Walking along a busy street, my hat blew off in a gust of wind. When a kind man scooped it up to return it to me, I felt a curious mix of uncomfortable feelings.
Receiving is a theme that I write about. I often notice in my therapy practice how hard it is for people to receive. You might think I’d be proficient in the art of receiving by now since I write about it so much. Now here I was in a situation where someone was giving something to me — not only my hat, but also his kindness. I noticed an awkward, squirmy feeling inside my body. My impulse was to lurch down and pick up my hat before he could, conveying the message that I can take care of myself, thank you very much!
Fortunately, I was able to notice my discomfort and be curious about it. Instead of completing my movement toward the hat, I decided in a split second of mindfulness to notice what was happening inside me. The mix of feelings and thoughts racing through me were something like this:
- I didn’t want to inconvenience him.
- I didn’t want to be a bother.
- I didn’t want someone to go out of their way to take care of me.
- I didn’t want to be some kind of needy person who didn’t know how to take care of himself.
Here I was being the typical Western man trained to be independent, to not need anything, to be a “strong” person and not pathetically dependent.
But then something shifted inside me. Gaining a little distance from the situation rather than remaining reactive, I noticed a sense of amusement about what just happened. Here I am as a therapist who writes about receiving, yet where the rubber meets the road, I’m not particularly better at it than anyone else. Then I wondered, why is it so darn hard for me (and others) to receive?
I noticed a sense of shame associated with my reaction to being helped. Shame is that painful sense of being flawed, defective, or pathetic. It’s the felt sense of “what’s wrong with me?” If a person sees my flaws and weaknesses, I’ll lose respect and dignity. I’ll be judged in a negative light. Overwhelmed with feelings of humiliation and shame, I’ll want to disappear to protect myself from being exposed as being weak or worthless. Scooping up my hat before he could do so was a defensive reaction to my shame.
Then another thought arose. These are just old feelings getting activated. The actual reality is probably very different from how I’m viewing it. I wondered how I’d respond if the man who helped me lost his hat. I’m pretty sure I’d react the same way as he did. I’d be happy to offer some assistance, not because I thought he was helpless, but because it feels good to do a kind deed.
In such a moment of kindness, there is a certain kind of connection, especially if the other person can receive my kindness graciously. I certainly wouldn’t judge him or think he’s weak or pathetic. In fact, I’d enjoy being helpful.
As I was able to pause and notice my reactions, beginning with amusement, which gave me some needed distance from the situation, I took a deep breath and allowed myself to receive not only the hat, but also his good-hearted intention toward me. I smiled. I thanked him. I moved on with a deeper sense of humility about how hard it is to receive.
I also recognized, that just like myself, he probably felt good to be helpful. Pre-empting his action would be a kind of insult. It would be a denial and avoidance of human connection.
I walked away with a renewed intention to notice opportunities to receive, even if it feels a little awkward or uncomfortable — and to enjoy the human contact that happens when there is a flow of giving and receiving.
Perhaps we’d all feel a little more connected and less lonely if we let go of the belief that we should be independent and not need anyone. Maybe we could live with a little more joy and add spiritual richness to our lives if we embraced our interdependence, relishing opportunities to let down our guard and receive others’ warm intentions toward us with grace and humility.