by Jen Violi
“Let them love you. Go out and let yourself receive. In the grocery store, at the bank, in your neighborhood. Wherever you are.”
I cried that July morning when I read the note from my friend and mentor Susan, and I took her advice. In fact, her advice has been what’s sustained me since, in business and beyond. When I received Susan’s words, I had just moved across the country from Maryland to Oregon, and, within the span of a month, I’d lost both my marriage and my job. The only person I knew in Portland was a college theatre buddy I hadn’t been in touch with for fourteen years.
I spent hours a day crying—in the shower, out on walks, in the middle of the night waking up to realize that my sad, scary nightmare was actually happening. Instead of enjoying the summer sun, I found it terribly disrespectful, like a clown at a funeral. With each thing I did for the first time alone, with each memory, a new crack zigzagged across my heart, even after I was certain there were no places left for it to break.
To say I was a mess would be a bit of an understatement. Until I lost the steady paycheck and the husband, I hadn’t realized how much my identity was wrapped up in both. Who was I without all of that? What was left? Well, enough of me that was able to take good advice. Let them love you.
Before I moved, another friend in Maryland had suggested I get in touch with her friend Brenda when I got to Portland. Although I felt like hiding from the world, I knew I needed live human contact. I knew I needed to let them love me. “Call her,” I encouraged myself. “She might think you’re an emotional swamp monster, but what do you have to lose?” Nothing, it turned out. From that first forty-five minute conversation, in which we laughed and I cried and I did not scare her away with my heartache, I had found my first Portland kindred spirit.
Brenda welcomed me into her book group, her women’s circle, on outings, and to parties. She introduced me to her office mate, who became my acupuncturist and friend. When I launched my business that first fall in Portland, Brenda was one of my biggest advocates—coming to writing retreats, spreading the word about my work, rooting for and affirming me, connecting me with potential clients for private editing work.
And Brenda wasn’t the only one. That first year or two, as I healed from major loss and took on major growth, I found myself swimming in the generosity of so many people who buoyed both my heart and my work. Of course, all of these people were and are inherently kind, compassionate, and generous. They gave whole-heartedly. Almost seven years later, reflecting on that, the tears fill my eyes and the left side of my chest softens with gratitude.
At the same time, generosity cannot exist as a one-sided deal. Generosity has to be received. That meant that for it to work, I had to play my part. That meant saying, “Yes, I could use that” and “Thank you” and “I can’t do it alone” more than was comfortable. That meant regular shots of humility, vulnerability, and honesty. So many of us are ashamed of our brokenness, which you know, is also known as our humanity. We hide it. Women in particular learn early that to succeed, you must never let them see you sweat, or cry, or bleed. Make it look effortless. Put on your happy face. And absolutely never admit that once a month you might need to rest quietly on the couch for a few days because you’re losing blood, for goddess’ sake. Just buck up and get out there and smile with those perfectly painted lips. Ugh.
Now I’m not saying that unabashed weeping or revealing every intimate detail of your humanity is always good business, but it can be. The part of it that involves authenticity certainly is. I’m also not saying we must play the damsel in distress, that we must embody some distorted helpless female archetype. Graciously receiving help, acknowledging your own strengths and limits, showing up in emotional truth, and being open to the notion that others have something valuable to offer are not signs of being helpless. So what are they? Generous acts. I now realize that Susan’s advice to me back in 2009 was not just about receiving; it was also about giving.
Let them love you. Which also means, let them see you. Let them know you. Let them share with you. Let them shine. Let yourself be part of the dance of giving and receiving. Be willing to lead and to follow. So in this moment, if you’re up for receiving a challenge, an encouragement, here’s one from me to you: How might you apply “let them love you” to your work this week? Give yourself the chance to receive, and perhaps also to be generous in unexpected ways. And watch the wonders unfold.