Sounds good, sounds noble. Relationships suffer when we’re so self-absorbed that we’re not available for others. But giving is half of what loves requires from us. My experience as a psychotherapist for over thirty years reveals that relationships are just as likely to flounder because we’re not skilled at the art of receiving.
In an earlier article, I discussed five reasons why receiving is harder than giving. Here I offer four more angles on why being receptive is tricky. Being mindful of these challenges may allow you to receive more deeply.
1. Receiving exposes our vulnerability.
When someone offers a generous comment or looks tenderly into our eyes, it tweaks a core vulnerability. It evokes something in us that longs to be seen and valued. We often hide this tender part of ourselves, fearful that if others see our soft spot, they might reject us, judge us, or exploit us.
It’s an ongoing challenge to remember that it invites us to work with the instinctual fight, flight, freeze response that’s designed to protect us from physical or emotional danger. But succumbing to our default mode of being on guard or maintaining a chilly distance when people offer a gesture of open-heartedness doesn’t really provide safety; it bestows isolation.
It takes courageous awareness to notice and embrace the discomfort that arises during the delicate dance of giving and receiving. Being offered some gift that reflects caring or invites contact evokes an interpersonal awkwardness. There’s an ambiguity — not knowing where things might go, which is both exhilarating and scary. Cultivating spaciousness around our human awkwardness can allow a movement toward a sacred moment of connection.
2. We believe we should be independent.
Our culture reveres independence as the ultimate freedom and the ticket to happiness. It’s OK to be partnered and have friends, but we’re not supposed to rely on them too much, lest it expose a soft underbelly of being “needy.” This label strikes dread into the hearts of those who worship at the altar of independence. Having needs and wants evokes the dreaded fear of being a dependent, helpless infant. How shameful to not stand on our own two feet!
But guess what? We’re wired to need each other. Without healthy connections, our immune system suffers. Our soul shrivels. Our very nature is to be interrelated. As Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, we “inter-are.” Interbeing means that we don’t exist apart from the intricate web of life. There’s nothing shameful about living in harmony with our basic nature.
Recognizing that our very existence is interrelated, we can feel good about wanting satisfying interactions; we can’t thrive without it. Taking refuge in the sangha (community) is one of the three refuge vows in Buddhism. We cultivate wisdom and compassion through sensitive conversations and attuned connections with each other.
3. We’re afraid of our longing for love and connection.
The place within us that longs to receive is a tender spot. Growing up, our longing for acceptance and understanding might have been met with toxic messages that something’s wrong with us for wanting. As a result, we learned that it’s not safe to have wants and longings. It just leads to trouble — better to rely upon ourselves.
Concluding that receiving is hazardous, our receiving receptors atrophy. We feel clumsy when a caring word or kind attention saunters our way. We squirm, we protest, we demur. Or, we offer an all-too-quick “thank you” rather than pausing, taking a breath, and letting in the gift of caring. Fearful of our own longing, it remains in hiding.
4. We suspect people’s motives.
Unbeknownst to us, people can sense our impenetrable wall, built of old hurts and fears — congealing into a cynicism that repels contact. Even if they can’t put their finger on what’s happening, people sense our struggle, our distancing, our rejection of their bid for connection.
When people don’t feel received, they remain distant, which leaves us wondering: Why am I so alone? Sadly, we’re not mindful of how we push people away by not graciously receiving them — and allowing a flow of giving and receiving that’s mutually nurturing.
You sit across from someone you’re dating; they smile or ask a question. Do you feel good to receive someone’s interest or wonder, “What do they want from me?” Sure, they might want something, but perhaps because they like you! If you suspect their motives rather than give them the benefit of the doubt, you might push them away.
When our longing for connection collides with our history of rejection and shaming, we become ambivalent about receiving. Part of us desires contact while another part has an aversion toward it.
Can we allow ourselves the gift of letting in life by letting people in? As I explore in my book, Dancing with Fire:
“By finding a pathway to healing our blocks to receiving, we become more available to let in love and nurturing. Something within us softens and smiles as we lower our guard and allow a person entry into that sacred place within us that longs for a kind word, a tender touch, or some sweet gesture of love.”
Meditation and mindfulness practices that encourage us to notice and befriend our moment to moment felt experience, such as Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing, can allow an inner softening that positions us to receive more deeply. We may then notice rich opportunities to receive that we often ignore —delighting in nature’s beauty, a generous gesture, or a stranger’s smile.