To be a Gracious Receiver

In the past, I had written about being a gracious receiver. Many of us, especially women, were raised to be givers and didn’t learn how to receive. Unless we feel sufficiently secure in ourselves—with our weaknesses as much as our strengths—it’s easier to give because we get to assume the power position, while receiving requires us to be comfortable with being vulnerable.

giving and receivingTo be a conscious, empowered contributor to society, lopsided giving isn’t enough, even if gracious in nature, i.e., giving without expectations of getting anything back. It calls for gracious receiving as well. After all, giving and receiving are two equally indispensable parts that complete one of the cycles of life. We can’t have one without the other. There must be give and take, not just one or the other. We don’t necessarily need to give to the same person who gives us something, nor should we feel obliged to receive whatever is offered to us. Nonetheless, we must be comfortable with receiving that which we need and want.

Learning how to receive graciously and consistently is something I’ve been consciously working on for the past few years. Despite that, I was surprised of late at how much more comfortable I still am in the role of a giver than a receiver. As a case in point, recently, a colleague asked me how he could help, knowing that I’m still relatively new. I thanked him but told him I was good. Was I so self-sufficient that I couldn’t use help? Not at all. Did I think I knew it all and couldn’t accept help? Hardly. Rather, upon reflection, I realized that I really hadn’t given any thought to what I wanted to receive from others. Therefore, when asked how someone could help me, I completely drew a blank.

Can you relate to my experience? Is it easier for you to be the one to ask, “What can I do for you?” or “How can I help?” Does it tend to stump you when someone asks you those questions? What’s your typical answer? What may be the main reasons why it’s easier to give than to receive?

The Hat We Wear

When I thought about it, one of the reasons why I had a hard time assuming the receiver role at work is because I have been in a giver role all of my professional life: from being a professor turned consultant turned coach to now running an internal consulting function. To give you an idea, at my company’s recent leadership summit, there was a speed networking session. We were to get into groups of three and take turn introducing ourselves, our functions, and what we each could give to the other two members. It was a super-easy exercise for me, because my job, by definition, was to give and to serve. To further punctuate what’s often expected of my role, in one round of the speed networking, before I could even sit down, one person in the group took one look at me and said, “I know what you can give me!” Wait, wasn’t the instruction what she could give me, and not the other way around?

I realized that my professional identities over the years have deeply ingrained in me the default comfort with giving—above and beyond being socialized to be a giver as a female. Therefore, it’s almost jarring to me in the rare occasions when someone would turn the table and ask me what they could give me, even if I objectively could use the help. It’s as if I needed an organ transplant, but my body rejects the donor organ. When I stopped to think about it, this is pretty screwed up! Pardon the language, but saying it nicely simply doesn’t quite cut it here.

receiving giftKnow What We Want to Receive

To be able to answer the question of, “How can I help?” with anything other than, “I’m good,” I must be ready to say what I want/need. When I found myself stumped by the occasional offer of help, I realized that I didn’t know what I wanted to receive. Then, I realized—to my embarrassment—that it’s much easier to hide behind the mask of a giver. It absolves me of the responsibility to do the harder thing, i.e., to get clear on what I can’t do alone and to ask for help. While pride could be the reason someone hides behind giving, not being willing to be honest with ourselves could also be the reason for not knowing in what ways we could use a hand. In my case, the latter was the explanation for saying, “I’m good,” when offered help.

Pay It Forward

I used to hesitate to receive because I’d feel badly that I couldn’t return a favor. Then, I realized that the cycle of giving and receiving doesn’t need to involve the same pair of individuals switching roles as giver and receiver. That is, even if I couldn’t pay someone back for helping me, I could pay it forward and still fulfill the cycle and keep it going. I see this all the time, i.e., people hesitate to receive because they fear they don’t have anything to give back to the original giver. If I’m not careful, I could forget that refusing someone’s genuine giving cuts off the cycle of giving and receiving, and that all I really need to remember is to pay it forward.

To wrap it all up, while it may feel altruistic to be always the giver and never the receiver, refusing to receive for any reason—conscious or not—cuts off the circulation of good. I’d submit to you all that receiving carries equal value in our world as giving. To keep what’s good going, we need to be willing to be a gracious receiver as much as a generous giver.

So, what do you say? Do you agree that receiving is as important as giving? What reminds you to receive? Would love for you to share your insights and wisdom!


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About Alice Chan, Ph.D.

Dr. Alice Chan is passionate about developing conscious leaders and organizations. Her path to serve her life purpose has included being an award-winning Cornell professor and a leader in the corporate world for nearly 15 years. She’s the author of the book, REACH Your Dreams: Five Steps to be a Conscious Creator in Your Life, and creator of the program, 30 Days to Living Your Best Life. All content on this blog and website is her own, not the opinions of her employer.

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Hiten Vyas
Hiten Vyas

Hi Alice,

This was a really interesting post. Like you, I too am a giver and I've always found it harder to receive. Some of my difficulties with receiving stem from when I was younger and my self-esteem was low, and I used to believe I wasn't good enough to receive.

However, as you explained in your post, we need to be open to receiving. Otherwise, we prevent the natural cycle from turning.

Thank you.


Alice, you so often write on a subject I'm working on and this is definitely one of them! 

 I certainly don't want to eliminate men from this subject but I find this a huge issue for women. We are so good at giving we often exclude others from the joy giving brings. We don't mean to - we are just so programmed to take care of everyone its hard to let our walls down to be vulnerable. When I do all the giving I'm discovering that I'm really just protecting myself --it feels safer when I do the giving.

But I also know there is so much joy in giving every time I say, "I'm fine, but thank you anyway," I am essentially stopping someone from receiving that joy. When we receive help on any level, we are saying "YES" to the gift of giving and receiving. And as you said so beautifully - we pay it forward. Receiving and giving become one. I'm still a work in progress - but its becoming much easier to yes to receiving.

Thank you!


Lots in here to consider, Alice.   Like you, when I get the offer of help, I usually pass with a smile.  I rarely if ever even have a drink at someone's house I'm visiting for a short visit when they offer, I let them know I'm good!  Silly but in a small way illustrates the challenge of being the receiver and accepting care and support from others.  I think you're on to something that we need to know what we want before we can respond on the fly but we also have to be willing for just a moment to be vulnerable enough to breathe and accept the hand that's stretched out to us.  i'm learning! 

Love that you ended with pay it forward.  Beautiful!


Receiving with grace and humility is essential. At times, we get into this "rugged individualism" and, even though we need help (we need to receive), we close those doors. We don't ask for help. We are unwilling to receive, even though we need to. It is an odd thing because these very people are usually the first ones to give. A balance is needed as we all need to receive something at some time. Thanks, Alice.

DrAliceChan moderator

@karenjolly I'm so with you, Karen! When we say "I'm good," we deny another's pleasure of giving to us. Also agree that giving is a defense as well, unless it's truly and genuinely gracious, not because who we are is defined by being needed, which feeds the perpetual one-sided giving and inability to receive. Always good to see you here, Karen, and grateful to you for sharing your experience and wisdom!

DrAliceChan moderator

@AlliPolin Thanks, Alli. Yes, receiving really does require us to know what we want to receive, in addition to being willing to be in the vulnerable position of receiving, instead of the power position of giving. It isn't an easy thing to get comfortable with, if we haven't learned how to receive until later in life. Thank you for joining this conversation!

DrAliceChan moderator

@ThinDifference "Rugged individualism" is a great way to put it, Jon. Balance is indeed called for here, so is receiving with humility and grace. Thanks!

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