~ Guest Writer, Dr. Elvira G. Aletta, PhD. ~
5 Tips on how to Receive the Gift of A Compliment
You just finished a conversation with a colleague, student, friend. You are both quietly wrapping up, gathering your stuff when she blurts out: “I think you are awesome. You always take the time to listen. You let me think for myself. You are so supportive. Thank you.”
When we are blind-sided by positive stuff, too often we aren’t any less dumbstruck than if it were a slap to the face. Suddenly facing an altruistic compliment can throw us into just as heightened a state of anxiety. Our first reaction is to push it away. Deny, deny, deny. This isn’t happening. That person doesn’t know what they are talking about. I fooled them! Stop it. Just shut up.
But we know that wouldn’t be nice so we say “Thank you” even though inside we are feeling really, really weird.
Am I required to say something nice back to them now? I wasn’t ready for this. No one told me there would be a test. Damn!
Yeah, life is full of these situations no one prepared us for.
How to receive the gift of a compliment is one of those things that got pushed to the back of the Life’s Lessons queue along with how to gracefully leave someone’s apartment after an unplanned sleepover. Things your parents didn’t teach you.
We think of gifts as being transactional, which in psychology just means involving more than one person. There’s the giver and the receiver. Both have a role. The giver gets to feel generous, loving, selfless, delight in pleasing someone they care about. What does the receiver get? Stuff?
I always felt the receiver had the harder job. They have to take whatever is given and like it. Whether it’s broccoli or diamonds, we’re supposed to smile and say “Oh my god, I love it! Thank you.” Followed by a kiss or hug and/or a sincerely written note of appreciation. That’s a lot of work!
But it’s nothing compared to taking a compliment.
Why should we take a compliment? Because it is food for our self-esteem bones. Let’s be clear, a genuine compliment is not empty praise or flattery. We’re talking about the real thing: a reflection of truth. It just happens to be very nice truth, positive truth, the kind of truth that holds up in court.
“Did Jane provide you with feedback that was accurate and helpful in a kind and generous manner, all the while looking fantastic?”
“Yes, sir, she did.”
“I rest my case!”
So why is it so hard to allow a compliment to sink in?
In my case, I was clearly taught that the best way to deal with compliments was to deflect and deny. My mom had this skill down! By direction and example, I learned that compliments were to be handed back as if delivered to the wrong address. “You’re so pretty.” “Oh no, if it weren’t for makeup I’d be a zombie. Susan is pretty!”
On a more serious note, withholding positive feedback is a kind of abuse.
Abuse by neglect is legally recognized. It means a lack of adult supervision, not providing physical nurturing or protection which is a child’s right. What if the neglect is psychological? What if by not recognizing our good, positive characteristics and accomplishments we were left always thinking we weren’t worth much? In addition, what if we were taught that to acknowledge positive characteristics and accomplishments was an act of selfishness?
It was my first therapist who planted the seed that maybe I would feel less down on myself if I stopped and listened to everything people were saying about me, the positive along with the negative. We would practice. He’d say something nice and I’d have to take it. He thought I was pretty smart. No, that’s not true. What’s true is he thought I was exceptional. Well, damn. I just did it again. *sigh*
See how hard it is? And yet we need this self-esteem food! We are starving for it! It’s no wonder imposter syndrome seems to be an epidemic these days. Maybe we don’t have enough confidence in ourselves because the very thing that could be helping us feel more confident is being thrown out.
So here are 5 tips on how
How to accept the simple gift of a compliment
1. Say thank you.
Of course, you do. We all do. I suggest we take a beat and make it a thoughtful thank you. A thank you that takes a little time and reflects back why you are thankful. “Thank you. It makes me so happy to hear that. You made my day.” It seems simple, but it’s not. Rather than throwing back a proforma “Thanks”, giving a genuine thank you acknowledge that the giver just handed you a gift that you promise you are graciously taking in.
There. You just gave the giver a solid gift in return. That’s a beautiful thing, but there’s more to do.
2. Do not knee jerk into giving a compliment back.
You do not need to do that. A compliment shouldn’t be a quid pro quo exchange. God forbid. That’s kind of poor form unless it’s clear the giver is waiting for their compliment. That’s about their insecurity. We can forgive them for cheapening the process. Most sincere compliments are little gifts that are given without thought of payback. You will have the opportunity, and it will be more meaningful, to pay the compliment forward another time.
3. Take the compliment in.
Tolerate the unease. Stick with it. This is not as easy as it sounds. Our instinct it so strong to spit the compliment out precisely because it is so uncomfortable. The compliment may not taste so great at first. It might even make us gag a little.
We are so programmed to believe the negative feedback and push back on the positive. “I’m not the person you think I am”. Take the compliment in. Tolerate it long enough to let the rocky, chalky feel and taste of it start to fade. If you hold onto it long enough, it begins to warm up, turn yummy, and good. Savor that. Feel the goodness of it. Then…
4. Take it in even deeper.
Let the compliment go into every cell of your being. Feel it reach your self-esteem bones to make them stronger, more sure. Use visualization, a very effective tool, to see the compliment enter your bloodstream to nourish your well-being.
This may be the hardest step. The most destructive reason for not taking a compliment is “it will make me self-centered, conceited, narcissistic.” You’ve been brain-washed to think that. I’m here to tell you, that will never happen. You will never be that person.
A few years back I wrote on this subject for my blog, Explore What’s Next:
If we refuse to let people tell us how great we are where does that leave us? It leaves us with the abusive junk…
I don’t know you, we’ve never met, but I do know this: You are not stupid, ugly or a failure, any more than I am. Deep in your heart, you know this, too. Your true voice whispers, “I am good, I am smart, I am successful.”
If you were inclined to narcissism you would not be reading this article. You would not be anywhere near a website that wishes to “Share the good!” This is worth repeating over and over: You are sensitive and good. You are not a self-centered jerk. You will never be that person. P.S. That’s not a compliment. That’s a fact.
5. Collect the compliment like a souvenir.
Souvenirs are meant to remind us of a pleasant time that is now in memory. On a dark, cold winter day it’s sometimes nice to go through the reminders of when we were in emotionally sunnier, warmer places.
Same with our self-esteem. When we’re feeling down and our nasty critical inner voices are particularly loud, taking out the mementos of compliments past can be an effective antidote. I literally have a special folder where I collect nice things people have written to me in the past. Like a nice cup of coffee for the spirit, taking this folder out has lifted me up when I needed it more than once. Remembering these compliments doesn’t make me conceited, above everyone else. Instead, it puts me back on my feet, on solid, level ground.
So next time someone offers you a compliment, pause, and listen.
Take a beat to soak it in and really appreciate it. It will seem awkward at first. It may never be effortless. But it will get easier with exercise.
Your self-esteem will thank you.
Elvira G. Aletta, PhD.
Elvira G. Aletta, Ph.D. is a wife, mom to two adults and one horse, psychologist and writer who lives in Western New York where it’s cool to wear a cape and tall boots every day.
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