Op/Ed

Lessons in listening: The art of receiving

LAURA WILKINSON IS a senior nurse practitioner and integrative health coach at Middlebury College.

With the final dismissal of 2018-2019 school year complete, summer vacation has officially begun. My daughter, Ellie, had been counting down the days on her dry erase board since the beginning of June. Interestingly, though, now that the unstructured leisure time has commenced, she has been pacing the house with restless energy. 
She finally settled on the creation of an in-home spa one afternoon in late June, which was likely inspired by her decadent treatment at Parlour earlier that day. She created a menu of yard-muddled mint drinks, hair-pulling brushing and braiding, and ticklish foot rubs. And I cannot leave out the Aggie face-licking I received as my treatments required time on the floor.
The afternoon held moments of both pleasure and pain, and the gift was much greater than my daughter and loving pup intended. It gave me an opportunity to practice a concept that I have been exploring personally, as well as with health coaching clients recently: receiving. 
What does it feel like to receive a gift, a compliment, or unsolicited gesture of kindness? How does it feel different from the act of giving? Is one easier or more familiar? Let’s go one step further: what does it feel like to ask for something that you need and then let yourself receive?
For many of the clients I work with, their relationships are oriented toward giving and they feel gratification in meeting the needs of others. They receive when they give. 
Under the best circumstances, this is a win for all parties. Often though, well-intentioned giving can be done to a fault. My clients may not articulate it initially, but their need for self-care is secondary to attending to others’ needs, be it their children, partners, spouses or parents. They feel worn out and have little left for themselves at the end of the day. They not only feel resentful, but also guilty for feeling resentful. When asked about receiving, I witness chair-shifting and averted eyes and hear the refrain, “oh, I’m much better at giving than receiving; I’m just not good at it!” This leaves me curious about how to envision a different way of balancing giving and receiving. Here are my thoughts. 
Narrative matters 
If you tell yourself regularly that you are not good at something, you likely will not be. If your mind is already made up, you are unlikely to look for or see opportunities to prove yourself wrong. Because, let’s face it, we like to be right. Research has shown, though, that if you change your narrative you change your experience of life. If you are interested in receiving more fully, I invite you to get a piece of paper and pencil, write yourself a note and post it on your bathroom mirror. Write a phrase on it — one that resonates with you. Here are a few examples, “I am open to receiving.” “I am ready—– receiving gets easier every day.” Alternatively, “damn, I am good at receiving!” Read or say this aloud every day for at least a month. If you stop noticing the note, move it to new and fresh space in your home. When you notice that you are saying the phrase to yourself spontaneously, thank yourself. You are creating new and self-affirming pathways in your brain.
Practice makes…better
Just like all new habits in life, receiving takes practice and can be challenging. It can honestly be uncomfortable. Try this experiment: next time someone gives you a compliment, say only two words: thank you. You can say it quietly or enthusiastically, but say it without adding in self-deprecating excuses that negate the person’s kindness. You can extend this practice to other gestures of kindness: someone buys you lunch or pays for your coffee. Someone offers to do more of the lacrosse carpool pick-ups because they have a less busy week. Once again, “thank you, I really appreciate you doing this!”
You can practice this privately as well. One client I work with is playing with her approach to receiving through her morning meditation practice. Instead of grounding herself by sending energy down toward the earth, she has shifted her intention to receive energy from the earth. She has noticed how this simple shift has created a sense of more connection, not just in her meditation but also as she moves throughout her day.
Reach out
When you are trying something new, such as incorporating a habit or learning a new skill, support is essential. The most direct way of accessing support is to ask for it. This may mean asking a friend or colleague to be a walking partner. This could also mean asking a spouse not to drink soda or eat sweets in the house when you are working hard to make healthier dietary choices. For me, it means asking my partner to gently say, “hey love, remember how good you feel after your morning bike ride,” when I hit snooze the second time. This simple sentence helps propel me out of bed and into the life that supports my best health and happiness. 
I will admit, I initially paused before asking for his encouragement. What if he thought I was lame for needing the help — a health coach that doesn’t have the self-motivation to work out?  I had to put aside the self-judgement and accept that motivation ebbs and flows.
One client I work with is exploring new career opportunities. She is in the beginning phase of learning about various paths and needs to collect more first-hand information. More precisely, she needs to contact acquaintances in various fields and ask for help. As a self-identified introvert, she feels intimidated about this next step. What if they say no and reject her request? Well, they might say no. They might also say yes. One thing is certain though: they cannot say yes if they are never asked. 
This level of asking and receiving takes bravery. Fear is an essential component of bravery, so step in and step up. For this particular client, the way forward started by making a list of various people that she wanted to learn from and contact. From that list, she picked the top two people that were most likely to say yes. Next, we explored the various ways to contact people and she decided on email and set a date in her calendar for when she would write the email. Lastly, she will follow up with me in two weeks as an accountability partner on her progress in reaching out and making steps forward.
With that, I am off to sit on my front porch and receive the many gifts of summer.

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