the secret power of receiving, connecting + being authentic
The other day I complimented a man on his ass. He is a close friend, we’d been talking about objectifying women versus objectifying men, I was feeling cheeky (no pun intended), and so as he turned away I said, sincerely, “You have a nice ass.”
“I know,” he said, without missing a beat.
I was surprised. I’d expected him to deflect the remark in some way, either by questioning (“You really think so?”) or negating (“You must be looking at somebody else”) or minimizing (“This silly old thing? I just found it in the closet this morning”).
Then I realized – putting aside the, ahem, possible inappropriateness of my comment – that I’d been expecting him to react the way women react to compliments in general.
We’re so awkward with praise that popular spiritual guru Gabrielle Bernstein did a HuffPo vlog on how to take a compliment.
Then again, a lot of compliments deserve to be negated or deflected or otherwise dismissed as empty, manipulative flattery. We can sense when someone is trying to maneuver us, even if we pretend to play along. We can seem accommodating even as our guard goes up. But does it have to be up all the time? Has it become that much of a kneejerk reaction, especially if we know the compliment is deserved?
When we practice false modesty, we’re not being authentic. And when we’re not being authentic (as men or as women), we’re disconnecting from other people and ourselves.
A genuine compliment, given freely and without agenda, is a gift. A gift is a powerful thing. It invokes the Law of Reciprocity. As Seth Godin points out, a gift is different from a transaction, because in a transaction we exchange equal value: I give you this, you give me that, we go our separate ways and don’t think twice.
When you give me a gift, you’re giving me more value than I’ve given you, which creates an imbalance between us. This leaves me with a nagging open loop, a sense of being in your debt (and in your power) — until I redress the imbalance by giving you something back. This could be as simple as an acknowledgement, a smile and a “thank you”.
Here’s the thing. Gift-giving feels good. It creates warm fuzzies all around: I see you, I recognize you, I validate you, I care.
So as we complete that loop of giving and receiving, we strengthen the bond of trust between us. This is the kind of goodwill that can create a friendship, a community, an entire economy. As Godin writes:
When done properly, gifts work like nothing else. A gift gladly accepted changes everything. The imbalance creates motion, motion that pushes us to a new equilibrium, motion that creates connection.
The key is that the gift must be freely and gladly accepted. Sending someone a gift over the transom isn’t a gift, it’s marketing. Gifts have to be truly given, not given in anticipation of a repayment. True gifts are part of being in a community (willingly paying taxes for a school you will never again send your grown kids to) and part of being an artist (because the giving motivates you to do ever better work).
We think of the act of receiving as a passive one, but it’s not. To receive is to open yourself up. You become like a vessel that catches the flow of energy – and shapes it, and redirects it (or kills it dead). Opening up to anything makes you vulnerable, which is why – as adults – we’re reluctant to do it. We have to trust that the energy coming at us is well-intended.
We also have to trust ourselves: our sense of judgment, yes, but also our sense of worth. If we don’t feel worthy to receive – because we’re (in our own minds) not thin enough or educated enough or rich enough or successful enough or smart enough or any other not-enough that preys on us and eats us up from inside – then we’ll not only close ourselves off, we won’t recognize the incredible things flowing toward us.
But if we can’t receive, if we can’t fill ourselves up – then we can’t give, either.
We can’t give what we don’t have. We can’t run for very long when we’re on empty.
I was recently at a Beyonce concert and then, not long after, the World Domination Summit hosted by Chris Guillebeau. Beyonce and Chris dwell within very different contexts, but there was a moment when Chris reminded me of Beyonce (even if she had about twenty remarkable costume changes and he, well, did not). At the end of their respective performances, both Beyonce and Chris were showered with applause, respect, appreciation, adoration (otherwise known as a standing ovation). Each of them stood there, onstage, and opened themselves up to the audience. They connected. They received. It was in the way they stood, chin lifted, arms relaxed, taking it in, taking us in, and the air crackled electric. I can’t imagine the moment would have been half so satisfying if they had waved us off, or run off the stage, or gone into hiding.
I see you. I recognize you. I validate you. I care.
It was a beautiful thing.