As the season of shopping is underway, many of us are wrapped up in the frenzied pursuit of happiness and satisfaction that goes along with gift-giving. Say what you will about commercialism, but the tradition is here to stay because most people genuinely enjoy giving. And naturally so. Giving is often accompanied by feelings of peace, joy, and connection, and it makes us feel good about ourselves.
Yet, for every giver, there must be a receiver, and some of the most generous givers are a bit awkward on the receiving end. We love giving to others, but we struggle when others give to us. Isn’t this an enigma? By being poor receivers, could we be denying others the excitement and pleasure of giving?
And then there’s that phrase that a lot of us were taught growing up: “It’s better to give than to receive.” Author and business trainer T. Harv Eker, known for his theories on wealth and motivation, says, “Let’s just call that what it is: bad math! If both have to be there for the other to exist, how on earth could one be better than the other?”
When it comes to tangible gifts, I think some of the discomfort around receiving relates to a general lack of need. Most adults I know buy what they need and want for themselves throughout the year. So, when required to open a package and be “thrilled” with a sweater, socks, CD, trio of jams, or crocheted blanket, some of us get a little squirmy. But there is an art to receiving gifts that goes beyond the gift itself. It requires genuine gratitude for the giver.
I’m reminded of the time when my grandson proudly presented me with a rock he found in the driveway. He gave it to me as if it were the Hope Diamond, and I naturally responded with appropriate enthusiasm. I didn’t have to think about what to say or drum up a reaction because this little fellow chose to give me something that held value to him.
When you open that box or bag from a loved one this holiday season, respond as you would to a child who is offering you a treasured rock or a freshly picked dandelion. You obviously don’t need or want a pebble or a weed, but when you focus on the spirit in which it is given, you can’t help but express genuine thanks.
Practice this with family and friends. After all, if a person thinks enough of you to give you a present, that is the present. All you need to do is offer a sincere thank you for their thoughtfulness. What’s tied up in a bow is secondary to what can never be measured or wrapped.
Last August, I was at the grocery store, wearing an inexpensive lavender T-shirt dress (think cool and comfortable). A lady stopped me in the ice cream aisle to say she liked it and to tell me it was her favorite color. After my face lit up and I said thank you, she asked where I got it, and I took a moment to pull up the website and show her where she could order one for herself. Her compliment made my day, and it reminded me of something I believe strongly: that most people are goodhearted and have pure intentions.
Compliments are gifts. They can make us feel seen and heard. Yet many of us don’t know how to accept them. We sometimes dismiss or deflect compliments as an unconscious act of self-protection—to appear humble or because we feel unworthy of praise. Unfortunately, this can deflate the giver’s spirit and rob us of human connection.
When someone says, “I love your dress,” or “You did a fantastic job on your presentation,” your response should be “thank you.” That’s it. Do not say, “This old rag? I got it for five dollars at the Bargain Box” or “Oh, it was nothing.” These kinds of responses devalue the gift you just received.
Also, resist the urge to return the compliment, which can seem forced and insincere. “Returning a compliment because you think you have to robs them of the full joy of giving you the compliment. And it robs you of receiving,” Eker said. “The key is to recognize that whether you’re ‘worthy’ or not is a feeling, not a fact. It’s a story that you made up and now you own. Disown that! Receive with the same joy that you give.”
Next time someone compliments you, simply say thank you and stay conscious of how your act of gracious receiving blesses those who give the gift of kind words. When we receive a compliment as the gift it is intended to be, we accept an invitation to connect. This is how kindness spreads, even through a brief encounter with a stranger.
The mere thought of asking for or receiving help can sometimes trigger a desire to declare our independence. Even if we acknowledge how much we rely on others in our everyday lives (our partners, coworkers, teachers, doctors, deliverymen, service providers, etc.), we may still hesitate to be on the receiving end when we are in need. We don’t want to be a burden, and this attitude means we don’t ask for help—or we resist it when offered.
In 2001, when caring for my terminally ill husband, I was forced to face my own stubborn need to prove my autonomy. When I finally humbled myself and asked for the help I desperately needed, the outpouring of love was so profound that, for the first time in my life, I began to see and understand the value of allowing others an opportunity to practice kindness and generosity.
More recently, when I had a major surgery and subsequently became very sick, I again witnessed the sheer magic of opening up to receive the heartfelt, no-strings-attached acts of kindness that were extended to me. I was reminded once again of the power we have to increase someone else’s happiness by accepting their offerings of time, talent, resources, and words of encouragement—all priceless gifts. By receiving, we honor the giver and allow them to recognize the difference they make.
Remember that the gate of giving and receiving swings both ways. Whether it is a package, a compliment, or an act of kindness, when you receive, you’re giving back appreciation and gratitude, and that, in itself, is a gift to the giver.
Gift Receiving Etiquette
1. Always open the card first. If you receive a card attached to a gift, open it first. If at a party, you can let others know who the gift is from, but do not read the card out loud as the message may be personal.
2. Respond with a simple thank you. Ask permission to open the gift and express yourself with authenticity, saying thank you with sincerity. If you have nothing to give in return, do not make excuses. Unless it is an established tradition to exchange gifts, most people do not give with the expectation of receiving anything other than your acknowledgment and pleasure. You can always reciprocate at another time as a surprise, but do it out of love, not obligation.
3. Write a note of appreciation. While a verbal thank you may be sufficient, you can never go wrong with an old-fashioned, handwritten thank-you note. Regardless of whether you like the gift or not, express appreciation for the person’s thoughtfulness.
4. Be cautious about recycling a gift. Remember the value of the relationship before you dispose of, return, or re-gift something you dislike. Hurting the gift giver’s feelings could damage a friendship that is worth far more than the gift itself. It truly is the thought that counts, even when you wonder what they were thinking. Feel the love, and the contents of the package won’t matter.