“I got it Jen.” This has become a not unusual refrain when I dine with friends since leaving my job, deciding to write and paint until I could either make a living at it or until my savings run dry.
Negative energy climbs my body like a vine up a tree. Why are they offering? How am I going to pay them back? When will they stop wanting to hang out with me because, what they probably think is ‘Jen. Get a job already.’
“No. It’s okay. I have a budget for going out. Thank you though.”
“Don’t worry. You’re unemployed. Let me do this.” Or “This is my way of supporting the arts.”
“Okay. Well. Thank you.” Except most of the time, while I do greatly appreciate it, that sick feeling still tells me that it’s not okay.
The Discomfort and Joy of Giving and Receiving Gifts
My discomfort in receiving isn’t only with meals, but to any type of gift. I’ve told most friends and family to stop giving me gifts except books and I stopped participating in my extended family’s white elephant gift exchange, even though I cherish the kid-like suspense of opening presents. I just don’t need more stuff, whether a frog lamp or a sweater I’m drowning in. I experience it as forced gift giving rather than thoughtful and for me it seems wasteful. The items that I want, but don’t really need and wouldn’t buy myself, are more expensive than what people are going to buy me as a gift – a Cuisinart, for example.
My housemate, however, turned me on to the idea that gift giving could be something more routine, but still special and loving. She often gives me (and others in her life) gifts whenever she returns from a trip. They’re usually small – chocolates or some funny bauble that relates to our friendship (once she got me a fortune telling fish reminiscent of our shared enjoyment of consulting the iChing to answer life’s pressing questions).
For a long time though, I would say “thank you, but I wish you wouldn’t.” My response came from guilt, not because I didn’t like the gift, which I always did, but because I wasn’t buying her presents when I went on trips. It wasn’t my culture. I wasn’t sure I wanted that responsibility, but I felt forced into it. And perhaps the more embarrassing reason, I struggle with spending money that way, not just on others, but on myself.
Another friend suggested, however, that gift giving is my housemate’s love language. Her observation didn’t sink in right away as I couldn’t see past my own experience of gift giving and guilt feelings around reciprocating. Meeting her mom and being the benefactor of her care packages though, I suddenly understood it. I may never have laughed as much as I did with my housemate and her mom. These fun, small, and usually inexpensive gifts were part of enjoying each other. It could be as simple as wearing funny, cosmetic facemasks that her mom sent in a care package and sending photos. Suddenly, exchanging gifts with my housemate became not about guilt, but about fun. While I still haven’t made it a regular habit to give her something, when I think of it and find something that I believe she’ll enjoy, I can’t wait to give it to her.
Learning this lesson from her, I’ve started being able to experience love around receiving and giving gifts with others as well. I’ve discovered surprise presents I really enjoy, like flowers. And because I don’t receive them as often as I’d like, I’m improving at giving them to myself. My thrifty nature still struggles with spending money this way. I still dislike gifts that don’t feel thoughtful and when I sense the person gave it because they believed they had to, but I’m also realizing that I don’t usually know other people’s motivations. Can I stop seeing gifts as something that I’m required to reciprocate, which doesn’t really feel like a gift? I don’t know, but I’m working on it. And can I find a place of acceptance of spending money on gifts that feel frivolous to me? I’m making progress there too. Thankfully though, my friends and family who love gift giving and receiving still seem to love me anyway in my grinch gift-giving ways.
I Can Do It On My Own: Overcoming the Discomfort of Receiving Help
Then there’s accepting help. At times I have felt so uncomfortable receiving help that I rejected it, even when I needed it, or, when I accepted, rather than express gratitude, I tried to pretend like it wasn’t happening. After graduating from University, I moved to Washington, D.C. for an internship and stayed with a woman with whom I had been casual friends while I looked for my own place. Our lack of closeness left me especially uneasy with her generosity. Instead of showing gratitude by helping around the house and getting to know her and her housemates better, I stayed away from the house as much as possible, returning only to sleep. Needless to say, I did not become closer to her or her housemates.
I’ve had this idea that I should be able to take care of myself, financially, and in every other way and it manifested in many ways. As a woman I wanted to show I could do anything a man could do. The most absurd example was in college when I would throw guys bigger than me over my shoulder in a fireman’s carry to show how strong I was. My penchance for carrying more weight than is probably advisable in relation to my actual strength has become more reasonable over time over time, but it still happens. I’m single and sometimes I just need to get heavy things out of the car. I’m either not patient enough or comfortable enough to call a friend to help me. No doubt this example has contributed to my back problems today (and the inguinal hernia I experienced several years ago).
I’ve had friends who have told me that, because I’m single, to call them for help, especially when I’m sick. They worry about me. But most of my life I powered through, denying any illness, thinking that to admit to it, and worse, succumb to it, was weak. Once, I started having a sciatica attack at work and as the pain significantly worsened, I progressively moved from working at my desk to lying on my side on the floor typing on my laptop. When a colleague first found me, I told him I was fine (not surprisingly, he was dubious), but eventually I had to ask him to help me get a cab since I couldn’t ride my bike home. Slowly, I’m learning to heed the call of being sick and taking time to lie in bed. I’m learning to let friends walk my dog and bring me soup. I’m even learning to ask for it. It still feels unnerving, but it’s also freeing to realize people want to help me just as I’ve enjoyed aiding others in similar ways.
Compliments: Owning My Awesomeness
And finally, there is the difficulty in receiving compliments. It is far easier to believe the negative words people have said to me than the positive. The former I view as making me a better person, the latter is either not truly meant or, if I believe it, might lead me to become conceited or self-centered. As Beck points out in her column, however, deflecting compliments isn’t humility, it’s denial and self-defeating.
Recently, I spent an amazing weekend in the mountains with a couple girlfriends, hiking, relaxing, and doing Tarot card readings. In various circumstances they casually commented how easy it was to hang out with me; that I was a good listener. Throughout the weekend, I felt refreshed and bonded with them. Returning home, however, the critical voices reverberated in my head: You talked too much; why can’t you stop? That’s the last time they’ll ask you to join them.
When I saw them some days later at a concert at my house, they spoke about their high spirits after the weekend and wanted to keep it going. I was not feeling it though and finally admitted my thoughts. Their response, “You are perfect just the way you are, No Saint Jennifer!”
Keeping My Heart Open to the Love and Joy of Receiving
Martha Beck in her column in O Magazine suggested an experiment on how to start working on keeping our hearts open to receiving. She suggested leaving money on the ground in a public place, enough that you’d miss it if you lost it, and sit some distance away to see who finds it. Then you observe your mind as you watch who picks it up. The same challenge we have in being open to who receives that money is the same challenge we have in our own ability to receive. As we learn to experience giving from the heart without worrying about the criteria for whether someone deserves it, we learn how to receive without questioning whether we are deserving.
I haven’t yet done the experiment, but about a month ago, I found $10 on the ground and my thoughts are indicative of what I might experience if I did: I should leave this so a homeless person could find it, but what if someone else finds it? Better that I pick it up and give it to a homeless person. Only as a momentary flicker did I experience the childish excitement of seeing the $10 as a gift with which I could buy something fun. I didn’t need that money so keeping it would be selfish. Notably, though, I also wasn’t willing to trust that the next person who found it would be needy enough in my estimation or as unselfish as me. And yet, what would happen if I was able to see the $10 as a gift? Or what if I had just left the $10 to someone else who might want to buy who knows what with it? Can I free my heart to be open to the idea that we are all worthy, including myself, of receiving unearned gifts?
Letting the Discomfort of Receiving In, Then Letting It Go and Sitting in the Love
So much of my worry about being a burden or being too needy comes from being single and not having any one person I believe I can depend on. But I suspect these worries are also a part of why I’m still single. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle. To have deep and meaningful relationships, one has to be able to receive the love of another. Of course, we almost always have expectations attached to our giving, but at some point we have to trust other’s motives and be able to receive it.
It is said that it is better to give than receive, but I’m inclined to think they are necessary in equal measure. As Beck points out, and as I wrote about in The Making of an Offensive T-Shirt and How Much Love Must I Receive to Believe I’m Loveable, if I only ever see myself as worthy to give, but not receive love, in whatever form it takes, I find myself in an endless quest for external validation that I can’t ever quite let in and end up empty.
When it comes to receiving from, not just others, but from myself, I inevitably experience discomfort because I go straight to thinking I am undeserving, selfish, conceited or some other negative attribute. I’m not sure the discomfort is bad, however. It helps me to evaluate whether I am really being the person I want to be. But I’m improving at not getting stuck there and moving to believing the person giving is doing so out of love – the same way I (mostly) do. I can then offer sincere gratitude, sit in that love and relish it.
Also published on Medium.