If you’re the lucky recipient of a gift, how do you receive it? Get it wrong, and the whole exchange is soured.
You’d think it was easy, but gift giving is often a fraught affair, hedged round with expectations and social norms. Some people don’t know how to give; others never learn to give. Even when we’re following that golden rule, it can still fail.
During a writing group meeting, I once complimented a writer on her dialogue, which flowed on the page with the polished elegance that comes from a finely tuned ear. She smiled uncertainly and protested that it wasn’t that good – at all.
So we both felt bad. She felt undeserving of something good, and I felt as though she had thrown my words away. What made her react like that?
Given But Not Taken
Gracious acceptance is an art – an art which most never bother to cultivate. We think that we have to learn how to give, but we forget about accepting things, which can be much harder than giving…. Accepting another person’s gift is allowing him to express his feelings for you. Alexander McCall Smith
I’m certain that my writer friend would never throw a physical gift on the ground and walk away. But in refusing to accept the intangible gift of praise, she essentially did just that.
When parents and caregivers teach us to be polite, they leave out the most important skill in receiving. Politeness hides many a scowl of anger and disappointment, and its lack of authenticity is obvious even when cloaked in smiles and happy words.
The art of receiving a genuine gift (or even a fake one) is in understanding that when a gift is given it must also be taken. Both sides are necessary.
Learn to give without strings. A gift with conditions is at best a loan of something the giver still controls.
The art of receiving a gift is first in feeling worthy enough to be given something, and second in expressing genuine gratitude.
When given a compliment, are you:
embarrassed because you don’t deserve praise,
suspicious of their motives because they must want something from you, or
angry because they’re clearly mocking you?
These emotions have their roots in old programming and/or traumatic events that you’re holding on to in the present.
Think back to the last such encounter and examine your feelings. There’s often an old memory attached that still shapes your behaviour in the present. Perhaps you were taught that taking things was selfish, accepting praise was a sin of pride, or simply that compliments weren’t for people like you.
To rewrite this script, here is one thing you need to accept about yourself.
You are worthy.
You are good enough, so is your work, and you deserve the rewards you receive. Whether it’s a yummy cupcake, a well-written report, or a project delivered on budget and on time. So accept that compliment. If you refuse it either outright or by deflection, you hurt both parties.
As interactions become more transactional and less genuine, dysfunctional gifting can be seen as a microcosm of a wider problem. When your gift is covertly rejected, you become cynical. There seems no point in giving, so you restrict yourself to exchanges that directly benefit you in some tangible way. When you refuse a gift, you replay an old script that says you are unworthy. You add to your burden of self-doubt.
The donor is hurt because rejection robs them of the pleasure of giving. You hurt yourself because you reinforce old lies that whisper you shouldn’t have nice things. And an exchange that could start to heal those wounds is wasted.
Take The Box
After all, you must have a capacity to receive, or even omnipotence can’t give. CS Lewis
It’s easy to fall into a trap of feeling under-appreciated while simultaneously refusing credit where it’s due. Hidden under the guise of humility or self-deprecation, this form of self-sabotage eats away at self-esteem unseen. It’s time to find a better way.
Next time someone says something good about you, remember you’re being offered a gift. Don’t walk away or bad-mouth it. You know how you’d like your gift to be received. Make eye contact, smile and thank the giver sincerely. There’s no need to explain more. Don’t follow up with how hard you found it, or minimise your efforts. Don’t give away the gift by saying anyone could have done it.
There is no giving without taking. They complement and define each other.
Stay in the moment and acknowledge the gift. When you do that, you honour both the giver and receiver. That’s the gift you give back.
What’s the one thing that you and every other writer want?
You might answer money, fame, critical acclaim, autonomy, or something else. All these boil down to one need: validation. As humans and creatives, we want to feel that we matter, that our work matters, that we have made a mark, no matter how small or fleeting.
Too often you don’t get it.
Your spouse ignores your attempts to find writing time by making endless domestic demands.
Your friend laughs when you confide that you want to see your book made into a movie.
You read over what you wrote, and it’s so far from the standard of your favourite author that you want to toss the laptop out of the window.
You brood, become irritable and defensive and indulge in mindless TV or ice-cream or gin. Anger simmers under skin that seems to get thinner every day. Your writing stumbles and you can’t get going again but what does it matter? It’s not like it means anything to anyone.
Internal validation is rooted in strong self-esteem. You set your own performance standards and you live by them, and the approval of others is less important than your own. While it’s helpful to get support from others, you don’t rely on it completely. You look inwards for the strength to deal with your own issues. You’ll run with the pack if the pack is running your way, but you’re okay with being on the margins sometimes.
External validation is rooted in strong social instincts. Harking back to a time when acceptance by the pack was literally a life or death matter, you seek to conform to what’s expected in your social group. You look outwards and rely on the feedback of others to judge your performance against an accepted standard. You’ll stay in the centre of the pack where it is safest.
Both of these styles can coexist, where they apply to different areas of life. So you might be entirely happy with your professional performance where you have confidence in your abilities, but less certain when it comes to your creative skills.
Sources of validation will vary based on these different styles because what works for one will not suit another.
Few people would turn away from external success, but for some, it comes at too high a cost. The familiar sad sight of a celebrity imploding despite fame and fortune has many causes, but failed internal validation is one. The star has everything she wants except her own approval, and all too often no idea how to get it.
Western society prizes autonomy and a strong sense of self. Look at all the movies with a lone hero, doing what he knows is right and to hell with the system. From John McClane to Jack Reacher to Jason Bourne, they cut through the knot of expectation with their sword of conviction.
But society prizes conformity even more. The social death heralded by no likes on your latest Instagram post is for many people equivalent to the actual death of being banished from the tribe. We are encouraged to post and share, then wait for the dopamine hit from likes, claps, and comments. Since the hit is fleeting we do it again, a never-ending cycle to feed a hunger that can’t be sated.
Whether at high school or work, you know that conforming is generally easier. Nobody will ask you to justify sticking to the status quo. You’ll get along just fine without having to explain why you don’t watch that one show everyone’s talking about, and then why you don’t have a TV…
Media holds up examples of overachieving, internally validated heroes, and at the same time demands worship at the altar of extreme external validation. It’s no wonder we’re confused about what’s important.
The internally validated person is more in control. They weather the ups and downs of life better, not because they have fewer storms, but because they trust their ability to survive them.
The externally validated person, however, has a shaky sense of self-worth. All is fine until they don’t get the answer they expect and need. A negative or missing answer leads to feelings of shame, guilt, loneliness, anxiety and so on. Managing these feelings leads to dysfunctional behaviour, and their weak boundaries result in a spectrum of responses ranging from extreme people-pleasing to narcissism.
Of course, we don’t live in a vacuum and we write to connect. There’s nothing wrong with wanting praise and positive reactions from others sometimes. But if that’s your only way to feel good about yourself, then you need to work on gaining approval from the one person who truly matters.
Remember, you have been criticizing yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens. Louise L. Hay, You Can Heal Your Life
Writing is a solitary business until we look for external acclaim, and then we feel exposed and vulnerable. But it’s possible to get what we need without being completely overwhelmed by forces we can’t control.
To escape the trap of external validation, you need to pay attention. Instead of simply reacting to events, start to notice your inner world and slowly refocus your response.
Notice your body
It’s easy to get caught up in sensations of stress: racing heart, dry mouth, nausea, shaky hands, and tight chest. Stress hormones coursing through your veins distract you from thinking clearly, instead flooding your lizard brain with three options; fight, flight or freeze. None of these are helpful in modern life.
Before you distract yourself from how you feel physically or try to make the sensations go away, take a deep breath, and another. You might feel threatened, but the cause isn’t an actual threat to your immediate survival. Slow down, allow your thinking brain to regain control.
Notice your achievements
Many of us go through life still looking for a pat on the head and a cookie from some parental figure. Part of growing up is realising that we have to be both parent and child, and award ourselves our own approval.
You probably have no difficulty beating yourself up over imagined shortcomings. What if you gave yourself praise too? Stick to those things within your control. Acknowledge that you hit your word count or finished a task. Let go of the external response to those tasks for now, because that’s not under your control.
Without being arrogant, give yourself credit for what you’ve done well. Write it down, give yourself a gold star.
Notice your emotions
Properly channeled emotion can inform your writing and give it power. Unregulated emotion, however, is the enemy of creativity.
Take a moment to recognise your feelings. Try not to judge by saying that feeling angry is bad, for example. Each emotion has its place, and it’s how you choose to respond that defines your experience of the world.
You might just feel ‘bad’. Sit with that feeling until it becomes more defined. Bad as in angry, lonely, hurt, anxious? They aren’t interchangeable, and neither are the solutions. Ask yourself questions until you’re certain of the feeling. Write about it in your journal.
Then ask yourself, “what do I need?” Treat yourself as gently as you would a child. You deserve no less. If your instinct is to run away from difficult emotions and numb them, sit with them longer. Work it out in your art, take a walk, pray, meditate, give yourself time.
The next step is to find a way to give yourself what you ask for, whether that is attention, positive affirmations, or simple recognition.
Notice what you give away
If you’re a caregiver by nature or training, you may be out of touch with your own emotions. You’ve learned to react to other people’s feelings and ignore yours. Notice what you offer people because that is very often what you need for yourself.
You offer to be a beta reader, give thoughtful comments, and write a nice review on every book, all the while waiting for others to do the same for your story. You’re friendly to that person hovering on the margins of the writing group because you hope someone will give you acceptance in return.
You’re generous with your time and knowledge, and you swallow the disappointment of finding that people take without giving back. Recovering from this feels a lot like selfishness. But remember the airline safety briefing?
Put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.
In fact caring for yourself first allows you to offer more service without becoming exhausted. The more you have, the more you can give others. You don’t become selfish: you simply put yourself on equal footing with others.
When anyone starts out to do something creative – especially if it seems a little unusual – they seek approval, often from those least inclined to give it. But a creative life cannot be sustained by approval, any more than it can be destroyed by criticism – you learn this as you go on. Will Self
You write and you want to get better, so you seek feedback and hope for a positive response to your writing. That’s a proper route to improvement but should form only a part of your validation process.
When you grow used to the idea and practice of self-approval, a strange thing happens. As you become more comfortable in your own skin, others start to give what you once yearned for. You’re less needy and less inclined to fish for compliments. When you get one, you can accept it gracefully because it aligns with your internal map. And if you don’t get one, that’s okay too.
Family members can be the worst for refusing to give up their idea of you as a child, or a beginner, or something else. A person with self-approval accepts that and goes on their way. Maybe your mother doesn’t think art is a suitable pursuit for you. Maybe your friend thinks writing is not for people like you.
When you are internally validated, you accept their views without letting them derail you. It can feel strange to receive something you dreamed of yet truly not need it for your peace of mind. The freedom that comes from being independent of external opinion is intoxicating.
As long as you remain open-minded and avoid arrogance, you’ll find that your approval is the only thing you need to keep walking your path, sharing what only you can give to the world.