In a recent talk I gave on the art of receiving, the psychologist who organized the event offered an interesting comment. Dr. Allen Berger is a psychologist, author, and leading expert on addiction. He made the point that there’s an important difference between receiving and taking. Here is my understanding of the difference.

We may have developed a character structure that makes it difficult for us to receive deeply. Whether someone offers a gift, a compliment, or a kind act, we might have built a wall that prevents us from letting it in. This block may be due to a combination of our beliefs and emotional blocks around receiving.

If our religious or cultural upbringing taught us that receiving means we’re selfish, then this belief may disallow us from letting in good things. In addition, we may carry emotional wounds that make it challenging to receive. Our love receptors may have atrophied if we grew up with lots of shaming, criticism, or abuse. We may have concluded that we don’t deserve kindness or love. Or it might represent an emotional threat.If we let in good feelings from a person’s kindness, what if that person lets us down or rejects? Not allowing ourselves to receive — maintaining a protective shield — safeguards us from being disappointed or hurt. We dissociate from the vulnerability required to receive. At the same time, we cut ourselves off from the nurturing we need to thrive.

Are You Taking or Receiving?

Deep receiving means allowing ourselves to be connected to a tender place inside us that longs to be loved, seen, and understood. Such receiving softens us. We experience a tenderness when we’re truly receiving. We feel gratitude toward the person who has offered their kindness and caring.

When we’re not willing or able to receive in this deeply felt way, our longing doesn’t disappear. It may curdle into something that’s more demanding. We evaluate a person’s behavior based on our list of expectations to determine whether someone meets our standards for being a worthy friend or partner. We administer tests that determine whether or not we accept someone and want to keep them around. We may become addicted to sex or love because we don’t know how to let it in when it comes our way.

For example, does our partner or potential partner cook for us or like to clean? Do they offer sex when we want it? Are they kind to us 100% of the time—and not bother us with too many needs of their own? Do they spend time with us when we want it and give us space when we need it? In short, have we become a taker—a person consumed by our own needs with little capacity or interest in being responsive to another’s needs and wants?

We all have a tendency to want things for ourselves, especially if our needs were neglected or minimized growing up. Rather than being ashamed of this, we might become more mindful about what is motivating us and what we really want. Do we carry a mental checklist of behaviors that allow us to conclude that we’re loved and safe in a relationship? Or can we see people for who they are? Can we recognize that they have needs and longings, just as we do? Can we accept them as an imperfect person, just as we are?

Another symptom of our inability to receive is an incapacity to express appreciation. If we live in our assumptions and expectations about what others should give us, we may have little gratitude for what we’re being given. We may take their kindness and offerings for granted, which might leave them feeling unappreciated.

Loving a person means seeing them as they are and giving them what they need to be happy, if we can do so without losing ourselves. A climate for intimacy is created as we appreciate what we are given and can engage in a loving dance of mutuality.

When others act in kind, supportive, loving ways toward you, how far can you let it in? The next time someone offers a kind word or deed, try this: pause, take a breath, and allow your attention to settle inside your body. Rather than feel obligated to immediately say or do anything in return — other than perhaps a “thank you” — simply notice how you feel in your body and being to receive the gift. Does it touch or awaken some longing inside you — a longing to be seen, loved, or appreciated? If so, be gentle with that place inside you and allow the good feeling to deepen as much as it wants to.

Receiving into our roots nurtures us in a deep way. Such receiving can soothe and settle the part of us that demands or expects things from others. Supporting and allowing ourselves to receive not only feels good, it also honors the giver by allowing them to feel that they’ve touched us in some deep and meaningful way.