I Had To Learn To Receive Before I Could Learn To Ask

I’ve been leaning into some edges lately and learning how to ask people for help.

Specifically, asking people I don’t know well for things has been a difficult thing for me. It’s been coming up since I’ve been on tour for The Ultimate Guide to Prostate Pleasure because I’ve asked a few people I didn’t know all that well if I could stay at their places when I was in town. I’ve needed to keep this tour on a tight budget and not paying for hotels has made a big difference. Plus, it’s more fun to stay with awesome people, to see a side of their cities that I wouldn’t have if I’d been on my own, and to get to know them and their families better. But it’s definitely an edge for me.

Asking for what I want and need has been one of my challenges ever since I was a kid, for several different reasons. Changing my relationship to that has been a slow process, mostly because I had a lot of anticipatory shame around it. Anticipatory shame is when you expect or anticipate being rejected or shamed for something, so you hold back from doing it. It can have a deep impact on any of our relationships, especially because even acknowledging it or talking about it can trigger it. So I used to have a lot of fear around asking for help or for favors if I thought it might be inconvenient for the other person or if I wasn’t really sure they’d say yes.

I’d been looking for ways to change that for a while, and having some success, when I attended a workshop with Thorn Coyle. She compared giving and receiving to pouring water out of a pitcher or filling it up. A lot of people pour and pour their energy out without asking anyone to return the favor. And she pointed out that when we do that, we refuse them the opportunity to give back. When we we do that, we take away their ability to experience the joys of giving. It really struck me when Thorn said that when we can receive, we give people the chance to have pleasure of giving. After all, I enjoy giving people things they enjoy, so why was I refusing others the opportunity to do that with me?

That took quite a while to really sink in for me because of all of the anticipatory shame I had around asking. But there were three things that helped me change that.

First, I had to learn to receive verbal appreciation. I stopped spinning my wheels when a friend got fed up with my deflecting her compliments and told me that when I did something great, she would repeat her compliment until I said “thank you,” rather than minimizing it or changing the subject. The first time out, it took a few tries before I could even get the words out, and even then, I was bright red from embarrassment and couldn’t look her in the eye. Two definite signs of shame.

The second is that my partner started helping me learn to receive gifts and acts of service without expecting that there would be strings attached. That was a difficult one for me because part of me insisted that I needed to keep score in order to make sure that we were even. Until I learned that she truly enjoys doing things for me, and understood that my resistance to that had felt like a rejection to her, I didn’t see that by trying to avoid my anticipatory shames, I was creating more disconnection in our relationship. Allowing myself to receive was scary because it felt so vulnerable. Fear of shame is one of the things that keeps us from stepping into vulnerability. And the only way to build a relationship is to make room for vulnerability. It took a lot to trust both my partner and myself, and to learn to accept what she offered.

The third big piece for me has been learning how to ask without having an attachment to the answer. One tool that made that easier was figuring out how to integrate consent into my request. While that’s certainly a great skill to use around sex, that’s not the only place it can be useful. I like to start with an “if” statement before I state my request. For example:

If you’re in the mood, I’d like to go get some dinner.
If you’re up for it, I’d enjoy kissing you.
If you’ll be around and it’s not a hassle, may I stay at your house?

Making it clear that the other person’s consent is the foundation of my statement or request gives them the room and the permission to say yes or no, to make a counteroffer, or to ask for more information. And having the tools to ask for things so that the other person has that freedom helps me feel more comfortable because I can trust that they won’t say yes and silently resent me for asking. It’s amazing how much that helps me lean into those edges.

Even so, I’ve noticed how scary it’s been for me to ask folks if I can stay with them if I don’t know them really well. I can much more easily trust my close friends to tell me what their availability is, and anyway, I know they enjoy my company. It’s when I ask the people I don’t know as well that this really comes up. And the more I explore my discomfort around it and ask, the more amazing experiences I’ve had. I’ve deepened some of my connections from acquaintances into solid friendships. I’ve seen a different side of some folks whom I’d only ever seen at conferences or big events. And I’ve had a lot of fun doing it.

It’s been an interesting thing. I had to learn how to receive before I could learn how to ask. In a way, that makes sense, but it’s certainly ironic. I was fortunate to have a friend and a partner who saw what I needed and could help me grow into it. And as a sex educator, I have to wonder how often my colleagues and I are going about it backwards. We often tell people that sex works best when you can ask for what you want, and that’s absolutely true. But I can’t help but think that we sometimes forget that not only are there a lot of reasons for people to have difficulty asking, there are also a lot of reasons people have difficulty opening up to receiving, to trusting another person’s offerings, to allowing ourselves the freedom to accept them. And until we have developed some capacity for that, how in the world can we expect ourselves to ask for what we want?

It takes practice to be able to receive with grace and with gratitude. Learning how to do that and building shame resilience has given me some wonderful opportunities that I wouldn’t have had if I’d held myself back. If you find it challenging, try and see if there are ways to explore your edges around it. The rewards will be well worth it.