There was a time in my life when it felt deeply uncomfortable for me to take in kindness directed my way, whether demonstrated in words or deeds. In my work as a therapist and coach, I work a lot with individuals who have a difficult time receiving too, and it's been fascinating to explore the many and varied reasons for this behavior. In this blog, we'll delve into the psychology of receiving, shed light on why receiving feels hard and the multifaceted variables that play a role in what can feel like reluctance or resistance to it, and offer strategies for practicing a different approach.
To start, it's worth reflecting upon what our experiences have been historically when given something. Whether a verbal complement, a material offering, or an act of support, you might notice situations in which the gift, we'll call it, was not clean or clear. In other words, it may be that when given to you, it didn't feel appropriate; it was misaligned with what you'd expressed you wanted (if you had asked for something specifically), it was given with strings attached (either covert or overt), or it was taken away unexpectedly.
Ideally, gifts can be welcomed and enjoyed, but if you've experienced gifts being murky and complicated, it makes complete sense that you'd find receiving them to be incredibly challenging! Let's look at how each of the above variables can affect our ability to receive.
When A Gift Feels Inappropriate
Sometimes gifts feel inappropriate, and this can take on many different forms. In this case, I'm referring to a sense of emotional inappropriateness. I am working with a client who was abused by a member of the clergy when she was a young girl. This was a person she looked up to, whom she trusted, and whom her family trusted as well. She was given many compliments by this person, and initially, she accepted them without any hesitation. It felt nice to know that this person of great esteem viewed her in a positive light and saw her goodness. She felt valued and meaningful. Until this person harmed her and took advantage of her innocence and trust. Those gifts were not clean. They were manipulative. When something like this happens, a number of consequences are possible. My client is working through a fear of inadequacy and a lack of self-trust.
Fear of Inadequacy & Lack of Self-Trust
For decades my client has questioned her ability to discern who is and isn't trustworthy, and who will or won't hurt her purposefully, and willfully. Sometimes, this fear arises from the belief that we are not deserving of the compliments or gifts we receive. After the abuse, my client believed the compliments and gifts to be lies, misguided, and not at all true of her. These can become deep-rooted insecurities that make us question our worthiness and hinder our ability to acknowledge our value.
On the other hand, when gifts feel inappropriate it can be because we sense manipulation or tactics being played that are not in our best interest. When a gift doesn't feel clean in this regard, of course, we will feel a resistance to receiving it. Receiving opens us up, and in a case like this, where there is distrust present, we may be rightfully and skillfully creating a boundary where one is due. It's important here to recognize that there are gradations of receipt. Each situation may invite us to weigh how much or to what degree we open to the vulnerability of receiving.
When A Gift Feels Misaligned With Your Expressed Need
I've been in situations before where I've made a specific request for something and been given something else. I was told that what I wanted wasn't exactly what I needed and that this was instead, better for me. What a way to start doubting my own sense of things, right? Doubting my own needs and values! What would have been nice, especially if the thing I needed or wanted was in this person's area of expertise, was a conversation-- a mutually respectful exchange of ideas regarding the reasons I was leaning in a certain direction, the variables at play which I may be unaware of, and how my needs could be met optimally, all things considered.
Alas, I refrained from making any requests from this person, but I was fortunate to recognize that this was not a behavior I needed to generalize to all people in my life.
When A Gift Has Strings Attached or is Conditional
I'm working with an incredible mom who takes her parenting very seriously and is ferociously hard on herself regarding the approach she takes with her kids. Perhaps not surprisingly, her approach to them matches the approach she takes with herself when she feels she's failed or made a mistake. But what we're working on together is the practice of warmth demonstrated toward her children no matter what their behavior because she finds herself becoming very passive-aggressive. When she is angry or frustrated, she will become silent and will not speak to her family members. No doubt, there is more to this equation, but for the purposes of this blog, recognize the impact of this on her children.
The gift, from a parent, that ideally comes with no conditions, is warmth. I love you no matter how you act or what actions you take. Love is the foundation. That's the message we want to send. However, when a child is ignored, especially if they recognize that something is wrong with mommy, and she won't say anything, it's agonizing to their little minds and bodies. If my client's daughter says, "mom, what's wrong?" because her mom is not saying anything, and she replies, "nothing!" or "don't worry about it" or doesn't respond at all, it is reinforcing a lack of trust inside her daughter. She feels something is not right but the information she's getting from mom doesn't match that. Additionally, the gift of love from mom becomes more and more tied to certain behaviors.
How many of you don't believe you deserve gifts unless you've achieved or accomplished or attained certain outcomes?
When I was in the middle of my divorce and my ex and I were dividing our possessions, there was a mirror that had been given to us as a wedding gift, by his parents. His mother had a history of giving gifts to us, then holding them over our heads in some way to manipulate our behavior. It felt terrible, and when I requested the mirror during the divorce process, which my ex subsequently told his mom about, she immediately contacted me with this "if... then..." threat. No gift from this person felt clean. I always felt obligated to accept, but with such a sense of dread about what might be coming down the pipeline later. It felt like I was being held hostage.
When Receiving or Acknowledgment Has Been Tied to Arrogance
Many of us may have grown up in cultures, environments, or within certain structures that instilled values of modesty and humility and openly discouraged acceptance of praise. To do so would be self-centered, so we learned explicitly how to downplay or skirt it. In a similar vein, we may have grown up with the message that we needed to focus on caring for others, so we have a difficult time allowing others to nurture us. While this was not necessarily the message I got, being in a helping profession has me constantly giving, and so I have to be conscious about receiving! When clients ask me how I am, and it's not just a greeting but a genuine question, I practice receiving this as a gift of another's attention and care. Sometimes I experience internal conflict in this approach, but it's become easier over time and it has definitely served as a connection and intimacy builder!
A client of mine who is a talented artist struggles with receiving praise for her work. Despite creating breathtaking pieces that move the hearts of many, she finds it difficult to accept compliments. Growing up, she often heard that artists should be modest and that pride was a sin. As a result, her default is to dismiss compliments with a self-deprecating laugh. She described to me recently how during an art show, a collector praised her work, calling it "captivating and brilliant." Instead of her usual response, she paused and simply said, "Thank you." The collector's genuine smile and gratitude touched her deeply. This experience marked a turning point for her, helping her realize that welcoming praise didn't equate to arrogance but rather an appreciation of her efforts and talents.
It's interesting to think about the consequences of non-acceptance or welcoming of gifts on the person giving them, especially when they are clean. I know that when I've given a compliment or offered a gift, be it an act of service or something tangible, it can feel disappointing to not have the gift be received. Often I'm really open and clear about there being no obligation to reciprocate, nothing that needs doing in return. I want it to be free, clear, and fun.
Understanding Your Approach to Receiving:
1. Self-Reflection: Delve into the underlying reasons behind your discomfort with receiving. How are past experiences or societal expectations influencing your response?
2. Practice Letting Others Be There For You: Recognize that gifts are expressions of kindness and appreciation. See if you can accept offers of support, a hug, a coffee date, or an offer to listen.
3. Be Kind to Yourself: Challenge self-deprecating talk by cultivating self-compassion. Remember that accepting praise doesn't diminish your humility, nor does it equate to arrogance. And, to connect with another person through acceptance expands your humanity.
4. Share the Joy: Share the moment with someone close to you. Discuss your feelings about the praise or gift to gain perspective and receive support.
5. Cultivate Mindfulness: Practice being present in the moment when receiving compliments or gifts. Allow yourself to experience the positivity without overthinking. You might practice by just responding immediately with, "thank you!"
Understanding the intricate reasons behind our resistance to receiving can feel empowering. Everything starts with awareness. As we unravel the layers of complexity, we can transform our discomfort into an active, volitional, discerning commitment!
If you'd like support with this or with something else that you're perplexed about, contact me! I'd love to hear from you: firstname.lastname@example.org