Receive with an Open Heart: Giving and Accepting Gifts of Real Love

You’d be wholeheartedly thrilled with that gift, that compliment, that declaration of affection—if it weren’t for the wary little voice in the back of your mind wondering how you’ll ever be able to reciprocate…or did the giver really mean it…or what’s the catch?

In the long run, we can’t stay emotionally healthy without accepting gifts, both concrete and intangible. Refusing to receive leaves us chronically empty, prone to addiction, obsession, codependency, or an eternal psychological hunger that’s never quite satisfied. The healthy alternative is to stop merely closing down and learn to receive wisely, fully accepting good gifts without being damaged by bad ones.

Unconditional Giving

The secret is this: No matter what happens, keep your heart open. Here’s a way to practice: Take a bill from your wallet that’s large enough that you’d be upset if you lost it—maybe $1, maybe $100. Go to a public place, like a park or mall, and find a spot with sporadic foot traffic. Wait until no one’s looking. Place your money on the ground and retreat to a spot nearby, where you can see whoever finds it. The money is your gift to this person.

Observe your own mind as you wait. You’ll probably find that you’re running an inner monologue on subjects like worthiness, appropriateness, justice. You may hope a poor child finds the money, while your heart clenches at the thought of an addict buying drugs with it, or a lawyer sliding it into an Armani pocket. But no matter who discovers the cash, just watch them pick it up, then silently wish them well. If your giving capacity is out of whack, your receiving capability is likely jammed, too, which means this won’t be easy. What it will be is highly educational. It’s none of your business who finds it, or what they do with it. The goal is to reach a place where you could watch happily as an Enron executive pounced on your ten bucks.

Why should you want this to happen? Because the judgments that constrain your giving are the very demons that are keeping you from receiving. “You don’t deserve that.” “You’d better put it to good use.” “Now you’re obligated.” “You’d better earn it, buddy….” As you teach your own charity to outlast such opinions while giving to other people, you’ll release yourself from having to meet certain criteria (repayment, neediness, poverty) when you are given something.

Receiving What’s Already Yours

Once you’ve learned to give with an open heart, it’s time to receive something. Start with something easy: a gift that’s an accident of birth. Perhaps you’ve accepted your own gifts from time to time, but only in covert moments. If you happen to have gorgeous feet, you may occasionally find yourself gazing at them appreciatively. When you think your way through difficult problems, you might think, “Wow, cool!” Then you clamp down, attack your own ego, search the environs for any witnesses you may have to kill, lest they report to the world that you’re full of yourself.

This isn’t humility; it’s denial. You know darn well what you’ve got, but you’re refusing to receive it, because you believe this protects you from judgment—your own and that of others. It’s time to thank yourself for having this fabulous quality. Say it, out loud or in your head: “Thank you for being so talented!” “Thank you for having great hair!” Don’t be surprised if, once again, you find yourself plowing through the stages of grieving on the way to full acceptance. You may get angry at yourself for your arrogance. You’ll bargain—yeah, you won the Pulitzer, but you didn’t deserve it (this isn’t a hypothetical example; I heard it from a real Pulitzer Prize winner). You’ll get depressed about the fact that your parents don’t really see this gift in you, or that they do but someday they’re going to die. No matter what judgments fly at you, keep repeating, “Thank you for this gift.”

Receiving Objects

Once you’ve begun accepting your own inherent gifts, you’re ready to receive a present from someone else. Find a physical object someone has already given you: a flower, a card, a ring. Stunted receivers have a lot of mixed feelings about such items. You may not feel worthy of the gift, or you may be haunted by fear that you now owe the giver something enormous.

You know the drill by now. Sit with the gift, physically touch it, and say, “Thank you; I accept.” Here it will come again, the emotional whirlwind: denial (“I’m not good enough to deserve this”); anger (“He probably expects me to sleep with him now”); bargaining (“I’ll give her a pie; then I won’t feel so guilty”); depression (“I bet he hates me for not writing a thank-you note”). Touch the object. Say “Thank you; I accept.” Until you really do.

Receiving the Big Kahuna

On the heels of accepting a physical present comes the real prize: accepting the love that motivated the gift. Few givers are perfect, so few gifts come from absolutely pure affection. But if you’ve practiced receiving with an open heart, you’ll be a better judge of which gifts are genuine and which are Trojan horses. When a gift comes with manipulative strings attached—if it’s not really a gift but a disguised bribe—it will feel unpleasant. You can either politely refuse or accept it without becoming vulnerable to exploitation.

The process should be familiar by now. Look back on a time someone gave you a gift of love—even imperfect love. Whatever the gift was (a compliment, companionship, confidence in your basic worth), hold it in your mind and say to the person who gave it, “Thank you; I accept.” Sit still. Hold the gift in your heart. Say “Thank you.”

The worst-case scenario here is that what you thought was love actually wasn’t, that the person to whom you opened your heart was offering no real love at all. In that case, receiving openheartedly will leave you with hope: the shape of love not yet experienced, the DNA-deep knowledge of what you’re meant to have. Once that channel is opened, you’ll be amazed how many gifts are waiting for you to receive them.

12 replies
  1. Terri Fedonczak
    Terri Fedonczak says:

    Thank you, Martha, for once again putting into words what was swimming around in my mind and heart. I have been struggling with how to accept my own gifts, and the simple sentence, “Thank you, I accept” does the job quite nicely!

  2. leah
    leah says:

    Danny & I have been receiving host / hostess gifts from many of our guests at our hostel in Houston; lately, we’ve received pillows, tables & chairs, key chains, postcards in the mail, cards, tips$$$… we’re very moved & grateful for the <3.

  3. Dynamica
    Dynamica says:

    some of the best gifts I’ve received were the most painful. When I accepted, I learned compassion, forgiveness, openness, unconditional love.
    Unconditional giving is the same. A random gift to a stranger brought great joy and opportunities to him. He beamed and said it allowed him to buy more minutes for his cell phone which enabled him to get a job.
    I love it! I love it! I love it!

  4. Lily
    Lily says:

    Such timely advice-I am underwater on my house and will be leaving it soon and my boyfiend who does not live with me is giving me a smaller home. I have recieved some great gifts in my life that in the traditonal sense that I would not be able to “repay”. I see now that the unconditonal love I strive to give maybe why he is being so generous to me and my special needs daughter? That all I really need to do is to be me with and open and greatfull heart and say Thankyou! I realize now that I think it was something you said that has positively shaped my relationships was something to the effect of “that you can always bring more loving action to a sitution even if its just to love your self”. I put this in action daily with whom ever I am with. I have been blessed to apply this wisdom- So Thankyou Martha Thankyou

  5. Barbara
    Barbara says:

    This made me cry for all the times I haven’t recognized my true gifts and was fooled by the false ones. Genuine generosity is a learned trait and must be practiced regularly to become a way of thinking. Thank you for the lesson, Martha.

  6. Joan
    Joan says:

    intimacy. And he is capable of being a much better man. You have a wonderful way of putting a new perspective on an idea that helps me see it more clearly. Thanks

  7. Kate
    Kate says:

    This was in your Daily Inspiration today. It’s wonderful.

    In my list of thank yous and blessings is one of my gifts that I became aware of several years ago and have carefully nurtured: the gift of true gratitude. I inherited this gift from my mother, now ninety and still awake to the blessings of this world.

    But going through the personal physical part of the thank yous pushed me over the edge into something I’ve been repressing for over half a century: I’m proud I have generous breasts. (Which were further blessed by serving their natural function and nursing my daughter for almost three years.)

    Mama is, alas, a self-confessed prude who makes Queen Victoria look like a libertine. So for most of my life, I’ve tried to de-emphasize what simply can’t be minimized. I’ve felt rather embarrassed, as though my exuberant figure were in poor taste. But secretly, even from myself, I *wanted* to be proud of “the girls.”

    Social Security-age is one hell of a time to reclaim one’s right to self-love. But, hey, better than never!

  8. Fran Bennett
    Fran Bennett says:

    Thank you Martha. Your words bring a smile to my lips and a gurgling chuckle from within. Such a Gift!!
    I receive with open heart!

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