Can we learn to Receive… in order to Belong?
(Re)learning to be seen, centered, held, chosen, and celebrated
Today I want to talk about the essential art of “receiving”: the vulnerable practice of allowing ourselves to be seen, and even celebrated. To receive is to be able to ask for what you want, and then accept the gift of it being offered to you. Simple, yet incredibly hard.
And fundamental to our project of belonging: if we aren’t in touch with our needs and desires, and not able to express them to others and allow others to meet our needs… how can we ever feel seen? How can we belong? As Betty Martin wrote in her must-read book The Art of Receiving and Giving:
The world needs people who take responsibility for what they want and who respect the rights of other people… We are hungry to connect with others in ways that are real and satisfying, that feed our hearts and inspire us. We need to be with others in ways that help us to be who we really are: complex beings who need each other and bring joy to each other.
This has been a deep journey of mine over the last few years, and continues to be a major growth edge. This week I turn 41: my birthday being one of the rare occasions I allow myself to be centered, and to receive the love and gifts of others. This is the struggle: of course I yearn to be fully seen, and celebrated. And yet receiving those gifts makes me deeply uncomfortable. It is this paradox I want to explore today.
TL;DR: Learning how to receive is essential to learning how to be human, and is vital to our ability to have interdependent relationships. We are socialized out of our innate capacity to receive, but we can un-learn our harmful socialization and practice being open to receiving. I’ve come to believe that there are five components, which I see as flowing sequentially in greater degrees of emotional depth and intimacy: To be seen. To be centered. To be held. To be chosen. To be celebrated. And all of these depend on a common foundation of safety, and trust… without which receiving (or any other vulnerable relational skill) is not possible. Learning how to receive enables us to show up as our full selves… and to be open to belonging.
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What does it mean “to receive”?
I first encountered “receiving” as a concept worthy of attention a few years ago via Esther Perel’s invitation to consider what she calls the “7 verbs” of love. She explains:
To receive: this is the most vulnerable verb of them all… Receiving requires connecting with our senses of helplessness, exposure, and vulnerability more so than when we give.
It resonated with me as an intriguing concept, but as I wrote at the time: all 7 verbs seemed so rich that it didn’t stand out to me as a discrete practice.
Then I deepened the exploration early last year when I was introduced (by my somatic sexologist) to Betty Martin’s Wheel of Consent: She explains (in her book):
Receiving is a fundamental human need, a need to experience having someone else set aside what they might prefer and put us first… It is a mature capacity to take in focused attention and care and to nourish ourselves with it and enjoy it.
Receiving, the way Betty talks about it, requires asking for what you want. Which is of course deeply vulnerable: we can be rejected. We might not get what we want. And of course it requires that we first understand and name for ourselves what it is we actually want and need… which is incredibly difficult work. Mara Glatzel explains:
We don't often ask for what we need. We only ask for a tiny fraction of it, or what we think we can get, or what we think someone might be willing to give to us, or what we can stomach allowing ourselves to ask for.
Yet even then “receiving” didn’t totally land as a distinct concept that required my attention. In April of last year when I attended an ISTA workshop exploring my relationship to the erotic, I intentionally used the Wheel of Consent to help frame my intentions, and to anticipate what I thought were likely to be my major challenges. Of the four quadrants, I thought Giving (what Betty calls Serving) would be easiest, followed by Receiving (what she calls Accepting). I figured Taking would be difficult, and Surrender (what Betty calls Allowing) would be hardest. Amid so much self-work to do, Receiving seemed like one place among many to focus, and not even the most important.
I was wrong. It turns out Receiving was by far the hardest, and it wasn’t even close. Evidently I wasn’t as self-aware as I might have liked to believe.
It’s been a little over a year now that I’ve been steadily turning more of my attention to Receiving. So when people who love me took the occasion of my upcoming birthday to ask how I want to be celebrated… I decided it was time to finally treat it with the intentionality it deserves, and to confront my own discomfort.
I’ve come to think that there are five distinct elements under the broad umbrella of Receiving, and I think there is a sequencing to them:
To be seen
To be centered
To be held
To be chosen
To be celebrated
Though these words may seem synonymous, they each register differently in my body: my somatic experience of each is unique. I want to unpack them here.
1. To be seen
This is the foundation for everything that follows. We cannot receive if we are not fully seen; indeed, Esther Perel suggests that it is this aspect that defines what it means to receive:
When we receive, we allow another to see us. We allow ourselves to be known.
Yes, and: there is a precondition to being seen that is important to name. We must feel safe. To allow ourselves to be seen, to be known, is an act of radical vulnerability. We will not take that risk without a sense of safety, without a measure of trust that our vulnerability can be honored. Fie Sommer explains:
To feel fully open you need to have a loving container where you feel super safe… when you are fully open, you can receive.
I’m not naming safety as the sixth condition of receiving because I think it’s a precondition to everything (not just receiving), but I do want to remind us that nothing else is possible without that foundation of safety.
For me personally there is one key reason why “to be seen” precedes the other elements: I think there is a fundamental difference between being looked at, and being seen.
To be seen requires an “other” to see us: it is an interpersonal dynamic between two selves. And we each have a role to play: I have to reveal myself to allow you to see me. If I constantly wear masks or hide or armor up, your best efforts to see me won’t succeed. You can look at me… but I won’t let you see me.
By the same token, even if I am showing up as my authentic self… you have to be able to perceive me. It’s also about your inner state. Indeed, sometimes to look at me is to make it harder to see me: because you have to see past your projections, your socialization, and the boundaries of your own self. I often experience this as a large white man (as do women or people of color in different ways): I get “seen” a certain way… and therefore treated a certain way. And that perception does not reflect my internal sense of self, and thus makes me feel unseen.
I feel like so often the loneliness of daily life is this gap: the devastating chasm that separates our true authentic selves from being seen by others… often and especially those we are closest to.
If we are able to close that gap, then we can be prepared to receive. Because you are seeing me for who I am, I can start to relax into the trust that your gift (your “giving”) is actually intended for me… and not for your projection of me (or to soothe your own ego).
2. To be centered
Once we are seen we have the possibility of being centered. To be centered, the way I understand it, is about taking up space in a collective. It is about the gift of relational attention: it is the gift of someone holding space for us and our experience.
There is something vital about consent here. My experience as someone socialized into privilege is that I am often centered: without my consent. People defer to me without asking whether I want to be deferred to… because we live inside systems of oppression that center people who hold my visible identities. This to be centered without first being seen… which is not the same thing as receiving. I can’t receive—properly understood—if I’m not being seen for my individual self inside of the multiple identities I inhabit. And I can’t be seen if I’m not at choice, or if those who are cast into the role of “givers” are doing so under conditions of systemic coercion.
My (imperfect) awareness of my privilege is my biggest barrier to allowing myself to be centered. I believe in the maxim in social justice circles that we should “center those most impacted.” I tend to think of it as triage: yes, I may have a broken wrist (we all suffer under systems of oppression)… but we should definitely attend to the person with a severed artery first, and then the person with a broken leg, and then the elderly person, and then… So yes, I do trust and hope that I will get my turn, that I will be attended to… and centered. But I can’t accept that gift until it’s appropriately offered… once others more impacted have been attended to. And of course, my fear: that because our systems of oppression cause so much harm, my turn will never come. Or if it does come, there won’t be enough capacity left in the system (healed people) to attend to me.
And yet to be centered is essential. As Betty Martin explains:
There are things you can only experience when it's all about you, that are not accessible when you are trying to give and receive at the same time.
3. To be held
Again, I think the sequencing flows this way. Once we have been centered, we have the opportunity to be held. In my body there is a subtle but important difference: whereas I experience centering as the holding of space (the gift of attention), I experience being held as the provision of care. It is the gift of support: not just of holding space for me, but of holding me (and while I mean this metaphorically, it takes on its clearest somatic form literally, in the context of being physically held).
If being centered is hard for me… this one ratchets up the degree of difficulty even more. My fear is that I am “too much” (the opposite of the more-common fear of being “not enough” that feeds a sense of unworthiness). So while I yearn to be seen and feel worthy of it… my fear is that in fully seeing me people will shrink away: that I will be too much for them to hold. I think my physical size is a metaphor for this fear: not many people can hold a 6’4, 200 pound man (or so I tell myself). So as I relax into care, into being held, there’s a gradual letting go… testing the ice, so to speak. Can it (can my partner, my loved ones) hold my weight? Hold all of me?
There is an element of surrender here, of trust. It’s the deeper meaning of safety. Kasia Urbaniak explains the longing here beautifully (hat tip to Bo Zhang for introducing me to Kasia’s work):
People are deeply desiring the surrender and submission of being held in the attention of another person… To be witnessed there and guided to a place where they feel safe enough to release, be vulnerable, and be held and led.
Yes… wouldn’t that be nice? To surrender to being cared for?
To me this one is also deeply connected to the holding of the container: usually the container of collective space (facilitating a meeting, curating a gathering, hosting a party), but in the context of a relationship it’s about shaping the context within which we connect. As a middle child, mediator, and someone who gravitates toward the “rescuer” role in the Drama Triangle… it’s incredibly hard for me to let go of setting/holding the container. And yet: what a relief if someone else could/would do that… if I could surrender responsibility (ideally it should be co-held, but a guy can dream). As Richard Rohr reminds us:
It’s a freedom not to be responsible.
I deeply resonate with this reminder from Heather Plett:
Those of us who are used to bringing our strength into the room in order to hold space for others, often forget that we need to give others opportunities to hold space for us.
When I have the felt experience of being held (when my wife and I have done it as a somatic practice, e.g.) I actually feel giddy: a palpable sense of rushing relief in my system from my stomach to my throat that nearly always makes me laugh. I register it with a sense of incredulity at beholding the lightness of being.
4. To be chosen
I think the sequencing I’m describing here is roughly synonymous with depth, with increasing intimacy. I endeavor, for example, to “see” everyone: to give all my fellow humans the gift of being seen. And I am willing to center anyone with whom I am in relationship, and to hold space for anyone for whom I feel care. To hold someone (in the way I have described it above) is a rarer quality of care: we’ve now crossed a threshold of intimacy.
To be chosen is to go still farther. The metaphor I’ve recently stumbled into in therapy is of me on my island. The story I’ve long held is that people don’t visit me on my island: that I need to leave to meet them where they’re at. That I’m the one who initiates and maintains connection, that I’m the one who repairs ruptures, who tends to hold space and provide care (back when people still talked on phones, I would ruefully note that my outgoing-to-incoming call ratio was about 5:1).
A more honest rendering of my story acknowledges that I make it difficult for people to visit my island. I erect barriers. A common example in my life is an interlocutor will suddenly realize that they’ve been doing all the talking, and me the listening/inquiring/holding space. They’ll offer to reverse roles: tell me what’s going on with you. And of course, I deeply want to. But I wonder: are they just saying that to be polite? Do they actually want to know? If I share my full truth… do they have the capacity to hold my too-muchness?
So I wave away the first offer: no, no, I’m fine, let’s keep talking about you. Yet what I really want is for them to persist, to assure me that they do in fact care, to navigate around my barrier reef and come visit my island. But often what I might mistake for a lack of care or capacity is that they simply respect my “no” and remain outside… and I’ve just pushed away the very intimacy I yearn for :-(
For me being chosen follows the above flow: it’s a drawing closer, a deepening of vulnerability and therefore of intimacy. I see you, and now I want to hold space for you. Having held space for you, now I want to hold you. It is only in that holding, in the vulnerability of surrendering to someone else’s care, that we allow ourselves to truly be known. And therefore it is only at that point that we can truly be chosen (or so I tell myself).
To be chosen in this context is to receive the gift of someone else’s desire for an ongoing relationship (and I mean this in all contexts: platonic, romantic, sexual, etc.). It is to say: not only do I see you, but having seen and held you, I now want to be with you. I want to be in relationship with you. I want to come to your island, and I want you to come to mine. We may even wish to cohabitate. I choose you.
5. To be celebrated
I’m a little less sure on the sequencing here. It feels to me like a deeper component of centering: one that doesn’t just hold space, but that celebrates who is revealed in that space. I include it last because the kind of celebration I have in mind—the kind I want to experience as I think about my birthday—is the kind of celebration that is only made possible through deep intimacy and knowing.
I feel like so often we are celebrated for what we do, and especially what we do for others. And that’s great: that is worthy of celebration and appreciation. But there is a different quality to being celebrated not for what you do, but for who you are. And at least in my experience, I don’t fully trust that type of celebration unless I trust that I’ve been fully seen, fully centered, fully held for who I am. And especially for my flaws: if all you see is my successes and the good I do for others… then you don’t really see all of me. I can’t let it land, for I fear that the celebration might be conditional: if you see the rest of me, will you still celebrate me?
For me celebration is the context at present where I can allow myself to receive… though I aspire to get to a place where I can relax into receiving without relying on the crutch of a once-a-year birthday. The most touching gifts I’ve received are those that celebrate me as I want to be celebrated: where people see me as I aspire to be seen. Where the words and care of others explode the stories I hold and allow me to believe that others do want to visit my island… and that my island is a place worthy of celebration, where others can feel like they belong without being cowed/turned away by my too much-ness.
Hitting the pleasure ceiling
So… this is what it means to receive: these are the conditions precedent. I have made great progress here, particularly around trusting others to be able to show up for me. In my past I was (and likely still am in my less-self-aware moments) guilty of what Marcia Baczynski calls “desire smuggling”:
Hiding what you really want from yourself and/or a loved one, then finding covert strategies to get (at least pieces of) what you want.
Yes: that has definitely been my tried and not-so-true strategy for meeting my needs… in large part because I didn’t trust others to be able to meet them if I made clear requests. Yes/and, a more honest statement: because I had a hard time tolerating the vulnerability of acknowledging my own needs, and then making the requests (asking, in order that I might receive).
But that still leaves me the responsibility to accept these offerings: to allow myself to be seen, centered, held, chosen, and celebrated. This is why Betty Martin calls it “accepting”: we have to let the gifts land. We have to feel them. This is where I still struggle the most: I can hear the compliment, but can I let it land? I can read the birthday card, but can I allow the words to touch me? Can I allow myself to experience the pleasure of receiving? This is what Betty Martin calls the “pleasure ceiling.” She explains:
Your pleasure ceiling is the point just behind which lies your shame, guilt, tenderness, gratitude, and your tears. You are going to hit that. Everyone has one.
This concept is called “positive affect tolerance.” Kim Tallbear defines it simply as:
Learning how to be with yourself when you're happy.
I take solace and inspiration in how easily my children revel in their joy and pleasure: it reminds me that receiving is our natural state. That it is only the crushing weight of systems of oppression that rob us of our pleasure, and our right to receive. And therefore that we can re-cultivate that capacity that has been stolen from us.
We all run into the pleasure ceiling for different reasons. For me the hardest thing about receiving is trusting that the giver is acting from a place of full desire and/or willingness. I have had the repeated experience in my life of people self-abandoning to attempt to meet my needs: because of patriarchy, because of white supremacy, because of the myriad ways that we are all socialized not to stand in our truths or trust ourselves. So when a gift is offered to me, I have to look closely at the giver: are they giving from a grounded place? Is their bucket full, or will this act deplete them? I don’t want to be sacrificed for: I want to be given to.
For me this is part of the gift: for me not to have to extend that care, to relax my hypervigilance long enough to allow a (temporary!) one-way flow of care… taking place inside a container of interdependence, mutual care, and consent. I will be practicing this week!
Let me close here. Thanks for listening (for holding space!) in this forum. I’m curious what resonates for you, what challenges you experience, and what resources you’ve found most helpful in your own work (re)learning how “to receive.” If you want to deepen into these inquiries and build belonging in a small group space, please consider a gift subscription to this newsletter (more practice for me to receive! 😬) and join our gathering on June 13th.