Is it really better to give than to receive?

With Valentine’s Day in the rearview mirror, the notion of giving and receiving lingers on in my mind. The adage “it’s better to give than to receive” niggles at me. I mean, I’m down with the notion that when giving it’s best to do it without expectation of some particular outcome. That  sets up a recipe for disappointment when the expected response is not elicited. However, I do believe that the receiving end of this dynamic duo has been underplayed.

Receiving is not a passive act, something that falls on the ears (or in the hands) of someone else. Receiving well is a conscious act of acknowledgment and this is in no way to be taken for granted nor is it an easy thing to do for many people.

There are lots of good reasons for this, and often people are not even aware of the impact of their challenged receiving. Sometimes people are shy, embarrassed, or may not feel they deserve whatever goodness or compliment is coming their way. Occasionally it may have to do with the suspicion that the giver has an ulterior motive or is disingenuous in the offering. However, I believe this latter is much less frequently the case.

There are those who may divert from an approving nod: “Yeah it was off the bargain rack” or “It’ll look better when I lose fifteen pounds” or “I sure didn’t choose it.” All of these last utterings do a disservice to the giver. I’m sure it is usually not the intention to send back the message that this person doesn’t know what they’re talking about, or actually has poor taste. But to really hear what someone is saying, to really honor the effort and intent behind the exchange, the receiver needs to participate much more fully. Looking someone squarely in the eye and saying “Thank you so much” is so much more satisfying to hear for the person offering, who is making themselves vulnerable by saying something in the first place.

If you doubt the importance of the role of receiver, imagine your favorite quarterback launching a perfect, spiraling bomber downfield and watching the receiver pull out his cell phone to check messages. Just kidding, but imagine the receiver forgetting to glance over his shoulder. A game winning pass drops to the ground.

If someone says “I love you” which is not easy for a lot of people to say, they may not be expecting to hear it said back, but it would certainly be a major rebuff for the reply to be, “Cool. What do you want for dinner?” But someone who is not accustomed to an affectionate exchange may flounder in answering. Even if not ready or able to respond in kind, a gentle  squeeze of the person’s hand may let the offerer know that they are heard and understood. 

Receiving is a practicable skill, as is delivering a message in a clear and respectful way. Readying oneself to hear, to listen, requires thought. I learned about my own challenges through the kindness of others when I was undergoing chemotherapy and people were bringing meals (or other items) to our home. I realized that it was important for me to let each person know that this was not expected, and as unaccustomed to receiving help as I was, that I appreciated every effort, card, every call and thought directed my way. 

When I say thank you to my chiropractor, he always responds with, “My pleasure.” It makes me smile every time.

So when next you find yourself on the receiving end of something good, think twice before you reply and try to have your response match the intent behind the gift. For every action, there is an equal and commensurate reaction.


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About Meg

Meg is a licensed independent clinical social worker with over thirty-five years clinical experience. She holds a Master’s Degree from the Boston University School of Social Work and a Bachelor of Arts from the State University of New York at Binghamton.