By: Kristine Madera
As a field-test in human nature, I asked a two-year-old which was better, giving or receiving? Any guess as to the answer? With the promise of Santa just around the corner, receiving won hands down. Ask any two-year-old, and they’ll tell you that receiving is a whole lot more fun than giving. But somewhere between this tender age and the time my clients get to my office, things have dramatically switched. I’ve yet to have a person for whom receiving was enjoyable, much less easy, although everyone claims that giving is divine
So what happened? There’s social and brain development in children that begins to reward altruism, and so we learn on societal and chemical levels the rewards of giving. But that only explains part of it—when does receiving turn from fabulous to frightening?
I have a theory born of those nighttime wakeups when my mind chatters odd and interesting tidbits before falling again into luscious sleep. Those chatterings don’t always make sense, and I’ll be the first, perhaps the only person, to say that I think my theory has merit, but I’ll let you judge for yourself.
First, we tend to learn concepts in contrasting pairs: yes/no, right/wrong, light/dark, and part of the contrast, even the idea of contrast, is that one-half of the pairing is preferable to the other. Yes is better than no, right is superior to wrong, light is safer than dark. So it stands to reason in this deeply ingrained sorting system, that either giving or receiving must be “better.” When you’re a toddler it’s definitely receiving, but a few years down the road giving gets the edge. And why not? Giving really does feel good, and not just mentally. The true spirit of giving floods your body with feel-good hormones, and it really is its own reward. But does that mean that receiving needs to be the opposite?
When adding to the good/bad contrast instruction of parents, teachers, spiritual and religious leaders on the merits of giving, and the oft quoted adage, “tis better to give than to receive,” it gets easier to see how receiving drops in status. As we grow and give more widely, the status of receiving tanks because we begin to associate it with the underprivileged, the needy, the infirm, and so on.
Thus , we come to my theory. To be on the receiving end taps into a deep sense of vulnerability. Oh, it’s tolerable, even fun, when receiving is part of the dance of reciprocity, like at birthdays and Christmas. But when it comes unexpectedly or at a time when you are already feeling vulnerable, like the offer of help from neighbors during an illness or after a death. Or when direct reciprocity is not an option, as when receiving financial assistance from family or friends when you are out of work, you can feel your innards cringe with helplessness. Even though—and you know this from being on the giving side—receiving graciously and with authentic gratitude gives the giver the gift of feeling really good in that healing endorphin-flow sort of way. And yes, there’s always the few who feel smugly good, but smugness, like giving out of obligation or resentment, tempers those feel-good hormones so much that non-genuine giving becomes its own wee curse.
The vulnerability associated with receiving can cut deep with a double-edged sword. First, there is the obvious blade, the feeling of being labeled as needy or unable to care for yourself in some fundamental way. This can prompt feelings of powerlessness that spring from fear, and when this happens it really can feel scary and dark. Second, the feeling of unworthiness. I see it all the time in clients and friends, and have wrestled with it myself, and still it mystifies me. How, I wonder, can a person feel unworthy to receive a compliment on her hair, money for the rent from a well-heeled friend, or even kudos for a job well done? And yet so many do.
Receiving even a simple compliment can scratch the scabs off decades-old wounds and uncover feelings still so raw that it’s no wonder people consider receiving masochistic. And yet, that would make us a sadistic society indeed. Just look around and see how much giving is going on at any one point in time. It’s massive. The non-profit sector would be obliterated without it. The whole idea of community would collapse. Are the givers feeling oh-so-good as they spread further pain and suffering among the receivers? Weird isn’t it?
Even weirder is that vulnerability can be extraordinarily powerful. It’s one of those contrasting pairs that we fundamentally get wrong. Invulnerability is what we usually associate with power, but it is the forceful power that requires so much effort and energy to maintain that it actually bleeds power and thus loses energy over time. This holds true whether the invulnerability is claimed by individuals, corporations, or nations.
This does not automatically make vulnerability powerful, however. When trapped in fear, helplessness, self-pity and the like, vulnerability is as power-draining as invulnerability. But vulnerability, when grounded in the acceptance of what is, when stripped of defenses, and when coming from a place of openness, gathers energy and power because it holds power
and other people lend energy and resources to bolster the vulnerable person.
I know this is counterintuitive, but consider the following analogy. Have you ever listened to someone who talked about how everything went great for them all the time, listed their accomplishments, the titles they’ve achieved, the amounts of their last raise or bonus? Did you send that person your most loving thoughts or did you ping them mentally; ping them for dwelling on their perfection? What about the last person you met who unfolded a part of their life for you that consisted of struggle or who disclosed something personal that was an emotional risk to share? Did you ping them? Or did your heart swell for them, sharing that unquantifiable feeling of connection that flows when someone trusts you enough to risk their vulnerability?
This connection is at the core of healthy giving and receiving. Connecting with yourself is the first step. Try sitting with your vulnerability long enough to begin peeling away the defenses and automatic resistances so often attached to this state. Then try giving to yourself the time, compassion, nurturing, positive self-talk that you need, being as gentle and loving with yourself as you would a close friend or a child. Practice receiving these gifts from yourself without dismissing them as unnecessary or trite. Connecting with yourself in this way shows your wounds. You get more practice receiving as you observe, tend to, and heal these wounds as they become learning points in your ongoing story, rather than a constant retro-wound show on your current center stage. One way to do this is going into that lovely day-dreamy state and then imagine the part of you—the age, the event, situation, or the hurt—that was wounded. Then, use your most loving aspects to help this part of you see this time or event from a larger perspective to learn from the experience, to find her strength, to give her a story that grows her into the mature, vibrant person you are—or that you want to become. It’s a simple technique, but it can be surprisingly effective.
Connecting with yourself helps you find the powerful side of vulnerability, the place from which you can openly share hard-won wisdom, cry with a friend in pain without holding back for fear of unleashing your own, and live your life without fighting the aching, breaking heart that threatens to snap you in half when someone tells you what a kind person you are.
The two-year-olds are right, you know. The best things in life are received: being loved completely by another, experiencing the mix of awe and endorphins at holding a newborn baby (yours or not), being nestled in a friend’s heart and life and prayers. Hmmm, seems these all have a lot to do with love—another abiding, empowering emotion. Love bolsters the case for vulnerability even more. Love can’t flow either inward or outward through an invulnerable, impermeable barrier. And let’s face it, love is the greatest gift—given or received—that there is.
So, in this season of giving, pay attention this year to how you receive. Practice receiving with real gratitude (which itself is a powerful, feel-good emotion), whether you receive a diamond bracelet, a hug, a compliment, or last year’s recycled fruitcake. Heck, throw caution to the wind, open your heart and receive with joyful abandon. If you need further instruction, in how to do this, ask the nearest two-year-old.
As a Certified Clinical Hypnotist and Hypno-Coach in Asheville, Kristine Madera helps people find their authentic power so they can get out of their own way and create a life that they love. See her specials and blog at www.MindWiseHypnosis.com. She is also the co-author of How to Meditate with Your Dog: An Introduction to Meditation for Dog Lovers.