Ahhh…December. The holidays are here again…Christmas trees, strung-up lights, holiday baking, festive parties and time spent with family.
The holiday season is synonymous with “giving”: giving material gifts, giving money; giving acts of service; and/or giving to the unfortunate.
The flip side of giving, however, is receiving. After all, you cannot “give” without someone on the receiving end.
While giving is emphasized this month, it is also important to consider:
Are you a healthy “receiver”?
As British writer Alexander McCall Smith has noted:
Gracious acceptance is an art—an art which most never bother to cultivate. We think that we have to learn how to give, but we forget about accepting things, which can be much harder than giving … Accepting another person’s gift is allowing him to express his feelings for you.
So many of us say that we want to experience “love”…
Yet…how much do we allow ourselves to be loved? When someone shows us kindness, attention, caring, gives us a hug just when we need it most, engages in a thoughtful act of service, or presents us with an unexpected gift…how comfortable are we receiving it?
Being a healthy receiver honors the giver, making them [the giver] feel that they have made a difference in our life—whether in the moment or longer-term. Or, perhaps, the giver has given us an opportunity to experience pleasure (e.g., a compliment, a beautiful meal, a massage).
Being open to receiving can be deeply nourishing and bring us closer to what we want to manifest.
Getting vs. Taking vs. Receiving
First, it is important to distinguish between “getting, “taking” and “receiving”, words that are often used interchangeably. The differences are subtle but distinct. It comes down to energy, expectation, and intention.
The energy of “getting” is one of striving and single-minded focus. We may try to optimize, manipulate, or control circumstances or people to “get” the specific outcome we want, whether it’s getting into the right school; getting a specific job; or getting your boyfriend to propose to you.
In years past, I was very much a holiday gift “getter”. Since childhood, I have always had a very specific taste and style, whether it’s clothing, food, perfume, tableware, restaurants or travel. I’m the first to admit that—unless you know me well—I’m not an easy person to gift! When my family of origin attempted to give me birthday or Christmas gifts, the gifts were always the wrong color, size, style or just “not me”, and I would end up returning them. Eventually, my family included gift receipts when gifting me. Later, they gave gift cards so that I could “get” what I wanted.
The energy of “taking” is one of entitlement. The mindset of a “taker” is that the world—or someone close to them, whether it’s a parent, sibling, spouse, friend or partner—“owes” them in some form or fashion. A “taker” mindset is rooted in lack and limitation. Often, just beneath that façade of entitlement simmers insecurity, a sense of not feeling worthy of receiving; hence, that person will “take” to ensure that he or she has enough.
Takers come in all guises: the teenage daughter who spends $600 on a pair of jeans (that all her friends are wearing) on the credit card that you gave her for emergency use only. Or, the 35-year-old son who has bought his first home, and assumes his parents will contribute to the down payment (because he’s their son). Or, the mother-in-law who lives an hour away, with whom you’ve had minimal contact, yet expects you to be at her beck and call after her hip replacement surgery. Takers don’t feel the need to give anything in return—unless they benefit from doing so.
Receiving is a state of mind and a state of being. The energy of a receiver is one of “receptivity”, an openness to what is being offered in the moment. This can include new ideas, new ways of doing things, new friendships, new work opportunities or unexpected help or support that you may need. Receiving requires vulnerability, a willingness to be honest and authentic.
Being vulnerable is not easy, I know. A few months ago, I found myself in just this position. I had driven to the local recycling center in my town, deposited my recycling, then hopped back into my car—only to find that it would not start. In fact, nothing happened when I put the key in the ignition: the car was dead. I have zero mechanical aptitude, and I didn’t have a clue what was wrong. I felt very embarrassed about my predicament. But, when I asked one of the men who oversees the recycling center if he could help, he immediately jumped to my aid (turned out, he also works at the auto parts store down the road!). He determined that my car battery had died, and he and his friend used jumper cables to get my car up and running again; he also instructed me on what to do and not do (which I needed to know!). In this case, I had asked…and I had received.
A healthy receiver feels worthy of—and is able to—accept a gift, money, a meal, a compliment, or a thoughtful act of service with grace and humility. An inherent sense of reciprocity dictates the flow of healthy giving and receiving. There is a knowing that, at some future point, the receiver will be the “giver”.
When we are in “receiving” mode, opportunities may arise that might not otherwise if we are fixated on how things “should” be OR “getting” a specific outcome OR if we feel that we must “take” possession of something or someone at all costs.
I did not understand what being a healthy receiver meant…
Culturally, I was not conditioned to be a good receiver. I was raised by parents whose traditional Chinese values emigrated with them to the U.S. (My mother was born in Hong Kong. My late father was born in Sichuan Province, China. Both emigrated—separately—to the U.S. to attend graduate school.)
Historically, I equated “receiving” with “weakness”.
This association was drilled into my psyche by a cultural custom that I had witnessed in various iterations over the years. The Chinese are known for their infamous dinner-paying practice, which entails a theatrical “fight” over who pays the bill at the end of a restaurant meal—whether that meal is with other family members, close friends, or work colleagues. How this plays out: at the end of a restaurant meal, two men (yes, it is typically the man who pays—never the woman!) metaphorically dual over who “gets” to pay the restaurant bill, and this can escalate into stealth guerilla tactics. Eventually, one man concedes to the other, and the server accepts payment from the “victor”; this is the man who pays the bill, treating everyone to the meal.
Psychologically, this is no-win situation. Sure, the person who puts up a good fight to pay the bill gets “points” for “trying” to prove his honor. But… bottom line? In Chinese culture, the one who pays is viewed as “strong” and “higher status”, whereas the one who accepts (by conceding to the other) is considered “weak”. Those who passively allow someone to pay for their meal—in other words, they don’t even bother to fight for the bill—are considered “lesser” and “rude”.
The way that the Chinese communicate is very indirect, veiled and layered. Unlike Western culture where communication tends to be direct and taken at face value, the Chinese will judge you—not just by what you say—but also by the actions you take (or not). In Chinese culture, sharing a meal is about relationship-building, and when you aggressively fight to pay the bill—not just once, but insisting multiple times (and you are honestly prepared to pay), this is interpreted as: “I like you, and I want to continue this relationship—even beyond this meal.” On the other hand, going Dutch (splitting the bill) or paying only for what you ordered, signals: “I do not like you, and I am not interested in continuing our relationship” and is viewed as rude and insulting.
Against this cultural doublespeak backdrop, I came to associate “receiving” with being “weak” and with feelings of guilt, discomfort, or shame, where I would then be “indebted”, “obligated” or “owe” a favor to the giver. As a result, “receiving” ended up feeling more like a burden than a joy.
My inability to receive manifested as a tendency to dismiss or deflect praise about my work or accomplishments. In these cases, I often felt “obligated” to give a compliment back ASAP. For example, Giver of compliment: “I love your writing! I really enjoy reading your articles…” Me [feeling embarrassed and that I now “owe” a return compliment ASAP]: “Thanks! Your photography is incredible; you have a great eye!”
In the past, I also had difficulty digesting compliments about my appearance, athleticism, style, cooking or anything else. Compliments made me feel acutely uncomfortable, undeserving in some way, and/or “pressured” to live up to an impossible standard.
When we are unable to receive gifts, compliments, acts of service, unexpected kindness from others, we close ourselves off to other potential opportunities that were looking to “give’ to us. We also rob the giver of the pleasure and joy of giving to us.
Being open to—and practicing—the art of receiving can be an illuminating journey. I know it has been for me. The more we are able to receive—and to release rigid, fixed ideas about what we think we want—the closer we come to manifesting what we actually need.
5 Ways to Become a Good Receiver
1. Be present.
Receiving requires that you be present in your own life. So, try looking up from your phone (better yet, put it in Airplane mode until you need to use it!) and pay attention to the ways that life is trying to “give” to you. It might be a conversation with a neighbor that sparks an idea for a book. It might be someone holding the door open for you when you are laden down with packages. It might be a compliment when you are feeling at your most insecure. It might be a friendly chat with a stranger at the grocery store that leads to an important business contact.
Being present is the first step in receiving.
2. Show up for yourself—and for others.
Energy and intention that come from an honest, authentic place can facilitate healthy receiving. Therefore, it is important to say what you mean. And to mean what you say. If you make a coffee a date with someone you met online, show up. If you commit to attending weekly group meetings for a cause in which you believe, show up. If you promise your widowed dad that you’ll accompany him to his doctor’s appointment, show up. If you commit to walking 15 minutes every day or preparing a home-cooked meal 3x a week, do it.
By showing up for yourself and for others, you step into integrity—and open the door to receiving.
3. Notice what people do for you—and say “thank you”.
It is so easy these days to be distracted—by multi-tasking, texts, social media, virtual “friends” and influencers—to the point where we fail to notice who or what is in front of us.
The simplest way to practice receiving is to notice what people do for you—whether their actions are great or small—and to say: “Thank you.”
For example, I recently stopped into my local health food store to pick up my favorite bar of dark chocolate (one item). To my chagrin, I had to wait my turn to pay, and I stood behind a woman whose cart was packed to the brim. I resigned myself to a long wait. Suddenly, the woman turned around and smiled: “Please, go ahead of me. You have just one item.” I received her thoughtful gesture with a heartfelt “Thank you so much! I appreciate.”
Everyday ways to practice receiving:
- Thank the barista who makes your double espresso every morning.
- Wave and smile to the person who allows you to enter a congested queue—even as there is a mile of oncoming traffic behind his car.
- Thank the technical support person who takes the time to thoroughly answer your questions.
- Thank your assistant for going the extra mile on a challenging project.
- Thank your spouse, partner or roommate when he or she takes out the trash, tidies the house, runs household errands, or cooks a nourishing meal.
4. Accept compliments at face value and with grace and humility.
Praise can feel scary. And compliments can be one of the most difficult things for people to receive.
In a study of 400-plus people, apx. 70% associated feelings of discomfort or embarrassment with recognition or receiving a compliment (1).
Common knee-jerk reactions to a compliment can include:
1. Making a self-deprecating joke
Compliment: “Wow! What a delicious meal!”
Reply: “Yeah, I moonlight as a 5-star chef …on a good day, I can boil water!”
2. Volleying back a tit-for-tat compliment
Compliment: “You are so toned; your arms and legs have great musculature; you’ve really inspired me to weight train regularly.”
Reply: “Well…I think you’re an amazing runner.”
3. Changing the subject altogether
Compliment: “You work so well with kids; they warm up to you right away!”
Reply: “Ummm…what time is the meeting this afternoon?”
4. Devaluing a compliment
Compliment: “That’s a beautiful dress…I love the color and style.”
Reply: “This old rag? I dug it out of the bottom of my trunk…I haven’t worn it since college!”
5. Passing the credit
Compliment: “You really saved the day!”
Reply: “Nah…that project was Joe’s baby; he’s the one who really pulled it off.”
6. Seeking reassurance
Compliment: “Your presentation was so clear, concise and convincing; I know I’m sold!”
Reply: “Really? Do you think? I dunno…I felt like I started stumbling about halfway in.
Sociolinguists and communication experts suggest that an interplay of factors makes receiving compliments difficult for many people. This includes feeling “surprised” by a compliment, which can trigger uncomfortable physical symptoms (e.g., racing heart, flushed face) and throw us off-kilter emotionally. When caught off guard, we may feel vulnerable and exposed—even after hearing something positive and affirming about ourselves. And/or we may feel confused if the compliment giver’s positive view of us contradicts our own negative view of ourselves.
For example, a common one for women:
Compliment: “You are so beautiful and elegant; you have such a great sense of style!”
Woman [caught off guard and thinks to herself]: Is he blind?! Can’t he see that I’m fat and that I need to lose 30 pounds?!
We are also products of cultural programming (this applies to many world cultures) that equates easy acceptance of compliments with “conceit”. Adages like, “He’s gotten too big for his britches” (implying this person’s ego has gotten so big, it most certainly can’t fit in his pants) and “You better be careful you don’t get a big head from all that praise”, also feed people’s fear that they will be perceived as “conceited” if they believe or accept a compliment.
Keep in mind: when you deflect, dismiss or outright deny a compliment, you are, in fact, doing the following:
- Insulting the person who gave the compliment.
- Questioning the complimenter’s judgement, intelligence or intention.
- Making the complimenter feel uncomfortable or rejected.
- Devaluing and/or diminishing yourself.
- Denying yourself an opportunity to receive a feel-good gift, and, at the same time, reducing the likelihood that other compliments will come your way.
- Engaging in false modesty (and people can tell!)
The art of graciously receiving of a compliment comes down to two words: “Thank you!”
You can embellish a simple thank you by saying the following (keep it simple):
- It means so much to hear you say that!
- I appreciate you saying that.
- It’s so thoughtful of you to notice!
- I’m so happy that I could help OR I’m glad that I could be there for you.
- It’s gratifying to know that you found our time together productive [or helpful].
5. Be open.
Keeping an open mind and heart—even in the face of the unknown—is key to receiving. When we keep an open mind, our receiving “receptors” will be attuned to new information, new approaches, new ideas, or new people that flow our way.
For example, being open-minded has been an integral part of my own health journey. For years, I held rigid beliefs about what being “healthy” meant and what was required to achieve good health (at the time, I attributed being “healthy” to exercising hard, long, and frequently). Before I was officially diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, I spent 5 years consulting conventional M.D.s (the ones who took my insurance) about my debilitating symptoms. Unfortunately, in my 10- to 15-minute appointments, the doctors with whom I consulted had no interest in understanding the root cause of my symptoms. I was told: “It’s just stress; come back in 6 months”. I was then given a script for a birth control pill, an antidepressant or other prescription medication. I left each visit, feeling unseen and unheard—and still feeling unwell. When I finally decided to consult an integrative doctor (not on my insurance plan!), I worked with him to support my recovery by changing my food choices and lifestyle habits. It has been a continually evolving journey of keeping an open mind as my body changes in subtle and significant ways. As a result of proactively making choices that support my health, I have not taken a single pharmaceutical drug in 10 years—not an antibiotic, steroid, birth control pill, antidepressant or even Tylenol which I used to pop regularly!
More recently, I allowed myself to be open to seeing natural healthcare practitioners where I live, and I was guided to a fantastic naturopath with whom I am currently working. And, no, he does not take insurance. It is a collaborative partnership where I “receive” his insights and suggestions, and I do my part by paying attention to my choices, habits, bodily reactions and by following through on suggestions he makes. Yes, “receiving” is not merely a passive state; it requires that you engage on your end as well.
On the other side of the practitioner equation…I received warm words of praise and gratitude from Trish (not her real name), a 65-year old diabetic who struggled with depression after Ann, her 40-year-old daughter, who Trish described as her “best friend”, abruptly cut off all contact with Trish. Ann offered no explanation, and she refused to let Trish see her grandsons. Trish was devastated by the estrangement. In our work together, we addressed these issues as well as Trish’s own self-care. At our last session, Trish told me how much she had always looked forward to our sessions; how much she had learned about setting and respecting boundaries; how she was now making anti-inflammatory food choices to manage her diabetes; and how she was more focused on her own self-care. Trish is a very reserved woman, and her words, spoken with such conviction, touched me deeply. I was able to receive her compliment with warmth and appreciation—and as the beautiful gift it was—by staying in the present and allowing myself to accept what she was saying as her truth.
This is key to the art of receiving. When we are bestowed with a gift, a compliment, a new connection, or a thoughtful act of kindness or service, we can do our part by noticing, acknowledging, accepting, and expressing gratitude for what we receive.
1 HBR. Christopher Littlefield. Apr. 9, 2021