Maybe it's the extra water I've been drinking. Maybe it's the Saturday night pore-cleansing mask. Or perhaps it's the hot yoga (detox, baby). Whatever it is, my skin is the clearest it's been in years.
"Girl, your skin looks great," my friends say over generous glasses of red wine.
These compliments make my heart smile. Still, my responses run the unhealthy gamut:
"Must be the makeup." Deflection.
"My skin doesn't compare to that dress you are wearing. Where did you get that?" Reciprocation.
"You should see the pimple on my chin," I say as I point. "Don't you see these circles under my eyes? I even forgot to wash the makeup off my face last night. Chalk this up to the luck of the Irish." Discounting.
As we gear up for yet another holiday season filled with heartfelt expressions of love, gratitude, platitudes, and gift-giving, I've come to realize that one of the reasons this time of year is so fraught with stress for me: I'm an excellent gift-giver, but I'm quite possibly world's most awful gift-receiver.
It's not that I'm not grateful. Generally — except for the year my entire family gave me an appropriate-for-work black skirt — my family makes good gift choices.
Despite my mindfulness work, I still have a hard time being in the present. Basking in pure, in-the-moment joy is scary. I know, I know: Live in abundance. But once unadulterated happiness is out there, I can't help think it will be snatched back. And that's more painful than not receiving anything at all.
"When you don't know how to receive, you are effectively shutting people out of your life," said Center City author Suzann Pileggi Pawelski, who, with her husband, James O. Pawelski, cowrote Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts.
Through her research, Pawelski discovered that receiving is harder than giving. Who knew?
"It's related to being vulnerable," Pawelski said. "One has to be open to receive, and it's scary to be open."
During the holidays, Pawelski said, we find ourselves sitting around the Thanksgiving table and Christmas tree, giving gifts and going through the motions without realizing we could take this time to strengthen our relationships. We just want to get by and not disappoint. And even when we aren't thrilled about what we are getting, we blurt out a thank-you and reach for our own gift to avoid awkward moments.
The problem, Pawelski said, is we often don't fool our loved ones. They can tell when we are faking it, and they shut down. The once-open-hearted givers become cold-hearted resenters, and those chasms are made wider by obligation and inauthenticity.
"If you aren't receiving gratitude well, it shuts down the dance," Pawelski said. "[In every relationship], there is a person who leads or gives, and a person who follows and receives. But both sides of the dance are important. You may not intend to shut down your mom, your lover, or your friend with a lukewarm thank-you. But by being a bad receiver, you close the door to a more meaningful relationship instead of opening it and walking in deeper."
What should you do when fear of vulnerability threatens to rob you of the joy of receiving, like the Grinch who stole Christmas? Instead of turning to gut reaction like deflection ("Oh, you shouldn't have!"), reciprocation ("Here is my gift") or straight-up discounting ("I really don't deserve this"), Pawelski suggests we take a deep breath and implement one of these joyous options. After all, we deserve it.
Accept it. It may be seem like the basic, straightforward response, but we rarely call upon it. "Just pause, look into the gift-giver's eye, and say, 'Thank you,' Pawelski advises. "Not 'thank you, but …' just, 'Thank you.' " In the ensuing moments, she says, the awkwardness will melt away, replaced with a genuine smile.
Amplify it. This, Pawelski said, requires the receiver to to sit in gratitude for a while. Instead of coming back with a bigger gift or a nicer compliment, take a minute and explain to the gift-giver why this particular cozy sweater was perfect for you. "This enters into a deeper level of vulnerability," Pawelski said. "But by expressing your truths, you are doing the groundwork for a more authentic relationship."
Advance it. Take your gratitude a step further and explain to the gift-giver why this particular gift — whether it's a journal, adult coloring book, or pedicure set — will help you be your best self. And how these items will force you to take time for yourself, something you never get in the busy get-up-and-go lifestyle. "By relaxing the barriers and really sharing your honesty, you can connect deeper," Pawelski said.
That's the ultimate payoff of a healthy relationship.
That's all well and good, you are thinking, but what if you just don't like the gift? Why express gratitude for something when you don't want it? Isn't that simply an inauthentic lie?
It all depends on who is doing the giving.
If a well-meaning coworker gives you yet another mug that has clearly been regifted, the best advice, Pawelski says, is to smile and say, "Thank you."
"It's more important to be grateful for the sentiment or the thought behind it than the actual gift," Pawelski said.
But if your husband keeps giving you the same pink cashmere sweater year after year, it's time to gently suggest now that he might want to switch up his game this Christmas.
If you don't, you will boil over with resentment, Pawelski said. "And that's a recipe for a gift-receiving disaster."
Pawelski's suggestions are not just for the holidays: It would behoove us to practice receiving year-round. So the next time someone says, "Elizabeth, your skin looks great!" I'll take a breath and simply say, "Thank you."