I have never liked getting compliments. Well, that’s not entirely true. What I don’t like is the immediate experience of receiving a compliment. I find myself trapped, like an ant beneath a magnifying glass, in the bright focus of another person’s goodwill or admiration. All I want to do then is scuttle away to safety.
As the poet Blake says, “We are put on earth a little space, that we may learn to bear the beams of love.” I suck at this. Mightily. I haven’t got enough emotional SPF. I live in constant fear of being exposed as the repulsive human I am. The one with the bad temper and the shriveled soul who sometimes glories in snark and gossip. The one who would eat nothing but potato chips and frosting if not for the fear of adult onset diabetes. The one who is always impatient and scared and tired. The one who sees every sag and wrinkle and lump and gray hair when she looks at herself through her funhouse mirror eyes. The one who is selfish and an expert at hurling words like sharpened stones. The one who thinks her biggest talent is fooling people into believing she has any.
A friend posted a link to this blog about a woman struggling to accept that her husband really does think she’s beautiful, and it made me think of every conversation I have had with my husband on this subject. Do you know the worst, most insulting thing you can do to someone who genuinely loves you and is telling you so? Ask them why. After years of therapy, I’ve fought my way through the brambles of self-doubt into a clear space where I can see, for a few feet in every direction, that this is wrong and hurtful.
“Why do the opinions of strangers matter more to you than what I think?” my husband asked me once. “Why can’t you believe that I see you?” He was angry, and he had every right to be. Poor self-esteem turns you into an asshole.
When I was a child, I was taught to say thank you whenever I received a gift, unless that gift was a compliment. In that case, the protocol was to say thank you but then immediately minimize the praise with a disclaimer (“Oh, it was nothing”) or make a joke. It’s not like anyone ever sat down and told me this is what we do. But it’s what we did. Every Sunday in church, I told Jesus I was unworthy to receive him, and the truth of that soaked into my still-growing bones. I read the story of the Ugly Duckling and dreamed of the day I would emerge, swanlike, from my awkward, bucktoothed, pimply shell, but I never did feel that I turned into a swan. I just learned how to impersonate one – a weirdo in swan drag.
I don’t blame religion or my parents or my culture or glossy magazines or my wonky brain chemistry. The why doesn’t matter to me. My insides were perforated like one of those plastic bags in the grocery store that grapes come in, and they couldn’t hold anything for very long. Not love, not trust, not confidence. Maybe I was born that way, or maybe I sustained the punctures over time. I don’t know.
First, I had to admit that the holes were there. That part of my journey happened in my late 20s and early 30s. Then, I went about the messy process of mending the holes with sticky tape and chewing gum and lots of self-examination. I read books. I went to therapy. I took medicine. I let myself be loved by my husband and children and friends. I went for long walks. I wrote. I am not so leaky as before, but my default reaction to an in-my-face compliment is still fear.
I am trying to change that. I want to be graceful. Full of grace. I don’t mean the kind of grace where you move elegantly, although that would be nice, too. I mean the grace of letting in gifts and blessings. That kind of grace cannot be earned; it can only be accepted. I want to let myself feel satisfied and deserving. I’m no longer the person who would only allow her body have 300 calories a day, but my heart is too skinny. It needs to eat.
So do you know what I did? I challenged myself to go an entire week simply accepting compliments. If anyone said anything nice to me, I had to say thank you and leave it at that. No explaining, no verbal tap-dancing, no self-effacing jokes.
It. Was. Excruciating. I’m the sort of person who, when you say you like my dress, I have to tell you that I bought it for $5 at Ross. I use the words “just” and “only” a lot. I have Captain America level deflection skills.
Here’s what I learned:
When I get a compliment, I start to leave my body. Whether it’s my husband looking me in the eyes and telling me that I am beautiful or a good wife or that I am amazing or it’s a friend leaving me a voice message about how much she loves me or a stranger telling me something I wrote touched him – it makes no difference. I start floating away. I don’t want to stay in that uncomfortable moment because my holey insides tell me that these people aren’t talking about me. They’re talking about my swan drag. They’ve bought into my act. Suddenly, I’m not thinking about this human being in front of me, I’m thinking about all the things I think they don’t know about me. I’m reliving past fuckups or worrying about future ones. I’m through the looking glass. It’s extremely rude and self-absorbed, actually.
In order to stay put, I have established some ground rules:
1. No laughing. Apparently, I laugh a lot for no damn reason, and it’s usually an attempt to diffuse inner tension. It’s weird and annoying. I’m now hyper-aware of it. I’m not sure this hyper-awareness is a good thing, but it helps me notice how often I try to laugh off a compliment.
2. No explaining. The person complimenting me is not confused. I am not allowed to devalue what they are saying by giving them more information to see if they’ll change their mind.
3. No asking why. People do not need to justify their kindness to me.
4. No changing the subject. I have to sit with my squirmy self and breathe and listen.
5. No talking after “thank you.” Unless it’s to say thank you again.
6. Maintain contact. If the person is present, I have to look them in the eye. This is MUCH harder than you think. If I am on the phone or listening to their message, I have to focus on his or her voice. If it’s a written communication, I have to read his or her words without trying to formulate a response. I’ve found this takes a lot of energy, and it does, in fact, cause me anxiety, but it is not unmanageable.
I don’t know if it will ever feel natural to me to accept a compliment. I’m not a born compliment-accepter. However, I think I can learn. I keep my sticky tape handy, and I remind myself that I want to be a kind person. A kind person allows others to be kind to her.
Photo credit: “Fluffy” by Scott Cresswell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.