Many of us grew up believing that it’s more noble to give than to receive. This edict safeguards us from becoming self-centered monsters — scanning our environment to see what we can extract to fill ourselves.
Recognizing others’ needs, honoring their feelings, and being responsive to the less fortunate safeguards us from the unbridled narcissism that runs wild today.
Yet there are hidden downsides to prioritizing giving over receiving. I’m referring to interpersonal relating, not social policy, which could use a hearty dose of the golden rule. Is it difficult for you to receive love, caring, and compliments? Do you silently squirm inside when someone offers a kind word or a present — or do you allow yourself to deeply receive the gift of kindness, caring, and connection?
Here are some possibilities for why receiving is often more difficult than giving:
- Defense against intimacy.
Receiving creates a moment of connection. Prioritizing giving over receiving may be a convenient way to keep people distant and our hearts defended.
To the extent that we fear intimacy, we may disallow ourselves from receiving a gift or compliment, thereby depriving ourselves of a precious moment of connection.
- Letting go of control.
When we give, we’re in control in a certain way. It might be easy to offer a kind word or buy someone flowers, but can we allow ourselves to surrender to the good feeling of receiving a gift? And to what extent does our giving come from an open, generous heart versus bolstering our self-image of being a kind and caring person?
Receiving invites us to welcome a vulnerable part of ourselves. Living more in this tender place, we’re more available to receive the subtle gifts we’re offered every day, such as a sincere “thank you,” a compliment, or a warm smile.
- Fear of strings attached.
We may be uncomfortable receiving if it came with strings attached when growing up. We may have received compliments only when we accomplished something, like winning at sports or achieving good grades. If we sensed that we weren’t being accepted for who we are but rather for our achievements and accomplishments, we may not feel safe to receive.
If parents narcissistically used us to meet their own needs, such as to showcase us to their friends or cling to an image of being good parents, we may equate compliments to being used. We were recognized for what we do rather than for who we really are.
- We believe it is selfish to receive.
Our religion may have taught us that we’re selfish if we receive: life is more about suffering than being happy. It’s better to be self-effacing and not take up too much space or smile too broadly, lest we bring too much attention to ourselves. As a result of this conditioning, we might feel shame to receive.
Narcissistic entitlement — an inflated sense of self-importance and believing we deserve more than others — is indeed rampant today. Interestingly, a new study suggests that wealth can actually increase this sense of entitlement. But the perils of destructive narcissism might be contrasted with healthy narcissism, which reflects sound self-worth and and a right to relish life’s pleasures. Receiving with humility and appreciation — living with a rhythm of giving and receiving — keeps us balanced and nourished.
- A self-imposed pressure to reciprocate.
Blocks to receiving may reflect protection from being in someone’s debt. We may suspect their motives, wondering “What do they want from me?” Presuming that compliments or gifts are attempts to control or manipulate us, we pre-emptively defend ourselves from any sense of obligation or indebtedness.
If everyone were busy giving, then who’d be available to receive all that good stuff? By receiving with a tender self-compassion, we’re allowing ourselves to be touched by life’s gifts. Letting ourselves receive deeply and graciously is a gift to the giver. It conveys that their giving has made a difference — that we’ve been affected.
Giving and receiving are two sides of the same coin of intimacy. As I put it in my book, Dancing with Fire,
“We may then bask together in a non- dual moment in which there is no distinction between the giver and the receiver. Both people are giving and receiving in their own unique ways. This shared experience can be profoundly sacred and intimate.”
The next time someone offers a compliment, gift, or looks lovingly into your eyes, notice how you feel inside. What’s happening in your body? Is your breathing relaxed and your belly soft or are you tightening up? Can you let in the caring and connection? Bringing mindfulness to the pleasant, uncomfortable, or perhaps fiery feelings of delight might allow you to be more present for the present.