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Last Updated Tuesday June 26 2018 01:04 AM IST

Heal Thy Self | The pleasure – and power – of receiving, gracefully and gratefully

Nirmala Ferrao
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Most people are not very good at receiving the love, compliments and acts of caring that come their way on a daily basis more often than they realize. Check out these situations, and the ways that people – and, perhaps, you too -- commonly respond to the act of giving:

How often have you opened a gift while uttering that worn-out negation: “You shouldn’t have”?

Or: you hand over a birthday gift to a friend and he tears off the wrapping, opens the lid off the gift box – and his face falls. “Oh, I picked up a duffle bag just the other day. Thanks, anyway.”

A colleague offers to drop you home in her car after a daylong workshop, and you say, “Oh, no, it’s all right, I wouldn’t want to inconvenience you.” So focused are we on being self-sufficient these days that it’s almost a knee-jerk reaction to turn down an offer of assistance.


Compliments also get a similar kind of heave-ho from most people. Socio-linguists have found that people respond to compliments with a denying or deflecting response a whopping two-thirds of the time. How familiar are these responses?

Read: Heal Thy Self | Control your anger before it controls you

Compliment: “That’s a snazzy-looking sweater.”

Response: “Oh, I’ve had it for ages.”

Compliment: “You were damn good on the field today – those were two of the most amazing catches I’ve ever seen.”

Response: “Yeah, I’m really thirsty. Let’s stop for some Gatorade on the way home.”

Compliment: “You guys sounded great tonight.”

Response: “Yeah, right. We sounded like blah.” 

Compliment: “That choker is out of this world.”

Response: “Well, I need something to draw attention away from my ugly mug!”

Compliment: “Your photography is definitely the best exhibit here.”

Response: “Are you kidding? You must not have gone to very many art exhibitions in your life.”

Compliment: “You’re looking really smart tonight.”

Response: “This tie can make any suit look good.”


What is the message we are sending out when we receive gracelessly? “You shouldn't have”. “Why did you bother?” Is that what a giver wants to hear? Of course not. There she is, eagerly awaiting your reaction, and there you are, saying it shouldn’t have happened. To take away a giver’s pleasure of giving is the same as taking away the love that prompted the giving in the first place. When we deny others the joy of giving, we deny them the pleasure of feeling valued. It is the equivalent of unwrapping a gift and tossing it back to the giver. And that’s rude, and it’s hurtful.


How do we get to be this way? Interestingly enough, we were born fully knowing how to receive. Infants are quite adept at receiving care. The breast. Clean diapers. Hugs and kisses. Infants are love- and care-receiving maestros! However, as we mature physically and cognitively, we are taught to become self-reliant. We exchange inter-dependence for autonomy. And our receiving skills become rusty.

Read: Heal Thy Self | Baby’s first year... how parents can stay sane



Before we can enhance our receptivity, it is helpful to first take a look at the reasons we fail to receive.

We can’t forget an old lesson. From our childhood, it’s been ingrained in us that it is better to give than to receive. This is a parroted repetition, by our parents, teachers, spiritual mentors, of the New Testament edict: “It’s better to give than to receive.” Other spiritual philosophies say the same thing in slightly different ways. In the Sutta Nipata, the Buddha says: “Happiness never decreases by being shared.” The Koran asserts: “Whatever you give to charity, God is fully aware thereof.”

The extolling of giving has become a moral touchstone around the world. Recognizing others’ needs, honouring their feelings, and being responsive to the less fortunate safeguards us from growing up into self-centred monsters scouring our environment to see what we can extract to fill ourselves. With such a strong focus on giving, no wonder we do not value receiving. Who wants to embrace the lesser part?

Fear of strings attached. As we grow up, we imbibe another precept: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” And its slangy sibling: “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”.

And so, there is always the niggling worry that if someone does something nice for you, you will then “owe” them something in return and will thus be indebted to them in some way. The desire to avoid such indebtedness is what causes you to be wary and to pre-emptively defend yourself from any sense of obligation. You may jokingly say to the person giving you a compliment, “Flattery will get you nowhere”, or even, “Ok, what do you want?” But inside you are saying, “Well, what do you want?”

Unfortunately, the “no-free-lunch” dictum has a high degree of street credibility: it is indeed, all too often, a quid pro quo world. Saying yes to a gift or a gesture (i.e., ‘receiving’ it) more often than not means saying yes to a variety of unspoken obligations, not the least of which is to respond in kind. How often have you been invited to dinner by a new acquaintance and don’t  feel you have to return the invitation in a timely manner, whether you really want to or not? Social theorists call this particular requirement “reciprocity”. In his classic 1954 study, The Gift, anthropologist Marcel Mauss examined ancient gift economies and concluded that there really was no such thing as a free gift. He attributed an almost spiritual significance to the connection between giver and receiver. “One has no right to refuse a gift,” he wrote. “To act in this way is to show that one is afraid of having to reciprocate.”

This is a very real fear with many people, causing them to be guarded and suspicious about the gift and the giver.

We don’t like feeling vulnerable. Receiving creates a moment of connection. And in doing so, it invites us to reveal a vulnerable part of ourselves. That isn’t easy or comfortable for many of us because, at one level, it means ceding control. To the extent that we fear intimacy, we may disallow ourselves from receiving a gift or compliment – a convenient way to keep people distant and our hearts defended.

We sense the power dynamics involved. Many of us instinctively resist receiving because we sense the price of receiving, the power dynamics involved, which reduce the receiver to the weaker position. In the concurrent acts of giving and receiving, an invisible hierarchy often insinuates itself. We all know how it feels when someone gives us advice for “our sake,” and we know it is really to establish his or her own superior knowledge or wisdom. We shut out the advice, because we don’t want to confirm our inferiority.

We “don’t deserve it”! Most people, when pushed to the edge of their refusal to receive love, will admit to what may be the most painful universal wound of all -- the belief that underneath it all we don’t deserve the love we say we want.

Wherefrom does this feeling of being undeserved spring, this deep-seated feeling of unworthiness? It can come down to a deficiency of love in the growing-up years. If, during your childhood, affection, attention and praise were thin on the ground, if you didn’t receive enough love, then you didn’t learn to receive well. When someone compliments you, it may be so far from the image you carry of yourself (undeserving of love) that your immediate response is, “Why would they say that to me?” Praise, gifts, affection, all elicit discomfort because they conflict with your existing negative beliefs about yourself, embedded deep into your psyche in those critical childhood years.

Read: Heal Thy Self | Know your risk profile for mental illness

When people grow up with the belief that they don’t deserve love, this translates into a fear of intimacy. There is a secret about human love that is commonly overlooked: Receiving it is much more scary and threatening than giving it. How many times in your life have you been unable to let in someone’s love or even pushed it away? Much as we proclaim the wish to be truly loved, we are often afraid of it, and so find it difficult to open ourselves to love, or let it all the way in.



It may be more blessed to give than to receive, but everyone who gives must have someone to receive. Giving and receiving are simply two sides of the same coin of intimacy.

Author Amanda Owen in her book, “The Power of Receiving”, poses the question, “Who is the Giver and who is the Receiver when we look at the relationship between a butterfly and a butterfly bush? They give to each other and receive from each other.

“Letting ourselves receive deeply and graciously is a gift to the giver. It conveys that their giving has made a difference — that we’ve been affected. We may then bask together in a non-dual moment in which there is no distinction between the giver and the receiver. Both people are giving and receiving in their own unique ways. This shared experience can be profoundly sacred and intimate.”

How can we really give to life if we haven’t received from life? Giving without receiving, doing without re-generating, is like burning the candle at both ends. Scientific findings lend weight to the health-promoting benefits of receiving with gratitude. Among them:

»  People who keep gratitude lists are more likely to make progress toward important personal goals

» Gratitude is a significant predictor of resilience among college students

» Gratitude promotes relationships and attracts people to us

» Children who practise grateful thinking have more positive attitudes toward school and their families, are more optimistic, feel more satisfied with life, and report fewer negative feelings



Receiving is an art that many of us have to learn on our own because it’s not taught to us as a part of either academic or informal instruction. Is there a way to change that? Where do we start?

Know that you’re worth it. Learning how to let in the love that is constantly coming towards us, learning to yield to our asking hearts, begins with establishing our own worth at the centre of our existence. As mentioned earlier, a negative self-image, built on foundations cemented in childhood, can run interference with our capacity to receive love trustingly. If those barriers are too deep-seated and resistant, counselling can help.

Read: Heal Thy Self | Instant power: learn the body language of the hotshots


Honour the intention of someone who gives you a gift. Don’t dismiss a gift with the clichéd, “You shouldn’t have” or, “You know you don’t have to do this.” Every person offering a gift experiences an anticipatory excitement — the dismissal unintentionally robs the moment of its energy.

Never say, “Thank you, anyway.” This is often a typical, automatic response to someone who has done something for us that turned out to be not what we needed. Just dump that expression from your vocabulary. “Anyway” in this context is a weasel word, a careless habit that takes on the unintended meaning of “Thanks for nothing.” Why not simply thank them for their thoughtfulness?

Accept – don’t deflect – a compliment. The first step in quitting the faux modesty of the compliment deflection is to realize that fully and happily accepting a compliment does not make you conceited. You didn’t come up with the praise yourself, someone else did! You’re just acknowledging another person’s assessment, and again, it’s more polite to accept and appreciate their judgment than to contradict it.

Second, it’s okay to let yourself feel proud of something you did well. A little pride need not involve an inflated sense of your accomplishments or worthy qualities – just an honest assessment. It’s quite possible to be modest, while still being grateful and gracious.

So what’s the best response to a compliment? Get ready for it… “Thank you.” That’s it. There’s never a situation where a simple, unadorned “thank you” won’t work.

That being said, it’s quite appropriate to sometimes offer a follow-up to your “thank you”, or an amplifier that shows just how much the compliment meant to you.

Appropriate follow-ups to “Thank you”:

I really appreciate that!

You made my day!

It’s great to hear such encouraging words!

It’s so nice of you to notice!

You know, you also played great tonight!” The boomerang compliment can be appropriate when it’s truly sincere — praise you would have given, anyway — and especially when you won’t see the person again (as is often the case in competition situations). Just be sure to offer your compliment after you’ve fully accepted the one you’ve been given.

Cultivate an attitude of gratitude. Don’t stinge on that ‘Thank you’, reserving it only for someone who gives you a gift, help or a compliment. Instead, cultivate a conscious awareness of the numerous ways, big and small, that people help you each day along life’s marathon. Make “thank you” a common phrase in your vocabulary. Thank the waiter who brings you your coffee. The fact that you’ll be tipping him is a different matter altogether. Thank the driver who slows down and waves at you to cross a busy road. Thank the doorman at the store entrance who opens the door for you. Yes, it’s his job, but a gracious ‘thank you’ helps make him feel he’s not just an automaton. And if you tack on a little smile, it can flash a tiny sunbeam into a soul-deadening job.

 » Keep a gratitude journal. Each night write one to three things for which you were grateful during the day. You’ll be surprised at how many more than just three you will generally be able to come up with. Again, it’s not just gifts and compliments that you should be toting up. Think outside the box — creatively look for new situations and circumstances for which to feel grateful.


I am grateful that my husband received a job promotion.

I am grateful for the recommendation my friend gave me for a physiotherapist.

I am grateful that my wrist injury is getting better.

I am grateful that we get clean, running water on a 24-hour basis – so many people do not.

Fake it till you make it. According to Dr Robert Emmons, one of the world’s leading researchers on gratitude, “going through the motions” on days when you aren’t feeling particularly grateful can actually trigger the emotion. “I recommend ‘fake-it-till-you-make-it’,” he says. “Take the action of receiving the gift even if you’re not so sure about it.” In other words, forcing yourself to smile, say thank you, send thank-you emails is likely to put you in an appreciative mood.

Watch your language. Grateful people have a particular linguistic style that uses the language of gifts, givers, blessings, blessed, fortune, fortunate, and abundance. Gratitude is independent of external circumstances, it is a state of mind, a way of seeing life, a way of being.

The Care-giver’s survival guide

A different perspective. If your mother gifts you a pink scarf, you might refuse to wear it, fuming, “She knows I hate pink. She’s trying to control me by making me wear pink”. Or, instead, you might make a 360-degree turn on your perspective, and wonder, “Maybe she gave me this scarf because she thinks pink will look good on me.” And you would appreciate the thought behind the gift, and feel gratitude. (And who knows, if you try on the scarf, you might well find that your mother was right after all and that it does look good on you!)

The power in receiving. Whereas most social scientists focus on the empowerment of the giver in relationships, some point to the more hidden power of receiving. You may not immediately know it, but you’re on your way to being that person who feels like he deserves good things. And that’s someone we’d all like to be.

Do not hesitate to ask for help. Wayne Dyer, the motivational speaker and self-help author, says, “You are important enough to ask, and you are blessed enough to receive.”

Allow love into your life allow yourself the sexual pleasure you deserve. Our capacity for arousal is the most profoundly embodied experience of receiving love available to us. What keeps most of us from sliding down this fast-moving chute into a pleasure delirium is our inability to receive and feel worthy of that pleasure.

So, take a risk with your heart and begin in the bedroom. Abandon your need to control the outcome, allow yourself moments of naked vulnerability and experience how healing human touch can be.

(The author, a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, now works as a counselling therapist)

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