There is a spiritual adage that says: “give and you will receive”. It’s a popular principle, and often misconstrued.
Don’t get me wrong, taking instant gratification out of the picture is a good thing. “Will” implies that good things are coming, it might just take a while.
There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, for some people it may be the exact affirmation they need to get them from taking only, to experiencing the joys of giving. Contributing to the world does bring long-term benefits for everyone involved, and it can be helpful to be reminded of that.
However, the people who most take this principle to heart tend to be the ones who are already giving plenty. Not only that, they are giving to the point of exhaustion, and wondering why they don’t seem to be getting anything back.
Giving and receiving are different movements. Giving implies moving something out into the world. Receiving implies pulling something in: it came your way and you also pull it in in order to truly receive it.
Different movements require different muscles, and different mindsets. In many ways, giving is the opposite of receiving.
When you give, you are actively in control. You create what is needed, you hand it out, you decide what needs to be done.
When you receive, you are vulnerable and much more passive. You sit there and wait. You take in what is handed to you. You don’t create, you consume.
It’s the difference between cooking the meal you believe needs to be cooked: buying all the right groceries, preparing it just right and then sharing it, versus eating the food that someone else puts on your plate.
Auntie Jan’s Shepherd’s Pie
Now obviously, if you’re eating out at a great restaurant, receiving like this is no problem. It’s a pleasure. But what happens if auntie Jan creates her infamous shepherd’s pie and doesn’t take into account that you’re a vegetarian? How does receiving feel then? Much less fun right?
So what happens if you help Auntie Jan with her shopping each week and do some little things around the house for her and in return she wants to thank you with her weekly shepherd’s pie, and she won’t take no for an answer? Chances are that you’ll start looking for excuses to turn down the pie and tell her “I’m fine, really! I take pleasure in helping you, I really don’t need anything in return. You keep that pie for yourself.”
It’s not the most elegant solution, but if you don’t find a way to turn down her dinner invitations, you’ll be miserable. Being “punished” for your support, with a reward that makes your stomach turn is nobody’s idea of a healthy “give and you will receive”.
What’s more, you weren’t in it for the receiving in the first place. This was not a calculated “investment” on your part. Or was it?
What do you want to receive?
Maybe your reward for giving is to be liked, or seen as a good person. Maybe your reward is just to see someone else better off. Yet ultimately, if you only have people like auntie Jan in your life, who want to thank you with things that make you miserable, you will burn out.
Nobody has endless resources to give. So unless you are also somehow receiving plenty, there will come a point where you have nothing left to give.
So why is receiving such an issue?
Blaming it on the misunderstanding of all the auntie Jans in the world is not the truth of the situation.
Rather, you need to look at the underlying dynamics: why do you keep surrounding yourself with people from whom you don’t want to receive?
If you stick with the “give and you will receive” principle, then a lack of receiving will lead to more giving. This is because “obviously” if you are not receiving what you need, it must be because you are not giving enough somehow. So instead of limiting your support for auntie Jan to what you can easily give on the side (making it a true and sustainable gift), you start spending more and more time at her house, and are offered more and more shepherd’s pie.
The thing is, unless you tell her what you would like to receive, she will keep offering you something that you don’t want. More dramatically, if she is incapable of seeing that her pies are not a reward for you, then she will keeping pushing you to eat them, believing that you are saying no out of false modesty.
If you grew up with a bunch of aunties like that, then you will likely have internalised something like “I’m fine, I don’t need anything”. In your mind, not receiving is better than receiving. So instead of looking for the things you would happily receive, you simply give up. You’ve accepted that there is simply little to receive right now at all but if you just keep giving, rewards will surely come! Even if it’s only at the heaven’s gate and the angels give you a few gold stars to put behind your name.
The spiritual side of giving can get really messed up in this way, because it doesn’t necessarily take into account very practical and tangible limitations.
It’s all cute and dandy that some gurus proclaim that you are a source of abundant energy, but in every day life you need your sleep, you need your time alone and you need to eat, be clothed, have a roof over your head and you need love.
Spirititual abundance thinking typically doesn’t take into account the practicalities of survival. We have a very vulnerable, human, perishable side with lots of needs. Just as it’s normal to want to help others get their needs met, it should be normal for us to want to get our needs met.
It’s Time to Speak Up
You can’t get your needs met by giving alone. You also need to practice receiving, and asking for what you want.
• Say no to what you don’t want
• Ask for what you DO want
• Limit time and energy spent on people who have nothing to offer you in return. You’ve got the ethics piece covered, now you need to do the energy math. Remember, Mother Theresa had lots of sponsors: she needed others to give to her, to enable her to give.
• Practice being vulnerable and feeling what you need (and perhaps aren’t getting). Don’t cover up that uncomfortable vulnerability by distracting yourself with more giving.
• If a situation or interaction depletes you, stop yourself when you go into “more giving” mode. It’s not the answer. You’ve got plenty of shepherd’s pie coupons already. You need something that will nourish you and not make you throw up.