Why Can’t We Take a Compliment?

Do you remember (back to probably yesterday) when you paid someone a compliment and they tried to talk you out of it, as if you were about to adopt a pitbull or jump off a building?

Similar to, “Oh geez, thanks, BUT… you’ve got it all wrong. Have you really thought this through? I think you’re mistaken in your thought process and your assumptions. You’re talking a little crazy in fact. Let’s just slow it down here and change your perspective. Just hear me out before you do anything rash based on what you’re feeling right now or what you believe to be true. Ok, here goes. My blueberry pie was not the best, not even close. I know I really missed the mark. I didn’t even divine the recipe through hours of trial and error in kitchen aplomb and bicoastal ingredient procuration. In full disclosure, I got it off Pinterest. I’m a fake, a fraud. I was trying to pass that pie off as the real thing. And I get that you think it is but it’s not, it’s just not. I am in fact ridiculously terrible at baking. If that pie was any good at all it was just a fluke. A one-off. It’ll never happen again. I’m hanging up my apron. Burning it actually. All is lost. Make room on the ledge please, I’m jumping too.”

A slight exaggeration of the way some of us (Galop says all of us) react to compliments. Myself included. I do know how to respond properly when praised, and so do the rest of you. Say it with me now, “thank you.” Full stop. Two tiny, easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy words. So why the fuck is that so hard! I mean SO HARD?

I suspect this is largely a female phenomenon, but I haven’t done a dissertation on it or anything that would qualify me to make that assumption, so let’s just leave it as a suspicion for now. But beyond that, this practice we have of denying ourselves praise when we receive it, along with refusing to talk nicely to ourselves, stupefies me.

A decade ago I was at a weekend retreat with a group of women I served on a committee with and we did an exercise in team building. We each put our name on top of a sheet of paper and then passed it around to everyone in the group. Each person wrote what they valued or appreciated about the person whose name was on the paper and then folded it so their comments were hidden and passed it to the next person who would then do the same thing and so on.

Once everyone had written on each person’s paper, we took turns reading someone else’s paper aloud. The effect has never left me because it was the first time I can remember actually accepting a compliment and believing in its validity. Several people had said the same things about me, without being able to see what the others had written. So that meant they all actually believed what they wrote to be true, it wasn’t a coincidence or an, ‘I can’t think of something nice to say so I’ll just copy what she wrote’ scenario. I remember thinking, “well, if three people think I’m funny, than I must be funny.” But I had never thought of myself that way. Other compliments repeated were that I was loyal and not afraid to speak the honest truth.

If just one person had said one of these things about me I surely would have dismissed it as her just trying to be nice. But when several concurred it became easier for me to internalize the praise and believe in it. From that point on, I’ve been alternately fascinated and confused about why we believe negative thoughts and judgements about ourselves so readily but why it’s so hard for us to believe there is anything positive or redeeming about the person we are.

I can sit around all day long and tell you all the ways I’m the worst of the worst and all the things I should be working on to improve my personality and my behavior. But if you ask me to say something nice about myself I will sit there in resolved silence as if you work for the FBI and my lawyer said I shouldn’t talk to you. 1) Because I have a hard time believing good things about myself and c) because even if I could think of something positive to say, it feels prideful to praise myself out loud. I’m also sure that if I did, eyes would roll and heads would shake. To me it feels similar to strutting around like a peacock and shouting, “would you just look at my feathers, they are so INCREDIBLE!” While others are surely thinking, “um, yeah, you’re a peacock, sooooo the cool feathers? Yep, you’ve sure got ’em, and so do all the other peacocks.”

I think we struggle with accepting praise because we deal in absolutes. If we’re ever unkind, we don’t identify as kind. If we’re ever lazy or unmotivated, we don’t identify as ambitious. If we’re ever unsure or wavering, we don’t identify as confident. If we make a mistake as a mom or a spouse, we are sure we are the worst one ever. We forget or won’t accept that we are all of these things all at once but never absolutely one or the other. We’re heavy-handed with the condemnation but miserly with the grace. We need a reversal of fortunes.

How can we all get better at accepting heartfelt praise? After all, leopards can not change their spots. So true. And so it’s great that we are not leopards. We are free thinkers with free will and we can do whatever we set our minds to. I think good solid practice will help. Next time someone tells you something they like about you, look them straight in the eye and say this and only this, “this is really hard for me, nearly impossible in fact, but I hear you and I’m trying to internalize your words and really grab hold of them and accept them for truth and not refute them like I’ve done for most of my life. Wait for it, please, I’m really working hard here, I’m almost there, just not quite yet, one little more second, and ok I can say it now; thank you.”

Nah, JK! Just say, “thank you.” Full stop.

Try it please, and then try it again and again and again until it feels natural. If you need a little more incentive, try planning ahead to use each time you’re complimented by someone as a prompt to pay it forward and find someone else to say something appreciative to. If you do that,  just be prepared to hear some version of one of the monologues I put forth above in response. They might not be practicing yet like you are, to take that compliment and run like the wind with it. And if they respond with anything other than full acceptance and a heart-felt thank you, use that irritation you’ll feel from having your genuine sentiment unceremoniously drop-kicked like a giant pill that’s too hard to swallow as motivation to respond better to the praise you receive.

Kids will believe what we tell them. And this will help with the next generation of praise receivers. I can still recall my mom telling me over and over again as I was growing up how much she loved and valued that I was a leader and not a follower. I grew up believing I was a leader because she told me I was one. Looking back, I don’t know if she really thought I was a leader amongst my peers or if she just wanted me to be one so she told me I was. I suspect it was the latter and it doesn’t matter because the effect was the same. I believed it.

For a beyond beautiful demonstration of this practice, click here.

Because my mom told me I was a leader I tell my kids that they can do hard things. I want them to know they shouldn’t just get out when the going gets hard, they should stay put and do the hard. That’s where the gold is. The lesson, the learning, the growth, the prize; they’re all in the hard. I started telling them this before they could do hard, because I knew they would begin to believe they could. And now that I’ve seen them both do hard, over and over again, I keep on telling them they can do hard things but because now I know they can and I want them to know that I see them. I also tell them to get off their phones, express some gratitude for God’s sake, stop eating trash and quit using my last nerve like a trampoline or mama’s gonna knock you out! Because I like to keep it real real.



Featured image: Models and Macarons? blog https://goo.gl/images/pGfeiy * From the novel and motion picture; The Help

5 thoughts on “Why Can’t We Take a Compliment?

  1. I love your writing, Jodie! I love your humor. (And not just ‘cuz others have said it first!) 😉 I read something once that I copied down: “Author Sam Crabtree opens his book Practicing Affirmation with a strong statement: ‘If God is sovereign, and every good gift is from above, then not praising the good in others is kind of a sacrilege and soul-sickness.’ ” So maybe when we receive a compliment well we’re simply allowing others to praise God, in a way?


    1. I think I get it! When people compliment my hair, it’s easy for me to accept that kind of praise because I had nothing to do with my hair. God put it on my head and my hair stylist extraoridinare took it from there. So it always feels like a compliment for that dynamic duo, not for me, and I’m all for it. I just need to apply that thinking to all other compliments I receive as well, that the praise is for God, not for me, and I’ll be all good! Thanks, lady! 8 )


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.