end up the perpetual caregiver.

We give, and we give, and we give until we are exhausted, and then we give some more. The Heaven Reward Fallacy means that oh well by looking after others we will get looked after back. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that; If we give, even those who love us will take, take, take.

To illustrate this point, I often tell my clients this little story that I made up.

“The milk farmer went out every morning to milk the cows. The cows he had were enough to supply milk to the whole farm and have enough for market. One day a cute cat came to the farmer as he was carrying the milk into the house.

It meowed at him and his heart melted a little, so he poured the cat some milk and went into the house feeling good. The next day the cat was back, but with him came a friend.

They both meowed, and the farmer relented. He poured a little more milk. The next day there were three cats, and then four cats, and then 10 cats. The farmer didn’t know what to do, he began doing the journey from cow shed to house running but the cats still always got to him.

Soon the cats were drinking all the milk and the farmer had none for market, none for his family and none for himself. He dreamt of cats at night and cursed those damn thirsty cats! MEOW!

Eventually the farmer went out of business. Until his dying day he hated how the cats ruined his business, his family life and his self-respect.”

Feel bad for the farmer? I hope the point of the story is clear. The farmer blamed the cats, but who was pouring the milk? Cats are just cats, they’re going to come back meowing for more if we keep feeding them. Just like people!

Is it me?

The person who falls into the Heaven Rewards Fallacy typically has a very hard time taking care of themselves, they have poor self-awareness of how they are really feeling, and they struggle to say no.

Really though their mouth and brain will be saying yes, but their body will be saying/screaming no! They ignore their own boundaries and allow others to come into their mental, physical, emotional and personal space.

They typically don’t value their own time highly enough and secretly get angry and overwhelmed.

The genesis of this can come in picking up conditional beliefs about ourselves and others. The bottom line of this position is “They’re okay, I’m not okay” where I am only okay/good/valuable/worthy/lovable when I am doing something for someone else.

Other manifestations include: “I’m only worth what I do for others, on my own they wouldn’t need/want/love me” OR: “I am a bad employee and a failure unless I always help everyone, others will notice, and I’ll be successful” – Kind of like someone is only as good as their last project, movie or show.

We pick this up from messages when we are young and hold them unconsciously. If we don’t get enough love and validation, we deep down believe there is something wrong with us. A lack of love can make us feel unworthy and a lack of validation leaves us with a point to prove or confidence issues.

Likewise, if parents don’t give us the right levels of autonomy at the right times, we become stifled and either never say no and resent it, or we can go the other way and plan never to be beaten again, turning narcissistic.

None of these character structures is a life sentence without parole, but it takes work to free ourselves; to reconcile grieving what we didn’t get with finding new self-love and the ability to set boundaries.

The reward is now:

This distorted thinking style accepts pain and unhappiness because those who do good are rewarded in the end. But if doing good means doing things we don’t want to do and sacrificing things we resent giving up, then we are likely to reap no reward at all.

With this distortion people become so bitter and unhappy that people will steer clear of them.

In reality, the reward is now. Our relationships, our progress toward our goals, and the care we give to people we love should be intrinsically rewarding.

Most days, our emotional bank balance should be in the black. If we are drained, running in the red ink for days or weeks at a time, something is wrong.

We need to arrange our activities to provide some here-and-now reward, dropping or sharing the activities that chronically drain us. Heaven is a long way off and we can get very tired waiting.

It is part of our responsibility to those we care about not to do things that will lead us to feel resentful. Remember that we wouldn’t want others doing things for us that they didn’t want to do.

Remember also that if someone else in our lives wanted to say no, wouldn’t we want them to be able to say no to us?

Get Help:

If someone reading this identifies with the heavens reward fallacy, can’t say no or constantly puts others first for no thanks then therapy is a great place to come for personal change and improve relationships.

Other Distorted Thinking styles are also extremely important for how we deal with and suffer from anxiety. Distorted thinking styles include: Filtering, Polarized Thinking, Over-generalization, Mind Reading, Catastraphizing, Personalization, Control Fallacies, The Fallacy of Fairness, Emotional Reasoning, The Fallacy of Change, Global Labeling, Blaming, Shoulds, Being Right and Heaven’s Rewards Fallacy.

I am a psychotherapist working in private practice in Dublin 11 near Glasnevin Cemetery, 10-15 minutes from the city centre, 5 minutes from Phibsboro and close to Finglas, Santry, Cabra, Drumcondra. Call/text 087 063 0948 for appointments.

Anxiety Ireland has a network of counselors across Ireland. Feel free to message me or the Facebook page for more information.

If curious about anxiety please feel free to visit our website,take our anxiety quiz or get anxiety help..

Again, I am always happy to answer messages to our page or I am happy to take calls/text to see how I can help:

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087 063 0948.

Team Anxiety Ireland

Anxiety is a merry-go-round, going nowhere fast, it’s ok to step off.

Our other articles on thought distortions include: Filtering, Catastrophizing, Polarized thinking, All or nothing thinking, Mindreading, Shoulds, Emotional Reasoning, Global labeling and of course the Fallacys: Being Right, Control Fallacies, Fallacy of Fairness and Fallacy of Change. (Find blogs about these in our photos on facebook/website).