Have you ever considered how skilled you are in the art of receiving? As I explored in my previous article, it’s difficult for most of us to receive in a deep and gracious way. I’ve observed that one reason this is so difficult is the pervasive sense of shame we carry, which is instilled by our social environment.
A powerful incubator of shame is based on social norms that we’ve internalized, which happens without our full awareness and which keeps us disconnected from each other. Western society has been governed by the principle that if we’re not independent — that if we need anyone for anything — it’s a shameful sign of weakness.
Men have been especially trained to be the “rugged individual” who can go it alone — believing that there’s something shameful or pathetic about needing anyone or having human vulnerability. This belief becomes especially damaging when it infects our political beliefs — reinforcing the view that everyone’s on their own and should lift themselves up by their own bootstraps. Yet, the science of attachment theory — and common sense — tells us that we need each other to flourish.
Shame Contaminates Our Receiving
Many of us carry a subtle, yet pervasive sense of shame when it comes to receiving. I invite you to notice the subtle ways you might protect your heart, even with someone you love. When someone offers a gift, praise, or a favor, how far do you let it in? Can you receive it graciously or does it trigger an uncomfortable, squirmy feeling, which makes you shut down or move away from the giver?
Here’s a checklist to see if shame might be operating in your interactions:
- Do you feel comfortable asking for a favor?
- Do you have an aversion toward asking for help, such as asking someone to pick something up for you at the store?
- Do you think it’s a weakness to let someone take care of you, such as receiving a shoulder massage or being attentive to you as you talk about a personal challenge?
- When someone offers a compliment or gift, are you able to receive it graciously?
- When someone thanks you for something, can you let in their gratitude? Or do you quickly dismiss it, perhaps by saying “no problem” or “it was nothing”?
The belief that there’s something shameful about needing people and letting in love and caring is contradicted by what we’ve learned from attachment theory. Human beings are wired with a need for connection. We set ourselves up for loneliness and isolation by clinging to the belief that we should be independent. We deprive ourselves of supportive contact when shame — or our outdated belief system — blocks us from giving and receiving love in the simplest of ways.
Being Mindful of Shame
Bringing awareness to our shame is often the first step toward healing it. Here are some things to pay attention to:
When someone does a kind act for you or offers a compliment, how does that feel in your body? Does your chest tighten or breathing constrict? Does your stomach get jittery? Notice if it’s uncomfortable to receive what’s offered. Is that shame operating? Do you somehow feel that you’re not deserving or that you’re bothersome?
If you do notice some sense of shame or embarrassment, see if you can allow that feeling to be there. Just be curious about it. As Carl Rogers reminds us, “The curious paradox is that when I can accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” A big step forward is noticing the shame without being ashamed of having it. Shame can begin to shift or loosen up as we simply notice it with some spaciousness around it.
Being human means feeling shame sometimes.
Bringing a sweet gentleness and mindfulness toward our experience allows us to gain some distance from it. Rather than merge with our shame or be controlled by it, we can simply notice it and normalize it. We have shame, just like everyone else, and it doesn’t mean we’re a shameful person. An important part of self-love is giving ourselves the gift of letting ourselves notice whatever we happen to be experiencing, without concluding that there’s something wrong with us.
If you find it difficult to receive others’ kind acts, compliments, or care, please don’t judge yourself for that. Simply be curious about it. What is that for you? Is there some subtle shame operating — or some belief that you’re weak if you let in the human kindness that comes toward you?
Noticing our blocks to receiving allows them to soften, which might just open up a new world of deeper, more fulfilling connections.